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Forest Diary - January

Time for a change for the better 

By Jayne Albery, HLS Verge Restoration Officer

Change, it’s a word that can strike fear and excitement in equal measure, can’t it? I’ve had both reactions in the past, both in my professional life and my personal life. Often, when we feel most apprehensive about change, it’s when we feel something is being done to us and where we don’t understand the reasons for it, or worse, where we can’t see how it benefits us.

When I recently changed job roles, after working with the Forestry Commission here in the New Forest for nearly forty-four years, I was worried about adjusting to the new job. The sky did not fall in – I did it and now I feel excited about this great new opportunity to be the HLS Verge Restoration Officer.  The newly created role is helping to conserve our grass verges in the New Forest, which are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, giving them national importance for nature conservation.

It’s clear to me now that bigger shoes are not always uncomfortable and that you can do more than you think you can. I view ‘change’ as something to be excited about, something to go with, something to keep a healthy challenge with, but importantly something to be open to.

 The project that I’m working on is all about bringing on changes that will benefit the Forest. We hope to restore and protect the edges of the forest to prevent urbanisation and the damaging impacts of unauthorised parking along roadside habitats.

You may be surprised to know that vehicle damage can cause harmful impact to grass verges and can badly affect the landscape, ecological and grazing value of the area. There are a number of preventative measures that we are taking to help these roadside habitats to flourish, including renewing ditches and banks, and installing wooden posts called dragon’s teeth.

I work with a number of organisations including local parish councils and the Verderers to take forward programmes of verge protection on the open forest of the Crown Lands. A typical day will include attending a consultation meeting with key stakeholders to agree a compromise at a location, followed by a site visit in the forest to monitor parking, and review what measures can be put in place to protect forest verges. With the support of experienced staff here at the Forestry Commission, I’ve already began planning the delivery of verge restoration works, liaising directly with householders to prevent parking on the open forest. It’s a vital opportunity to conserve these fragile habitats and support the commoning community, and help build resilience into long term management of this important landscape.

The New Forest HLS scheme delivers a range of local projects to restore wetland habitats and improve the grazing for the ponies and cattle that roam free across the landscape here in the New Forest.  The New Forest Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Scheme funds these projects that support the ancient tradition of Commoning – it’s part of a 10-year agreement with Natural England and is held by the Verderers of the New Forest and managed by them in partnership with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.

The Forest has always faced changes over the years, both incremental and transformational.  All of us who use the Forest need to take responsibility for protecting it, including its miles of roadside grass verges. You can help by not parking on or driving over verges, and park within your own property, not on the forest outside your fence, and use designated car parks. I do hope that you can support these improvements to the verges and appreciate how the work will help protect the New Forest’s precious habitats.

 For more information visit www.hlsnewforest.org.uk/hls/info/95/car_free_areas 

The health and wellbeing of New Forest stock

By Esta Mion, Communications Manager at the Forestry Commission

A unique way of life exists here in the New Forest, where the ponies, donkeys and cattle roam freely. Many people don’t realise that, though semi-wild, the ponies are all owned by local families, known as Commoners. No pony can be put out to graze in the New Forest unless it’s branded with its owner’s mark and a fee is paid every year to the Agisters, who regularly round-up the stock and check their health.

It’s vital that the tradition of Commoning is maintained as, without the stock, the New Forest would soon become a very different place. The Commoner’s animals feed on the gorse and brambles that would otherwise become overgrown, without grazing, the scrub would develop into mature forest and reduce the ecological value of the area.

Over the centuries, the New Forest pony has developed as a rare breed, perfectly adapted to its local surroundings. They are light and sure-footed to move through the mires and thick scrub, hardy for over-wintering in the open and have developed a thick winter coat and coarse tongue to cope with its prickly winter diet.

The New Forest Verderers’ employ five Agisters, who are responsible for supervising the day-to-day welfare of the stock. They work closely with the owners to monitor the condition of the animals. Every year, there are two welfare tours arranged by the Verderers’ Office. The tours are attended by DEFRA, British Horse Society, and International League for the Protection of Horses, Blue Cross, RSPCA, Donkey Sanctuary, and local veterinary surgeons. I was delighted to be invited to join the recent winter tour, to see how the inspections are carried out and discover more about the much-loved New Forest ponies.

The Verderers were keen to share their expertise and offer an insight into this fantastic place. I was lucky enough to have an expert guide on-hand throughout the tour and as the local Forestry Commission’s office is just next door to the Verderers’ Office it was about time I learnt more about their role.

During the tour experts looked at the animals, checking their condition, as well as the vegetation on the forest floor to see what was still left to eat. It was clear to see that following a wet summer the Forest’s lawns continued to provide ample grazing for the animals.

Even in December, the grass still looked good and this meant that most of the Forest stock has stayed away from eating the acorns (which are poisonous to them). However, the Agisters will watch carefully over the coming weeks and months for signs of ill-health due to acorn poisoning.

All the Commoner’s animals that we saw on the tour looked in excellent condition, especially the young ones. They’ve had the best start to the season with a healthy habitat to graze and as we head into mid-winter they are in great shape to see them through to spring.

New Forest ponies are a hardy breed, adept at moving around the Forest to find the best places to graze. The older mares will usually guide younger ones and they quickly learn which locations yield the best food for them.

After our tour around the forest, we headed back to the Verderers’ Hall in Lyndhurst where we were invited to quiz the Verderers and the Head Agister about what we’d seen during our visit. Amongst the guests were other first-timers on the welfare tour, so I was pleased not to be alone in my experience.

We all expressed how astounded we were about the good health of the ponies; they looked so well and plump! Even the experienced visitors on this tour remarked on how well the Forest stock seemed to be this year. One guest said, “I’ve never seen the ponies look so muscular and well developed”. She noted that the mares in foal looked the fattest she had ever seen and attributed this to the wealth of grass they’d been enjoying throughout the year.

So this demonstrates that the ponies really don’t need to be fed by visitors to the forest. In fact, feeding and petting ponies encourages them to behave badly – pestering picnickers and hanging around busy roads and car parks.

The experience has been a real eye-opener, the tour revealed so much about the farming of the Forest and I hope by sharing this understanding it helps others. It’s good to know more about the ponies unique way of life and appreciate the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of the Verderers’ Office. It’s increased my recognition of how the Verderers and their team care for the health and wellbeing of the Forest stock and protect the Commoning way of life here.

For more information about the Verderers of the New Forest visit www.verderers.org.uk

 Happy wildlife and happy volunteers

by Kerry Trueman, Volunteer Co-ordinator (enquiries.southern@forestry.gsi.gov.uk )

 Volunteers are a core part of our team and the Forestry Commission’s ambassadors, so we’re incredibly proud and grateful for the support they provide.

Members of the Two Trees Conservation Team work closely with our Rangers and Keepers, as well as Volunteer Rangers on a programme of conservation tasks. Last year our volunteers delivered a whopping 1,574 different tasks! The sorts of activities involved mainly take place between October and March; they’re focused on protecting and creating wildlife habitats across the New Forest. 

The Forestry Commission’s Two Trees Conservation scheme offers an opportunity to spend time outside and it’s a great way to meet like-minded people. Getting muddy, keeping fit and meeting new friends is all part of the fun for any volunteers signing up to the scheme – and what’s more it provides an opportunity to play a really active role in looking after the New Forest.

The great thing is, you don’t need any prior knowledge, and there’s no minimum commitment so you can book on to as many or as few events as you like. This makes it the ideal volunteering option for those with busy lives and ongoing work or family commitments!

From clearing small trees from track edges to removing non-invasive plant species such as Himalayan Balsam, no one day in the life of a volunteer is ever the same. You’ll always be meeting new people and learning unexpected facts about the trees, plants, birds and animals of the New Forest!

It’s this – and the real sense of achievement that comes from the scheme, that our volunteers tell me they love the most.

One of my favourite volunteering activities is pine pulling, which is such a festive day that always involves re-fuelling on hot chocolate, Christmas cake and mince pies.  We recently visited Slufters Inclosure, to clear some of the vegetation that has begun to take over the heathland. We removed young pines that had re-generated from nearby Scots pine, to protect a habitat favoured by native heathers and gorse. This conservation task is just part of the broader work we do to actively manage the woodland, so that the delicate balance between people, the environment and the economy can be maintained.

Here at the Forestry Commission we’re responsible for managing the Crown Lands of the New Forest. Encompassing just under 50% of the national park’s total area, it receives approximately 15 million day visits a year, so there’s always work to be done and we simply couldn’t operate without the vital support of our volunteers.

With several events every week, there are opportunities for everyone to get involved in caring for their local woodlands.

As I look back on last year there are lots of success stories to reflect upon, many are a direct result of our volunteers’ continued efforts. So if you’re looking to play a role in helping to conserve wildlife and habitats while enhancing visitor enjoyment, why not join us in 2018. For more information about volunteering visit: www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest

 

 

 

Last updated: 17th February 2018

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England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.