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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
New Forest ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but in 2015, 55 were killed on the roads.
Always take care when driving
New Forest 'what's on' - a small
selection of local events and activities
June 2018
Saturday, 2nd - Burley Village Hall, Cycle Jumble.
Saturday, 9th - Blackwater, Sunset Safari (Forestry Commission), 8.30pm - 10.00pm, advance booking essential.
Friday, 15th - Brockenhurst Village Hall, Film Night - Darkest Hour (PG), 7.00pm - 10.30pm.
Saturday and Sunday, 16th and 17th - Exbury Gardens, Model Railway Expo, 10.00am - 5.30pm.

July 2018
Saturday, 21st April - Sunday, 8th July - New Forest Centre, Lyndhurst, Special Exhibition: Ancient and Remarkable Trees of the New Forest, 10.00am - 4.30pm.
Friday, 20th July - Brockenhurst Village Hall, Film Night - Walk Like a Panther (12A), 7.00pm - 10.30pm.
Wednesday, 25th July - Wild Wednesday, New Forest Reptile Centre, 10.30am - 4.00pm.
For further details, view the full New Forest What's on programme.
New Forest seasonal highlights
June
Badgers can now often be watched above ground well before darkness falls.
Deer - fallow, red, roe, sika and muntjac deer are all present - give birth, although the youngsters are unlikely to be noticed until July.
Heath spotted-orchids add delicate pink colour to many of the heaths.
Hobbies, dashing birds of prey, can often be seen aloft, hawking for insects.

July
Silver-washed fritillary butterflies brighten many woodland rides.
Bird song subsides as the annual moult begins, old worn feathers are cast off and new replacements grown.
Wild gladiolus plants bloom. (In the UK, this species is found only in the New Forest).
Dragonflies and Damselflies take to the wing in ever increasing numbers.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley