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Pony near Hampton Ridge
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Streams and rivers

New Forest streams: Highland Water
New Forest streams: Highland Water

John Wise, author of The New Forest: Its History and Scenery, first published in 1862, knew a thing or two about the New Forest.

He offered this suggestion: ‘The best advice which I can give to see the New Forest is to follow the course of one of its streams, to make it your friend and companion, and go wherever it goes. It will be sure to take you through the greenest valleys, and past the thickest woods, and under the largest trees. No step along with it is ever lost, for it never goes out of its way but in search of some fresh beauty’.

And the same is true today. Follow one of the New Forest streams from its source to the New Forest boundary and there is a fair chance that every type of landscape, every type of scenery will be enjoyed along the way.

And there are many streams to choose from: Linford Brook, Dockens Water, Latchmore Brook, Ditchend Brook, Mill Lawn Brook, Highland Water, Black Water, Ober Water, Bartley Water, the Lymington River, the Beaulieu River and far, far more.

Wildlife, too, is abundant.

From April to September, and sometimes later, slow flowing New Forest streams are home to myriad dragonflies and damselflies of sometimes baffling variety, and where nutrient levels allow, aquatic vegetation includes magnificent stands of yellow iris and more abundant, but much less showy, marsh St John’s-wort.

Faster flowing, gravel-bottomed woodland streams attract in particular the delightful, beautiful demoiselle damselfly, and where steep-sided, from March to at least mid-summer are home to that brightest of British birds, the kingfisher. Grey wagtails, too, visit to raise their broods before departing in search of easier winter pickings, and little egrets and mandarin ducks are also increasingly seen.  

Twenty species of fish are present in the New Forest streams, ranging from primitive brook lampreys, to eels and even pike, but it is brown trout that most catch the imagination. Many are present all year round, but these are joined in late autumn and early winter by the migratory form of the species, the sea trout, returned from the oceans to breed.

Indeed, there’s no stranger sight than one of these sea-going monsters struggling along the shallow upper reaches of a New Forest Stream, searching for gravel beds with good water flows in which to lay its eggs.

Streamside lawns have formed where, in times of flood, water overflows the banks and deposited minerals that enrich the often poor New Forest soils sufficiently to sustain strong growths of grass.

Here commoners’ stock congregate – ponies, cattle and donkeys – to enjoy the feast. Deer, too, at dusk emerge from cover to feed, whilst in spring and early-summer curlews, redshank and snipe probe the damp ground in search of invertebrate foodstuffs.

Winding ribbons of fresh clean water, all these New Forest streams are largely free of man-made pollutants, although not necessarily man’s influence. Notice, for example, meanders now cut off from the main flow, that still, though, fill with water after heavy rains; and stretches of stream that even to the untutored eye appear too straight to be natural.

The Beaulieu River at Longwater Lawn
The Beaulieu River at Longwater Lawn

These are indicators of ‘improvements’ carried out over the last 130 years or so; streams straightened, widened and deepened in efforts to hurry the water through, reducing flooding and consequently improving timber growing and grazing conditions.

In the process of 'improvement', however, important riverine and bog woodland habitats have been badly affected, habitats that are now rare in Britain and the rest of Europe, whilst gravel beds so important for spawning trout have been reduced in size and quality.

But recently, as part of the ‘Sustainable Wetland Restoration in the New Forest - LIFE 3’ project, isolated meanders have been linked back to their parent streams, and other restoration works completed, offering the promise of a return to the streams that John Wise knew.

The New Forest: Its History and Scenery: John R. Wise
New Forest Natural Area Profile: Received/New Forest Overview.pdf
Environment Agency:

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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%. And in the full year, 63 animals were killed on the roads compared to 56 in 2017.
** Always take care when driving **
New Forest seasonal highlights
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.

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.
Painted Lady butterflies have arrived in some parts of the UK in large numbers, having travelled all the way from Africa. Look out for them throughout the New Forest.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley