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Woodland inclosures – a bit of history

A misty, frosty morning in Dames Slough Inclosure
A misty, frosty morning in Dames Slough Inclosure

The New Forest’s woodland inclosures cover 84 square kilometres and are often magnificent places to visit. But these are managed woodlands that owe their existence to mans’ desire to grow timber, in some cases, particularly in the early years, for Naval shipbuilding.

(In this context, an 'inclosure' is the name given to an area of land originally 'enclosed' by fences).

Some of the New Forest inclosures date back to the early 18th century, whilst others are far more recent. In many cases, trees from the original sowings / plantings remain, although much felling and replanting has often taken place. All the inclosures were set down following successive Acts of Parliament that authorised the creation of permanent places within which trees could be grown.

But why were Acts of Parliament needed? Well, natural regeneration could not be relied upon to replace trees cut down or otherwise lost, as grazing and browsing by deer and commoners’ stock prevented significant re-generation. Planting / sowing and effective management were therefore essential, including fencing to keep out the animals. The erection of fences was, though, forbidden - deer, certainly prior to the mid-19th century, were still to have freedom to roam, and commoners’ rights to put out stock had also to be recognised and respected.

The solution: Acts of Parliament that specifically authorised the creation of inclosures, surrounded by fences of sufficient height and strength to exclude commoners' animals until such time as the trees were sufficiently well-grown to withstand browsing pressure. (And from the perspective of the commoners, if that wasn't bad enough, even when the animals were re-admitted, only limited accessible vegetation would be available on which they could feed).

Here are the main Acts, and details of the more significant inclosure provisions:

1698 - Act for the Increase and Preservation of Timber in the New Forest

Autumnal colour in Burley Old Inclosure
Autumnal colour in Burley Old Inclosure

This was the first Act to authorise the creation of plantations following concerns about potential shortages of large timber suitable for Royal Navy shipbuilding.

Previous bad practices, too, were addressed by the Act, although with varying degrees of success. The pollarding of timber trees, for example, was forbidden, and restrictions were placed on charcoal burners, many of whom were suspected of torching large quantities of valuable timber.

Under the provisions of this Act, 2,000 acres were authorised for immediate enclosure together with the enclosure of a further 200 acres during each of the following twenty years, giving a total of 6,000 acres enclosed.

But this wasn't to be the end of it, for once the inclosures had been established for at least twenty years and the trees were sufficiently well-grown to be safe from browsing damage, they could be 'thrown open', that is, the fences removed, and equivalent areas elsewhere enclosed. In effect, then, theoretically at least, these rolling powers could have resulted in all land suitable for timber growth being taken.

In the event, though, largely as a result of bad management and other difficulties, only 1,000 acres were initially taken, a further 230 acres were taken in 1751, and 2,044 more acres were taken between 1768 and 1775 - 3,274 acres in total.

Examples where trees from the original plantings can still be seen include South Bentley, Burley Old and Churchplace Inclosures.

1808 - Act for the Increase and Preservation of Timber …….

This, the second Act to authorise the creation of plantations, followed a national review set up to investigate ways of improving Crown land management and revenues, particularly relating to the 'old forests' that, with their own officers, courts, laws, and shared interests with holders of common rights, were seen as ripe for change.

Disafforestation - the break up of the forests through land allocations to the Crown, and to private individuals in recognition of their common rights - was in many places the favoured outcome, but in the New Forest, where the threat of disafforestation had subsided following a failed attempt in 1792, an increase in the area set aside for trees was preferred, and authorised in 1808.

A path through Lodgehill Inclosure
A path through Lodgehill Inclosure

As a result of ambiguity in the wording, this Act could be interpreted as confirming the 6,000 acres of inclosures already authorised under the 1698 Act, or as also allowing the enclosure of a further 6,000 acres. But certainly, when the trees were well-grown and the fences removed, equivalent amounts of land elsewhere could be taken and fenced using rolling powers of inclosure.

Just how seriously the Crown at this time viewed the need for timber is illustrated by the penalty imposed for breaking down inclosure fences - transportation for 7 years upon conviction a third time - and also by the way in which the provisions of the Act were enthusiastically used to create new inclosures.

Between 1808 and 1817, 5,553 acres were placed behind fences, and between 1830 and 1848 a further 1,470 acres were taken – 7,023 acres in total.

Churchplace, Lodgehill and Ironshill Inclosures, all near Ashurst, are examples of inclosures created using the provisions of this Act.

(A marvellous reminder of this period in New Forest history is Richardson, King and Driver's map, 'Laid down from surveys taken ..... by order of the Commissioners of the Land Revenue' as part of the late 18th century review of Crown Land management, which was the first large scale map of the New Forest. It was engraved and published in 1789, whilst a second edition, 'Showing the new inclosures ... ' was published in 1814).

