The mighty oak plays an important role in the lives of many Forest animals. This article will look at some aspects of this interconnectedness which illustrates why this iconic tree is rightly called the King of the New Forest.
The New Forest pony and the oak
For the New Forest pony the oak is both a curse and a blessing. Every year there are pony deaths in autumn when the oaks shed their acorns and which the ponies love to eat. Eaten in large enough quantities the acorns have an intoxicating effect which sadly for some ponies is both addictive and potentially lethal. Continuous eating of acorns causes liver damage and once the point of no return is reached nothing can be done to help and death is inevitable.
Thankfully after adapting to their environment over countless generations the native New Forest pony has developed some level of resistance to acorn poisoning. For the fortunate majority of forest ponies that do not die the acorns provide a useful food source just when the grass has stopped growing and the winter is starting to close in.
Even during the lean months of winter the oak can sometimes be the source of an extra meal when a storm brings a tree crashing to the ground. The ponies show surprising agility as they clamber over the fallen monster in order to eat from the ivy covered trunk and branches.The New Forest woodsmen know from experience that once they start their chain saws up ponies will appear at the prospect of some easy pickings from yet another felled tree.
The Shetland pony
A relatively new arrival to the Forest such as the Shetland pony has no natural defence at all to the poisoned chalice offered by the king of the Forest. A Shetland pony with its small compact heat conserving body is well adapted to its native Shetland Islands. It’s natural habitat is open exposed and windswept and would offer little protection from the elements to the much larger New Forest pony. For the Shetland pony with its small size the scant cover that there is from the cutting wind is often able to provide a cozy windbreak that would be useless to a taller animal.
For the Forest pony the fresh leaves of the oak in spring can provide a tasty tit bit. Being small may be a great advantage in finding some cover from driving rain on the almost treeless Shetland Islands but there is a price to pay for this in the oak woods of the Forest. While the Forest pony can reach some of the young leaves on the lower branches The Shetland can only look on, or look up,in frustration.
Over time the Shetland pony has developed the ability to get by on a diet of seaweed when no other food source is available. Being able to survive on seaweed may not be of any use if you live in the New Forest but can be the difference between life and death during the winter months on an Island.
When the acorn is ripe it is relatively safe and even used to be fed to domesticated horses by their owners. In controlled amounts the acorn is a useful source of energy which is ant surprising when you think of what grows from it. The threat to ponies comes from gorging on the fresh green unripe acorns and the old ones that have gone brown. Although some ponies die every year it is when the oaks have a bumper crop, about one year in five, that the risk is greatly increased.
Sadly the Shetland has not had the time to develop the same level of tolerance to the toxic unripe and old acorns as have the native inhabitence, the Forest pony.
It takes many generations of being exposed to the acorn threat in order to develop some level of resistance and on the Shetland Islands there are no oak trees.
The pig and the oak.
Since medieval times and probably long before the native inhabitants of the New Forest, the commoners, have for eight weeks in the autumn exercised the right of pannage. Those with common rights are permitted to turn out their pigs onto the Forest just when the woodland floor is covered in food for them to feast upon. Amongst the delights awaiting the pigs are acorns beech mast and crab apples.
Being a farmer on the poor acidic soil of the New Forest was never going to make you rich, indeed just getting by could be a struggle and no extra hungry mouths could be supported during the winter. Since time immemorial animals that there was insufficient food for to keep through the dark months were slaughtered in September, traditionally around the time of the feast of Michaelmas. With any hunting in a Royal forest carrying harsh penalties for the ordinary folk there would be no more fresh meat to be had till the spring if it hadn’t been for the pigs and the right of pannage. In a time without modern refrigeration fresh meat in winter was beyond the reach of many folk and pan age was a cherished right.
In modern times relatively few pigs are turned out compared to the large numbers that for the preceding thousand years at least entered the Forest to scoff up the fruits of autumn. This ancient right was far more than a perk for some but rather an essential food source for the Forest folk and their families. William Cobbett in his classic book Rural Rides written in the eighteen twenties, records counting a hundred and forty pigs within fifty feet of his horse as he traveled from Lyndhurst and was approaching Beaulieu. Commenting on the number of pigs in the Forest in general Cobbett mentions there being many many thousands.
The pigs turned out on the Forest today can fetch a premium price from top class London restaurants. The reason for this high price is due to the change in the fat content of pigs fed on acorns, although this only takes place in castrated males. Despite the demand for this delicacy relatively few pigs are turned out partly because modern pig breeds, factory farmed for several generations, have lost even the minimal foraging skills needed in autumn the time of plenty.
In the fast pace of modern living the needs and priorities of commoners have changed just like everybody else and some of the old ways of the Forest are no longer generally practiced. The commoners of times past, when they let their pigs out for pannage would build them a nest out of bra can. Leaving food in the nest as bait would ensure that the pigs slept there each night. This encouraged the pigs not to stray too far and this made it a lot more easy for the commoner to find them. The modern trend for more and more rules and red tape is another impediment to the keeping of these very old farming practices.
Regulations to combat swine flu may well be a good thing but also add to the hassle of keeping an animal that is no longer essential for the well being of the modern commoner and his family. While running around and eating on the Forest may be a happy and more natural life for the pig the freedom to roam means that the pig doesn’t gain enough weight for some. In an age of efficient factory farming the free roaming pig can’t compete with his cousin in concentration camp conditions, who with restricted movement piles on the pounds at a quicker rate.
For the commoner with ponies or cows on the Forest the few pigs that are put out are a sight for sore eyes. Pigs can scoff up acorns ten times faster than any other animal with no risk to themselves. The chance of acorn poisoning is considerably cut down for cattle and ponies grazing in an area that any pigs are feeding in.
Flooded roads caused by the badger and the oak
The recent extremely wet winters have led to impassable roads due to flooding on an almost regular basis. An unusual amount of extra leaves, many of them from the oak have piled up on the ground for the last few years. These leaves block the Forests drainage system of ditches and streams which suffer from a lack of regular mantainence anyway adding to the problem.
The badger is now a protected animal by law leading to the present swollen population. With no natural predictor other than man the delicate balance of the Forest and it’s animals has been disturbed. Seeing a badger used to be a rare thing but now the bodies of badgers killed by cars are a regular sight. Unlike the fleet footed fox the shambling awkward gait of the badger makes one crossing a road all too slow and vulnerable.
Badgers eat vast quantities of earth worms every night and all night and a family of five can polish off a hundred thousand worms in a year. Worms spend there lives breaking down leaves into organic matter and their constant burrowing creates miniature drainage channels helping the ground to absorb rain. Worms not eaten by badgers can live for up to ten years.
Well meaning attempts by uninformed people to protect one animal can have unexpected knock on effects to the greater scheme of things as the recent flooded roads show.
The rabbit and the oak
It used to be thought that the oak woods of the Forest were stopped from spreading into the open spaces beyond their fringes by the grazing of the cattle and ponies. It was only when a devastating illness swept across Britain in the nineteen fifties that the identity of the real culprit was revealed.
It is now thought that it was the Romans and not the Normans that first introduced the Rabbit to Britain. The rabbit has not always been the wild animal roaming the countryside that it is today. In medieval times the rabbit was confined in enclosures or warrens and bred for its meat and fur as a farm animal. Some rabbits escaped and their decedents are now an established part of the country side environment.
Myxomatosis is an often fatal disease that is spread from rabbit to rabbit through direct contact or by fleas and mosquitoes. It was illegally introduced to Britain in nineteen fifty three after first being introduced to France were it had killed ninety percent of the wild rabbit population by nineteen fifty four. After spreading from an estate in West Sussex this awful disease,which often causes blindness and a slow death,had a devastating effect on the rabbit population nation wide.
Some time after the Forest had become devoid of rabbits it was noticed that oak saplings were becoming established on the open heath beyond the edges of the oak woods. These trees, now about sixty years old are the living evidence of the destructive power of the rabbit. Even the mighty oak the King of the Forest, when it is young and vulnerable,can be picked off by an unlikely assassin! Regeneration of the oak woods took place at this time across the whole of the Forest. One good example of this reestablishment of oak wood can be seen around Verely car park which is off the minor road between Burley and Picket Post.
The oak and the deer, a tale of two kings
Since Saxon times and through the Middle Ages the Forest was far above anything else the hunting ground of the King. It has been recorded that William the Conquerer loved the deer as if they were his children. The welfare of the Kings deer took precedent above all other considerations. People caught poaching deer were harshly dealt with in the extreme. Trees and undergrowth were forbidden to be cut and every consideration was given in order not to disturb the deer. Although it is the red deer which has been called the Monarch of the glen it was the fallow deer who, when not being hunted, lived like a king!
All good things come to an end they say and for the deer their luck was about to run out as the priorities of those in charge of the Forest changed completely. As Britain became a great sea power the oak was essential to build the war ships of the fleet. Oak continued to be in demand into the modern age and it was now the oak that enjoyed protected status. The final twist was the Deer Removal Act of 1851 which as it’s name suggests called for the extermination of all the deer throughout the Forest. No longer protected by the King the deer no longer lived like a King but rather as an outlaw to be hunted down and destroyed. Happily the deer survived although in last years extremely wet winter, after an autumn without the usual abundance of acorns and little grass, they were in very poor condition in deed.
From being top dog the deer is like many animals now subject to the whims of the oak. The mighty oak can bless or curse, cause feast or famine and death by poison. The beech tree is known as the queen of the Forest and quite rightly the King is the mighty oak.