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Heathlands

New Forest heathland: Clayhill Bottom, Holmsley
New Forest heathland: Clayhill Bottom, Holmsley

Is there any more pleasing sight than wide expanses of yellow-flecked gorse in early spring, or vast swathes of heather bedecked in the rich purples of August and September?

This is New Forest heathland at its best, a magnificent landscape and a wonderful place to find wildlife, much of it rare or threatened elsewhere.

Tiny Dartford warblers and conspicuous stonechats are present all year round – the New Forest heathlands hold a large percentage of the national Dartford warbler population, and are important for stonechats, too.

In spring and summer, nightjars churr in the gloom, enlivening New Forest heathlands with wing clapping displays and buoyant, acrobatic hunting flights; whilst by day, hobbys soar aloft on scimitar-shaped wings, searching for insect prey.

In winter, great grey shrikes perch atop gorse and birch, ever-watchful, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting bird or beetle; and hen harriers quarter the ground in low, languid, flapping flight, hunting for their own small birds or mammals.

Reptiles are active in the warmer months – adders, common lizards and the incredibly rare sand lizard, imparting to these New Forest Heathlands an ambience more often found in southern Europe.

Lousewort, milkwort, heath bedstraw and tormentil all add colourful variety, whilst concealed in the bracken around the heathland margins can sometimes be found the beautiful purple blooms of the wild gladiolus, a species in Britain restricted to the New Forest.

Dragonflies and damselflies visit from adjacent wetlands, patrolling the heaths in search of insect prey, and in July, silver-studded blue butterflies, rare creatures in much of Britain, are on the wing in impressively large numbers.

And so the list goes on, a roll call of species that once were common and widespread in much of England. But no more, for many lowland heaths elsewhere have disappeared under carpets of concrete, have been lost to agriculture or else have simply been neglected and are now overgrown by scrub.
 
Yet here in the New Forest, there is still much to enjoy, despite local losses to 19th century forestry inclosures. Indeed, it has been estimated that Hampshire has around 1/3 of Britain’s remaining lowland heathland, of which a large proportion is in the New Forest.

So here heathland remains, maintained by deer, commoners’ ponies and other stock animals, natural lawn mowers that through grazing help keep these wonderful places clear of the encroaching vegetation - such as such as Scots pine, birch and invasive shrubs - that would otherwise invade and start the natural succession to woodland.

The stock, though, need a little help, so stubbornly invasive species are removed by man during the Forestry Commission’s annual cutting and controlled rotational burning programmes.

New Forest heathlands: heathland burning
New Forest heathlands: heathland burning

New Forest heathland burning usually takes place from late-February to the end of March, towards the end of the October-March legally permitted period. Then, the worst of the winter weather is usually over, vegetation is likely to be quite dry, still-wet ground offers protection to the peaty soil, and the impact on wildlife, particularly breeding birds and reptiles, is minimised.

Around 36 hectares of heathland are cut annually, compared to 400 hectares burnt, always in widely separated, relatively small blocks that create habitat diversity and ensure that places for wildlife remain untouched nearby.

In fact, a number of wildlife species benefit from the process. Woodlarks, for example, do well on newly bare ground, marsh gentians enjoy reduced competition from more vigorous plants, and reptiles and insects benefit from the ‘edge’ effect created.

And the stock also benefit. Fresh growths of purple moor grass are stimulated, whilst tough, old gorse and heather stems are destroyed, encouraging the regeneration or seeding of tasty young replacements that will go on to form an important part of the animals’ diet, particularly during the winter months when many other foods are not readily available.

References:
Hampshire’s Countryside Heritage, Heathland: Hampshire County Council
Heathlands: Nigel Webb
The New Forest – A Natural History: Colin R. Tubbs
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 seasonal highlights
August
Heather blossom produces huge swathes of heathland colour, adding to the pinks and purples of earlier flowering cross-leaved heath and bell heather.
Fallow, red and sika deer antlers, when fully grown, are cleaned of velvet in preparation for the autumn rut.
New Forest pony drifts - the annual round-ups begin.
Marsh gentian blooms add splashes of blue to some of the wetter heathlands.

September
Dragonflies and damselflies remain on the wing and so do butterflies, but in ever decreasing numbers.
Hen harriers and other autumn and winter visiting birds begin to arrive in the Forest.
Mysterious New Forest fungi - mushrooms and toadstools increasingly appear in the woods.
Red deer start to noisily rut as stags roar songs of love across favoured heaths.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley