National Character Area 131

New Forest - Description

The New Forest today

The majority of the NCA is an elevated plateau, rising to 120 m, on the western flank of the Hampshire Basin, sloping gently south to the Solent coast, with a steep, partially wooded escarpment marking its western edge. Beyond this, to the west, is the clearly defined flat-bottomed valley of the Hampshire Avon.

The core of the area is a landscape of contrasts, arising from its unique combination of heaths and valley mires, patches of gorse, bracken, birch and pine, inclosures of broadleaf and coniferous woodland, and large tracts of unenclosed, ancient semi-natural mature oak and beech wood pasture. To the north of the A31 trunk road landforms are dramatically open, with extensive heaths, cut by steeply eroded valleys, and clearly defined blocks of plantations. South of the A31 the landscape is more verdant with open lawns, commons, larger areas of semi-natural woodland and wood pasture as well as large areas of heath and inclosures. The majority of this core area is open access land.

Around the edge of the core, to the west, north and east are areas of ‘back-up’ farmland and smallholdings with small pastures linked to the commoning traditions of pastoral farming. These small settlements, hamlets and farmsteads are linked by a network of narrow, winding lanes, often sunken in banks and high hedgerows. Mature hedgerow oaks give these fringe forest areas a wooded feel.

There is a strong sense of history throughout, expressed through the continuity of open woodland and heath, grading gently into each other, and the influence of the ever-present grazing animals. Ponies and cattle graze road verges and commons, small herds of pigs feed off the woodland floor and deer are seen moving through woods or across heaths. The impact of grazing is a constant, visible through the close-cropped swards and lawns, tightly nibbled clumps of gorse and the browse line of trees and hedgerows.

To the south, running down to the Solent coast, is a landscape of large farmed estates on more fertile ground. This is dominated by large, mostly arable, fields with low hedgerows, generally the result of enclosure by agreement from the 17th century and earlier monastic estates, although there are some areas of smaller irregular fields set among small blocks of woodland which are medieval in origin. The influence of the forest is less evident here.

The main drainage pattern of the plateau is dominated by the Lymington River, Beaulieu River and Avon Water which drain south directly to the West Solent. To the north-east the River Blackwater and Bartley Water drain east to the River Test, and in the north and west several ecologically important streams drain directly off the western escarpment to the Hampshire Avon which flows south to Christchurch Harbour. Although the Avon is a major river, marking the western edge of the area, the majority of its catchment and source falls within the chalk downs of north Hampshire and Wiltshire outside this NCA. This is a valuable water resource for the south-east Dorset and Bournemouth conurbations. Apart from some agricultural and forestry drainage channels, and flow management structures in the Avon Valley, the watercourses of this landscape generally follow their natural courses.

The exposed soft geology along the West Solent and Southampton Water shore forms a generally low, easily eroded coastline, but with cliffs up to 30 m towards Christchurch Harbour. Coastal processes have produced several deposition features formed by the eastward drift of eroded sedimentary material, notably the archetypal Hurst Beach and Spit at Keyhaven, and Calshot Spit, in the shelter of which an important series of salt marshes and mudflats have formed and are protected. These are at their most extensive at the mouths of the main estuaries.

East of Hurst Spit the coast is relatively undeveloped, although modified by groynes and sea walls, and has a quiet, wild, exposed aura, unusual for the area, with the attractive creeks and estuaries of the Lymington and Beaulieu rivers. This contrasts with Lymington town, at the mouth of the estuary, the commercial, administrative, tourism and yachting centre of the southern part of the New Forest, with a ferry service to the Isle of Wight.

West of Hurst Spit much of the coastal belt is developed above the cliff line, with large areas of suburban housing around the expanded villages of New Milton, Milford on Sea, Barton on Sea and Highcliffe, which join up with Christchurch at the eastern end of the Bournemouth/Poole conurbation.

Between the marshes, mudflats and creeks of Southampton Water and the A326 road is a distinct, but relatively contained, area of urban, commercial and industrial development known locally as the ‘Waterside’. Functionally this is part of the Southampton conurbation and has developed around Fawley oil refinery and power station and various port facilities associated with the city region and its water-based economy.

The core of the NCA is the largest area of unsown vegetation in lowland England and includes, on a large scale, habitat formations formerly common but now fragmented and rare in lowland western Europe. They include lowland heath, valley and seepage step mire, or fen, and ancient pasture woodland, including riparian and bog woodland. Nowhere else do these habitats occur in combination and on so large a scale. It is also one of the last remaining extensive systems of common rights and pastoral farming in lowland Europe. These factors are inextricably linked and the grazing of commoners’ stock is critical to the shaping of the landscape and the habitats and species represented.