1851 - The New Forest Deer Removal Act

Deer can often be seen in the New Forest, sometimes right the way through the day, yet from at least the late 18th century, proposals were periodically made for the removal of absolutely all these graceful creatures, proposals that with the coming of the 1851 Deer Removal Act led to the extermination of most of those present - 3,000, or so, fallow deer, and up to 100 red deer.

Fallow deer - after being virtually eliminated, deer populations eventually recovered
Fallow deer - after being virtually eliminated, deer populations eventually recovered

But what had the deer done to deserve such a fate? Well, they competed with the commoners' stock for food; deer management and damage caused by the animals were costly to the Crown; and unless well-fenced out, the deer were likely to wander onto adjacent private land, much to the annoyance of the owners.

The 1851 Act was, however, also concerned with increasing the Crown's interests in the New Forest by creating further woodland inclosures, whilst reducing the value and extent of common rights; thereby maximising the likely allocation of land to the Crown following any future disafforestation.

And so in addition to removal of the deer, provision was included in the Act for a) formal reviews of common rights, b) the compilation of a full register of these rights, and c) the creation of further woodland inclosures from which commoners' stock, as always, would initially be excluded.

From the perspective of a supposedly pressing need to eliminate the deer, the inclosure provisions would compensate the Crown for loss of the deer, even though the deer had been of little benefit for a great many years. But from the perspective of a desire by the Crown to create further woodland inclosures, the commoners were to be compensated for loss of grazing land, by elimination of the deer.

Within the allotted time period of two years, most of the deer were shot, netted or otherwise removed, although it proved impossible to deal with every last one. The review of common rights was eventually completed - the claims of over a third of commoners were completely rejected and virtually all the others reduced, the register of common rights was compiled, and the Crown took up with enthusiasm its new planting rights, in the process taking in much valuable common land.

In addition to the lands already enclosed, this Act allowed a further 10,000 acres to be fenced on a rolling basis, but limited the total land behind fences at any one time to 16,000 acres. Just over 4,000 acres of land were authorised for enclosure in June, 1851, apparently using the provisions of the 1698 Act, whilst further inclosures continued to be made until 1870, to the extent of 9,262 acres in total.

Poundhill Inclosure
Poundhill Inclosure

Significantly, though, whereas plantings under the provisions of previous Acts had been of hardwoods suitable for Navy use, the 1851 Act extended planting to trees of any kind, thus paving the way for the widespread use of conifers, especially on the poorer soils.

Consequently, particularly following the introduction of ironclad ships and the reduced need for Navy timber - HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled, armoured battleship, was built in 1860 – conifers were increasingly planted in many of the new inclosures which, as well as being unsightly, resulted in the dramatic suppression of shrubs and grasses on which stock could feed when the inclosures were eventually 'thrown open'.

Perrywood Haseley and Poundhill Inclosure, both near Brockenhurst, are examples of these relatively late inclosures.

(After many years of virtual absence, deer populations eventually recovered).

1877 - New Forest Act

Following the threat of disafforestation, vigorous opposition resulted in the New Forest Act, 1877, which limited enclosure to the 17,645 acres already taken under the provisions of earlier Acts. The remaining 45,000 acres of Crown common land were to be left permanently unenclosed, open for commoners’ stock to wander and feed at will.

So, much to the relief of many local people, this Act, with one exception, finally heralded an end to the creation of new inclosures for more than 70 years.

1949 – New Forest Act

Upon payment of compensation for loss of grazing land, the Verderers were authorised to empower the Forestry Commission to enclose for plantations up to a further 5,000 acres, with the eventual proviso that re-seeded grazing strips would be placed around the edges of the new Inclosures.

Known as Verderers’ Inclosures, 2,005 acres were eventually planted, mainly with conifers, and are held on a 150 year lease rather than in perpetuity. Longdown, Dibden and Dunces Arch Inclosures are examples.

The New Forest – A Natural History: Colin R. Tubbs
Discovering the New Forest: Terry Heathcote
Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, Volumes 45, 46 and 48: Silvicultural Inclosure in the New Forest to 1977 - David Stagg
A Guide to the New Forest: Heywood Sumner

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** New Forest ponies and other animals**
The New Forest
Commoners' ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but during 2019 agisters attended 159 road traffic accidents involving these animals, a small but disappointing increase on the 154 accidents attended in 2018.

Sadly, 58 animals were killed - 35 ponies, 13 cows, 8 donkeys and 2 sheep, whilst a further 32 were injured - 3 pigs, 9 donkeys, 11 cows and 9 ponies.

(Forty-three accidents occurred in daylight, 15 at twilight and 101 in the dark. Twenty-seven accidents were not reported by the driver involved).

Here's just one horrific example - Three donkeys killed in collision with van at notorious New Forest blackspot (Advertiser and Times)
** Always take care when driving **
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley