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Ancient, unenclosed woodlands

Ancient, unenclosed woodland: Burley Walk
Ancient, unenclosed woodland: Burley Walk

Visit one of the New Forest’s ancient, unenclosed woodlands and experience woodland as the Saxons knew it, woodland that would be familiar to Roman, Iron and Bronze Age peoples.

Conjure scenes of spring in the mind’s eye, of vaulted arches clad in fresh green foliage, with high above, redstarts singing scratchy, jangling tunes. Notice the commoners’ stock, and deer, free to wander at will, to browse and graze just where they please. Then think of autumn, the trees ablaze with seasonal glory. Rutting deer bellow from the mating stands, fungi adorn the forest floor, and pigs gorge on the fallen acorn crop, just as in generations past.

Rich landscapes of contorted, moss-clad trunks, many of these ancient, unenclosed woodlands have not for centuries felt the hand of man, have not in recent times heard sounds of axe or saw. Left to live their natural span, veteran trees fall in the wind, and now decay on the woodland floor. Others that have managed to evade the stock and deer spring up to fill the gaps. Many clearings, though, remain; created randomly by nature’s force.

And alright, these ancient, unenclosed woodlands are not completely free of man’s influence. Stock and deer numbers are regulated, trees have been felled or pollarded, fences are occasionally used to encourage re-generation, a little selective thinning is undertaken, and some planting has taken place, but not in the regimented rows of forestry inclosures.

Elsewhere in much of Britain and western Europe, little ancient, unenclosed woodland remains. Yet in the New Forest, much survives, most within self-contained woods, but some in driftways between forestry inclosures, and as remnants trapped behind inclosure fences.

In these ancient, unenclosed woodlands, ground level and under-storey vegetation is often largely absent, stripped bare by stock and deer, but aged holly trees survive, their horizontal skirts browse lines that indicate the very limit of reach of these animals.

Many of the holly trees have in the past been coppiced, their stems cut at ground level to encourage the rapid growth of multiple shoots for use as browse for hungry animals, or else for the Christmas trade. Others have been pollarded, the cut made for the same purpose, but just out of browsing reach.

Beech and oak, too, once were pollarded, and now exhibit thick, multiple stems shooting skywards from a single trunk. Trees such as this are likely to be amongst the oldest in the New Forest for in 1698, pollarding of ‘timber trees’ was forbidden in legislation designed to promote the growth of stouter, single trunks much needed by the Navy. But trees that had previously been pollarded, probably continued to be cut; and some illegal pollarding almost certainly took place.

In recent years, however, these species have again been pollarded, and so have holly and ash, cut to improve the woodland’s diversity, to open up gloomy, holly-filled interiors, to provide space for crowns to spread and homes for insects and lichens that seem to prefer pollard trees more than any others.

Indeed, sheltered from desiccating winds, and regularly one or two degrees warmer than surrounding open land, the woodland micro-climate encourages the growth of myriad mosses and lichens, all indicators of clean New Forest air.  

Male redstart
Male redstart

Other wildlife interest is also considerable.

Hole and crevice nesting birds thrive in the dead and decaying timber - woodpeckers, nuthatches, redstarts, blue tits, great tits and marsh tits, to name a few - whilst significant populations of bats find roost sites in the hollow trees,

Invertebrates, too, take advantage of the rotting wood. Hornets, enormous, but largely docile creatures, build their nests within, whilst the increasingly scarce stag beetle spends its early life stages out of sight of prying eyes, deep inside decaying timber.

Fungi proliferate, both on the trees and amongst the leaf litter, active participants in nature’s ceaseless recycling of materials.

Fox, badger and deer roam free, whilst many species of wild flowers grow here, too, including some considered indicative of ancient woodland. But extensive patches of colour created by sheets of bluebells and wood anemones, for example, are largely absent, victims of hungry animals and trampling hooves.

The New Forest Act of 1877 referred to ‘ancient ornamental woods’ and those words continue to be fitting, although not all these open, pasture woods are ancient.

Visit, though, at any time of year and in any weather, and amongst these trees, energise the spirit.

References:
The New Forest – A Natural History: Colin R. Tubbs
Forestry Commission: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-6arg96
Forestry Commission - Draft Management Plan: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-7A3F82

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** New Forest ponies **
New Forest ponies in the road
Ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but during the first six months of 2018, 36 animals were killed or injured on Forest roads, compared with 26 in the same period in 2017, a shocking rise of 38%.
** Always take care when driving **
New Forest 'what's on' - a small
selection of local events and activities
January 2019
Saturday, 5th - Lyndhurst Community Centre, Book Fair, 10.00am - 4.00pm.
Friday, 11th - Brockenhurst Village Hall, Film Night - Peterloo (12A), 7.30pm.
Saturday, 12th January to Sunday, 10th March - New Forest Heritage Centre, Lyndhurst, Photographic Exhibition by Cathryn Baldock - Reimagining the Forest, 10.00am - 3.30pm.
Saturday, 26th - Lyndhurst Community Centre, Royal British Legion Burns Night, 7.30pm.

February 2019
Saturday, 16th - Brockenhurst Village Hall, Brockenhurst Day Centre - Charity Fundraising, Valentine's Barn Dance, 7.00pm - 11.00.
Thursday, 21st - New Forest Heritage Centre, Lyndhurst, Discovery Day, 10.00am - 3.00pm.
Friday, 22nd - Lyndhurst Community Centre, Film Night - Edie (12A), 7.30pm.

For further details, view the full New Forest What's on programme.
New Forest seasonal highlights
January
Honeysuckle, an early harbinger of spring, shows signs of new growth.
Bird sounds - great tit calls and mistle thrush song, for example, are increasingly heard as the days lengthen and spring rapidly approaches.
Foxes breed during the early months of the year. Their presence is betrayed by barks after darkness falls.


February
Great grey shrikes hunt over heathland from tree-top vantage points and other perches.
Grey squirrels are often best seen in winter when deciduous trees are devoid of leaves.
Red Admirals and other butterflies that over-winter as adults may be on the wing on warm, bright days.
Roe deer
antlers continue to develop - they are cast and re-grown annually.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley