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Forest Diary - December

A look back on what nature brought us in 2017

by Esta Mion Communications Manager at the Forestry Commission

 Now that the rushing about and preparing for Christmas is over, we can finally take a breather before the New Year celebrations begin. It’s the perfect time to look back and reflect on the past 12 months.

 The New Forest truly has a lot to offer and last year we enjoyed its many splendours, here’s a month by month look at what nature lovers saw in the Forest:

 In late January, we caught a rare glimpse of the goshawk’s sky dance. One of the UK’s rarest birds of prey, the goshawk favours the New Forest’s habitat of broad-leaved and coniferous forest. Their ‘sky dance’ mating display is so called because the male goshawk tries to impress potential mates with an aerobatic display even dropping through the sky with fanned-out tail feathers.

 February was the main month for controlled burning across the Crown lands. It has to be completed before the ground nesting bird season starts in late March. By burning areas of heather and gorse, new growth is encouraged which is beneficial to both flora and fauna, and creates food for commoning ponies and cattle.

The colourful spectacle of beech trees flushing brought beauty to the Forest in the month of March. Native to southern Britain, the beech flushing in crimson red and vibrant orange is a glorious moment in the New Forest’s natural calendar. It happened over a warm weekend, appearing quite suddenly changing the appearance of the landscape dramatically.

From April through to the end of August, the ‘Date with Nature’ programme beamed live raptor nest cam footage to the New Forest Reptile Centre and internet. The project led to the successful fledging of a number of goshawk chicks. Visitors to the Centre had a chance to get close-up to reptiles and safely study these animals at first-hand. Here we have the only collection of all the native lizards, snakes, frogs and toads, including Britain's only venomous snake - the adder - and rarest lizard - the sand lizard.

 
The oak woodland inclosures were once again carpeted with bluebells during May and a popular way to appreciate them is using the Forestry Commission’s cycle tracks. The cycle route between New Park, Brockenhurst and Bank gave visitors a real treat last spring, and Broomy Inclosure was also a great location for those looking for bluebells.

 In June, one of the great attractions of the forest to visitors was undoubtedly the New Forest ponies, especially when the young foals are born. Part of the traditional forest scene, the ponies have been around for more than a thousand years and were once domestic animals doing work on smallholdings and, by common right, were turned out to graze on the Open forest. ‘Commoning’ has been a way of life in the New Forest since medieval times and still continues today.

July marked the beginning of heather flowering with the large reddish-purple flowers of bell heather and on more damp sites, its pink-flowered cousin, cross-leaved heath.  Of the four different types of heather growing here, the most widespread is the true heather or ling, which carpets the Open Forest with pale purple blooms right through August into September.

During August we saw the very special, Wild Gladiolus (Gladiolus illyricus) flower, they are unique to this area. Its tall spikes of vivid magenta blooms thrive here on the Open Forest, yet despite their strong colour, they are hard to spot as they grow among the bracken.

 Around mid-September Pannage started, when some commoners turned out domestic pigs onto the forest to feed on fallen acorns, beech mast, chestnuts or other nuts. It’s still an important part of the New Forest’s ecology helping the husbandry of the other New Forest livestock, as pigs can safely eat acorns as a large part of their diet, whereas excessive amounts are poisonous to ponies and cattle.

October was the time of year when Red, Fallow and Sika deer started rutting and the autumn colour of the Forest looked its best. The less than average rainfall during spring slowed down the trees’ sugar production, but a wet summer helped them to catch up and resulted in a stunning display of colour, which lasted slightly longer than normal.

In November, you may have seen Conservation volunteers from the Forestry Commission’s Two Trees Conservation scheme working with Volunteer Rangers on a variety of tasks in the Forest, helping to protect and enhance wildlife habitats
 
In December the Forest has its festive appearance with no shortage of the colourful, evergreen holly on display. You may even noticed people cutting the holly as the Forestry Commission still sells licenses to professional holly cutters for making Christmas decorations, which may have ended up as wreaths on your very own front door.

 With 2018 on the horizon, it’s an opportunity to look back at last year with renewed focus and enjoy the stunning nature right here in the New Forest.

For more information about the New Forest, visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.

