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Forest Diary

The road to Rhododendron control

By Lucy Andrews, HLS Works Supervisor ( Williamsianum

In the 19th century, travel was not as easy as it is now. Only the wealthiest Victorians, such as Bournemouth local Merton Russell-Cotes, were able to afford trips to foreign countries and often the overseas curiosities brought back from mainland Europe and Asia ended up in museums for others to see. One such curiosity took on a new life in England, but has since become an invasive species that is more troublesome than the Victorians may have initially realised: the Rhododendron ponticum.

The big blooms of these pretty, yet prolific plants were in the height of fashion during the 1980s, but the rhododendron’s popularity as waned considerably since. These native plants to Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Asia have taken over our woodlands, thanks to the UK’s wet weather conditions. If left to its own devices, Rhododendron would be the only plant left in the New Forest, which is why it’s important to control it.

The plant grows incredibly high, in excess of three metres, and thrives within its own enclosed canopy, cutting off the sunlight to other flora and fauna, and suffocating them. Although the cows, ponies and donkeys of the New Forest don’t tend to graze Rhododendron because of its coarseness, if they were to eat it, its toxicity could upset their stomachs.

That’s why we make a special effort to control and curtail rhododendrons. We conducted a forest wide survey a couple of years ago that showed the locations of rhododendrons in the New Forest and their varying heights, so we could work out how best to control the spread. We recommended that a mix of herbicide spraying, cutting, raking and burning was the best approach to tackling this plant.

We’re currently using herbicide spray on those plants that are less than 1.2 metres tall, and cutting and burning the larger bushes. The last two seasons’ control programmes concentrated predominantly on the south of the forest where Rhododendron bushes are most prolific. Areas included are – Busketts, Rushpole, Denny, Matley, Hartford Heath, Rhinefield, Markway, The Weirs, Hincheslea, Acres Down and Bolderwood to name a few.  This winter we’ll be focusing on the north of the forest, including Millersford and Turfhill.

Although the Rhododendron is a very pretty plant, and cutting it down leaves gaps in the forest, a mix of plants is much more desirable for ecology and wildlife to thrive. The native plants will quickly re-colonise the areas that are cleared, so we can once again enjoy more of the New Forest’s natural vegetation.

If you’re visiting the New Forest during the next few weeks, keep an eye out for the signage to make visitors aware we’re carrying out this work and any precautions we advise you to take.

For more information about the New Forest, visit