New Forest History
The history of the New Forest, begins with the dawn of time and follows the footsteps of man through the Stone and Bronze Ages to the present day, where this National Park is enjoyed by many thousands of tourists as well as the roaming New Forest ponies, cattle and other livestock.
Humans in the New Forest
Humans have settled for thousands of years in the picturesque area of land which the New Forest National Park now occupies. The oldest human evidence is from the Stone Age and humans have been adapting and influencing the area ever since. Even longer though has the presence of large herbivores (plant eaters) and other wildlife sculpted the diverse landscapes of the New Forest, from the ancient British pony and its descendants today to the venison (red deer, roe deer, fallow deer and wild boar) introduced by William the Conqueror. Without these large grazers the forest would not be the way it is today: they are its natural gardeners!
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
~ Albert Einstein
New Forest pony history
The first wild ponies came to Britain around 100 thousand years ago and would have lived among Mammoth and Smilodon (Sabre-toothed Tigers); it is thought they came from North America. Fossil remains show that around one million years ago a pony similar to that of the Exmoor in structure, coat, colour and grazing habits was widespread in many areas of the world. These were possibly trapped by ice barriers in Alaska evolving over generations to the harsher climate and more hostile conditions; this prehistoric horse is known as Pony Type 1. This is the ancestor of all European ponies including the New Forest ponies.
The Stone and Bronze Age
For the Stone Age man, the thriving wild British ponies along with red deer were a vital food source and their skin and fat also had many different uses. Later during the Bronze Age many areas of woodland in Dorset and the surrounding area were cleared for agricultural cultivation. This led to large areas of impoverished soil as the nutrients drained away due to the deforestation. This lead to the need for more clearing. Through this process, the heathlands of the New Forest were created, characterised by low shrubbery and the beautiful varied colours of heather when in bloom.
The fencing of the perambulation
Through the clearing of land and the constant grazing, diverse micro-ecosystems are established and allowed to flourish, where vegetation succession would usually cause the dominating and more successful plants to take over. This can be seen quite readily in the areas of land now excluded by the fencing of the perambulation in 1964 (fencing the area grazed by the animals turned out on the forest). The necessity to maintain the vegetation means much of the area is deemed as a plagio-climax community; human activity has made it necessary to divert or deflect the vegetation from its climatic climax.
Burning and clearing of heather is an example of man’s intervention, this necessary process is also very difficult to control and balance. This is a complex issue mainly dictated by the life cycle of the heather; because such rare species as the Dartford Warbler, a ground nesting bird, need new thick vigorous growth to nest in but also warrens of old heather to find enough insects to eat. Although the human intervention has helped to create these habitats it has also damaged the natural balance. For example the canalling of many of the rivers in the past has increased drainage from surround area causing bogs and mires to shrink in size. The historic “Commoning” of the New Forest is a vital educational resource in the returning of grazers to maintain other British landscapes.
King William I
The incredible, beautiful and diverse nature of this medieval forest has been preserved most importantly by its afforesting under King William I, in 1079. The very strict and hated Forest Law was imposed against anything impeding the Royal venison or its food and habitat. Although in return the commoners of the forest were given common rights such as grazing their own animals and restricted collection of fuel on the open forest. The remnant of these laws still exists in the New Forest Verderers Bylaws, their court held in Queens House, Lyndhurst. Interestingly the King’s son William Rufus a tyrannous king who showed no mercy to the local inhabitants, was actually shot dead in the forest whilst hunting supposedly marked by Rufus Stone.
World War I and World War II
The New Forest played its part in both world wars. In WWII there were 12 airfields in operation and the whole area was an important training and staging area for the D-Day invasion in 1944. Ashley Walk near Gods Hill was a major bombing range. Today you can still see the craters left by the bombs. View the New Forest Airfields memorial.
The New Forest National Park
The New Forest was made a national park in 2005; it contains many different environments of natural beauty, these environments are of European and global importance gaining Special Area of Conservation and Special Protected Area statuses. There is a wonderful mixture of heather covered heathland, boggy-mires, ancient pasture and ornamental woods and even wide lawns. The New Forest actually has most of the valley mires in north-western Europe (90 out of the 120 mires). A wonderful place to visit to learn to enjoy and to relax.