 

 

Revisiting an ancient friend in the Forest

By Simon Holloway, Forester with the Forestry Commission

Do you remember the first time you ever climbed a tree? As a child I enjoyed an immense sense of freedom, spending many happy hours with my friends in the New Forest exploring and climbing trees.

Last week, I revisited a stunning old beech tree, a favourite of mine for climbing and the lure of wanting to climb it hadn’t faded. I was meeting up with colleagues and a filming team from BBC Countryfile Diaries to inspect the tree before we allowed it to be climbed as part of a special sequence that will feature in the programme.

This ancient tree has stood here for over 300 years - its wide girth is due to it once being pollarded to provide wood for local furniture, etc.  Its huge spreading crown has grown impressively over the years and now it bears signs of its age, with decaying branches and gnarled bark.

As a teenager it was so much fun exploring its canopy and taking in the stunning view from 30ft up! It was great to be re-united again with this tree and my old climbing mate, James Aldred, who’d returned after many years away to climb this tree again as part of the programme.

I’m now a Forester here looking after the ancient trees in the New Forest and delivering sustainable forestry from our areas of actively managed woodland. James has also kept his contact with nature as a professional tree climber and filming wildlife for the BBC. He’s even hoisted Sir David Attenborough safely up a tree or two whilst he was filming The Life of Mammals.

James' climbs have taken him around the globe, scaling the most incredible and majestic trees in existence: the strangler fig tree of Borneo, the monolithic Congolese moabi tree, the fern-covered howler tree of Costa Rica and the colossal mountain ash of Australia. It was great to see him again, back on our home ground in the New Forest. This old beech tree had certainly seeded itself in our memories and it was fun to see him exploring its canopy again. He was joined by TV presenter, Paul Martin, who he’d invited to climb with him and conduct the interview for Countryfile Diaries in the branches! He cautiously began his journey up the tree and with James’ encouragement Paul soon mastered his route up the tree.

As a skilled, professional tree climber, James climbs using simple ropes and doesn’t cause any damage to the tree, the special friction straps ensure the bark isn’t harmed and he doesn’t leave a trace.

There are risks associated with climbing trees and people need to understand the potential hazards involved before they climb. By climbing different species of trees you gain more experience and learn more about the various tree qualities and strengths. Tree climbing can we a wonderful experience and with training, climbers develop the skills and abilities to assess situations, and lessen the risk of falling out of a tree!

There’s lots of work that goes into creating TV programmes and I’ve been amazed at the patience that cameramen like James have, spending many hours working on plans, finding locations and filming outside in all weathers. I can’t reveal too much about the content of the show, but it’s a seasonal celebration that will run across five consecutive weekdays in February 2018.

For more information, please visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.

 The Folklore of Christmas Trees

by Gary North, Recreation Manager, Forestry Commission

For many of us, buying a Christmas tree is symbolic of the start of the festive season and something to be enjoyed with family and friends.

We may all think of a traditional Christmas tree as Norway spruce or perhaps a fir, such as Nordman, but the use of these trees as Christmas decorations has relatively recent origins. In 1841 Prince Albert wanted a sturdier tree to hang lights, decorations and presents than what was previously the tradition – Yew boughs.

During pre-Christian times, the winter solstice or shortest day, December 21st was a significant part of the calendar. There was a custom to shame the sun back out and for new leaves to emerge on trees. This was done in a number of ways, including dressing yew trees with shiny, sparkling objects. The dark green foliage of yew in the dead of winter and its extreme longevity was considered by most to represent life.

Many of us associate Holly with Christmas, the most obvious reason being its evergreen status. But it was the Celts who celebrated the solstice as a key point in the cycle of nature, this tradition living on through Christmas carols and folk tales. There is no shortage of this tree in the New Forest and you may see people  cutting holly. The Forestry Commission sells licenses to holly cutters for making Christmas decorations.

 Perhaps more surprisingly, the Oak tree holds an association with this time of year, though few of us might think to incorporate it into our homes! The oak was important in Celtic and Norse customs, oak logs being burned for twelve days starting on the winter solstice. Associated with the oak is the more traditional Christmas evergreen – mistletoe. It is said that druids would cut mistletoe from an oak tree with a golden sickle to use in fertility rituals. Mistletoe was revered because it remained evergreen, grew with no visible roots and occurs high above us between the earth and the Gods. Most of the mistletoe on sale in this country comes from French poplar trees – though that is no good reason not to continue kissing under the mistletoe!

Buying your Christmas tree can be a magical experience and New Park, near Brockenhurst will be selling Christmas trees again this year, along with other festive pieces such as holly wreaths, and holly and mistletoe sprays. There’s always a great atmosphere, so why not wrap up warm and experience the beauty of our woodlands in winter. There’s nothing better than the delicate frost sparkling on the leaves, and the crunch of cold ground under your feet.

Once you’ve chosen the tree for you, you need to take good care of it to ensure it’s looking its best this Christmas. Just like a bunch of flowers, if you cut an inch off the bottom of your tree, it will help it to absorb water and stay looking good for longer. Our staff can help you with this as well as advise on the best type of stand. Water stands are great, for example, because they help your tree get the pint of water it needs every day. Once you get it home, keep it outside for as long as you can, and then – once you’re ready to bring it in and decorate it, keep it away from radiators.

 For more information about what type of Christmas tree you might choose, caring for your tree and details of your nearest sales centre, please visit www.forestry.gov.uk/christmas .

 The maintenance cycle of Forest car parks

By Esta Mion, Communications Manager at the Forestry Commission

Those of you who read this Forest Diary regularly will be aware that looking after the New Forest is a year-round job.

From the conservation work in the winter, such as removing rhododendron or clearing pine to restore natural heathland habitats, to the ongoing fight against pests and diseases, the work of the Forestry Commission, our partners and our many dedicated volunteers never stops.

Preparation, establishment and aftercare – as well as conservation activity, wildlife habitats, public access and fire prevention – are central to the annual forest maintenance cycle. The winter months are a particularly busy time for the Forestry Commission’s Civil Engineering team, who are working hard to repair and re-surface the car parks after the summer period when the volume of traffic was very high.

Regular maintenance is necessary to keep the car parks looking good and safe for all users, and we have to carry out this work now, rather than during the spring or summer, when they are full of activity.

With hundreds of thousands of vehicles using our car parks they are subjected to erosion and the surface deteriorates at an alarming rate. Add to that bad weather and you begin to understand why so many potholes develop.

Regular and ongoing maintenance is a key part of our work and we aim to keep the forest in fine fettle for residents and visitors. The problem arises due to the nature of the materials that are used to maintain the car parks and entrance tracks. We cannot use industrial materials, such as asphalt or concrete, due to the special nature of the Forest we must use naturally sourced hoggin gravel.  The New Forest is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is a stronghold for many rare and endangered species, so as responsible land managers we respect the Forest’s fragile ecosystem and don’t introduce non-natural materials.

The hoggin is made up of clay, ungraded sands and gravels, that are sourced locally from areas that have the same geological formations and once it’s been laid and allowed to harden it functions very effectively. The new surface typically needs a minimum of two weeks to compress and harden, before vehicles can drive over the surface.  Following heavy rainfall, when the underlying soil gets very wet the process can take longer and unfortunately that means we have to increase the length of time that the car park is closed. 

We’ve been carrying out essential car park repairs in Longdown, Dibden, Moonhills, Longcross and Hatchet, with more car parks scheduled for maintenance works during the coming weeks. It’s vitally important that people observe safety signage and do not enter work sites where machines are working. These short-term closures are needed in order to make improvements and we hope that our regular visitors will understand the need for the temporary closure of their usual parking spot.

Local residents can still use the forest for recreational activities while the car parks are being repaired - it’s a good opportunity to explore another part of the forest that you may not often visit. There are plenty of alternative places to park in the beautiful surroundings of the New Forest, so there’s no need to obstruct gateways and car park entrances with vehicles, or park on the grass verges.

The Forestry Commission strongly believes that woodlands enhance people’s quality of life and we continue to provide access for walkers, horse riders and cyclists at many of our designated car parks. Indeed, you may be surprised to know that there are 137 Forestry Commission car parks in the New Forest and many of these remain accessible during the working phases. Do visit our website to find out more about planned car park closures and take a look at a map of all our car parks.

Visit: www.foresty.gov.uk/newforest-closures

Last updated: 6th January 2018

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