It is recognised as one of the most important areas of protected habitat in Europe. The majority of the open forest, the Avon Valley and the coast, from Hurst Spit to the lower Test, are designated as either Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) or Special Protection Areas (SPA), and in many cases both. The New Forest Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), covering nearly 29,000 ha, is almost coterminous with the New Forest SAC and SPA, is the second largest SSSI in England, and 20 further SSSI are designated across the area. The streams, ponds, wet heaths and woodlands are also recognised under the Ramsar convention for their assemblages of rare and scarce wetland plants and invertebrates.

The designated habitats of the New Forest SAC are the oligotrophic standing waters, lowland wet and dry heaths, valley mires, bogs and fens, Molinia meadows (lawns) and the beech, oak, bog and alluvial woodlands. Designated SAC species are the southern damselfly, great crested newt and stag beetle. The New Forest SPA is designated because of breeding populations of nightjar, woodlark, wood and Dartford warbler, honey buzzard and hobby, and wintering hen harrier. These two Natura 2000 designations cover similar areas.

Along the coast the Solent and Isle of Wight SAC contains important coastal lagoons in the Keyhaven-Pennington area, while the Solent Maritime SAC, which extends below high water, covers the main estuarine systems, Spartina grass and Atlantic salt meadows, well known for their sea lavender. The mudflats, marshes and waters of the Solent and Southampton Water SPA, which extend beyond this NCA and covers most of the Hampshire coast, are designated for wintering populations of Brent goose, black-tailed godwit, teal and ringed plover, and breeding populations of four species of tern and the Mediterranean gull.

The smaller Avon Valley SAC, including streams that extend into the National Park, is designated for its salmon, lamprey and bullhead, and several species of water crowfoot. The Avon SPA supports Bewick’s swan and gadwall in winter.

The designated SAC and SPA habitats and species do not, however, fully illustrate the biodiversity of the NCA or its international importance. For example; the area of mire system is thought to be greater than that which survives in the rest of Britain and Western Europe; some stream plant communities are restricted almost exclusively to the New Forest; half of all British butterflies and moths and a third of all beetles have been recorded; populations of all native reptiles are present with the smooth snake population particularly important; species such as the wild gladiolus and New Forest cicada are unique to the New Forest in Britain; heath and wood pasture support several rare and scarce lichen and fungi, many of them grazing dependent; and the wetlands, collectively, are probably the single most important suite of habitats for dragonflies in Britain.

The combination of special qualities made the New Forest a very popular destination for outdoor recreation and tourism from the early 20th century, and before that a well-known destination for Victorian collectors. Its easily accessible attractions, transport links and location close to the populations of southern England, continue to generate increasing numbers of visitors, nationally and internationally. The most recent figures are 13.5 million visitor days a year, of which 60 per cent are day visitors and 40 per cent stay overnight, making this a precious national recreation and tourism asset. Walking, off-road cycling and horse riding are the most popular outdoor activities. In addition to the attractions of the natural environment, there are also key visitor attractions such as Beaulieu Abbey and Motor Museum, Bucklers Hard Maritime Museum, Exbury Gardens, Lepe Country Park and Paulton’s Theme Park. Camping and caravanning are very popular and the Forestry Commission operates several large sites, notably Ashurst, Holmsley, Hollands Wood and Roundhill. Sandy Balls, near Godshill, is a large holiday centre with chalets, caravans and camping areas.

After many years during which the New Forest was protected through various designations and policies in development plans, the New Forest National Park was created in 2005 to secure its long-term future and management, on behalf of the nation, for its natural environment and recreation opportunities.

The landscape through time

The underlying geology of the NCA is a variety of Palaeogenic marine deposits of clays, marls and sands, overlain to various depths by Quaternary flint gravels and other material laid down by post-glacial river systems. The fossil fauna of the marine deposits, exposed in the Barton Beds and Headon Beds, are designated as a geological SSSI (Highcliffe to Milford Cliffs), and the gravel terraces are a rich source of archaeological evidence of early human occupation. The poor agricultural quality of the acidic heathland soils resulting from this geology has been one of the key factors in the NCA’s survival as an ancient uncultivated landscape.

There is evidence that woodland was cleared for agriculture in prehistoric times but, as nutrients leached out quickly from the free-draining acidic soils, the impoverished land was abandoned for the more fertile soils of the valleys and the coast. As a result areas of heath developed within a thinly wooded landscape. A number of bronze-age round barrows and iron-age field systems and defensive hill forts remain visible in the landscape. The Romans used the area for the resources it offered, notably wood fuel, sand and clay. A pottery industry was established, with several kiln sites located within the area, and pottery from here was distributed to Roman sites throughout southern Britain until the 5th century ad. Sandy Balls – a reference to the sand and gravel formations – remains today a popular holiday resort where the pottery tradition is part of the offer.

Originally known as Ytene, the place of the Jutes, the extensive area of heath was appropriated as a royal hunting ground, with communal rights over the land, from at least the time of Edward the Confessor. William the Conqueror claimed the area – the ‘Nova Foresta’ – creating the Perambulation (the area originally subject to ancient Forest Law), comprising Crown and private land, which survives largely intact today. The royal influence remains in several places, such as the popular (King) Rufus Stone picnic site and several hunting lodge remains. The primary concern of Forest Law was the protection of deer for the benefit of the monarch, and smallholders were prevented from enclosing land and given rights of common instead. These included various rights to graze ponies, mules, cattle, donkeys and sheep, to run pigs out to eat acorns in the autumn (mast or pannage), to collect turves of peat for fuel (turbary) and to take marl as a soil improver. Over time Forest Law became more concerned with the needs of the commoners than of the Crown, and grazing over the forest reduced the amount of land for subsistence farming often undertaken with by-employment in woodland industries.

In the 17th century an Act of Parliament was passed to permit the ‘inclosure’ of land to enable timber to be grown and allow the planting and regeneration of trees, particularly in hedgerows. The valuable source of oak woodland, and its proximity to the sea and Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, had resulted in exploitation for timber, and further Acts were passed to encourage oak regeneration in order to meet the demands of ship-building and other uses. Conservation of a local centre of ship-building, Bucklers Hard on the Beaulieu River, has now created a major visitor attraction.

Over time the numbers of stock put out to graze by commoners increased, reaching a peak during the 18th century when there were an estimated 7,000 to 9,000, with similar numbers of deer. Friction between interests continued and the area of enclosed land increased through the 19th century until 1877 when the New Forest Act, referred to by some as the Commoners’ Charter, changed the whole nature of the relationship between the Crown and the commoners. This Act removed the powers of the Crown to enclose land, effectively ended the ancient Forest Law, introduced the first measures to deal with amenity use of the forest, and reconstituted the Verderers’ Court. This is an ancient legal system administered by verderers, elected to protect the rights of commoners, and agisters, employed to oversee the welfare of commoners’ livestock. The court was further reconstituted and given greater powers by the 1949 Act. Since 1924 the Forestry Commission has managed and administered the Crown lands.

Beaulieu Abbey, a Cistercian house at the head of the Beaulieu River estuary, founded by King John, played a significant role in the drainage and improvement of the land for farming on the coastal fringe in the 12th and 13th centuries when large estates and corn-growing farms developed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A salt-making industry developed along the coast, evidence of which can be seen west of Lymington in sea walls built up to contain salterns, and remains of a salt water boiling house and a dock.

During the Second World War a number of airfields were built and although these have now been abandoned and are returning to heath, their footprint on the landscape remains clear. Many of the concrete roads and dispersal areas remain, often used as car parks or caravan stands. The coast retains slipways and other features associated with the D-Day embarkations. As recently as the 1960s the New Forest was included as an option in the search for a site for the ‘third London airport’.

Regional development pressure and economic growth in the expanding conurbations of south Hampshire and Bournemouth from the 1960s onwards resulted in the designation of the New Forest as greenbelt in the South West Hampshire Structure Plan. This had the effect of preventing further built encroachment on the forest and assisted in its conservation and management. A small area of this now designated as part of the South East Dorset Green Belt, in the south-west outside the National Park, in an arc from Highcliffe to Ringwood.

Development pressure has continued, resulting in recent large-scale housing developments along the Waterside, around Ringwood and along the Christchurch/New Milton coast. Commercial and industrial activity along Southampton Water continues to expand, adding to the existing waste incinerator, oil refinery and power station, and traffic at Bournemouth Airport continues to grow. The Forest has also experienced a large increase in outdoor recreation, particularly from car-borne visitors locally, nationally and internationally, and in the popularity of, for example, horse keeping and sailing, both of which have had impacts on the landscape. Recent increases in traffic along the A31, and other main roads across the NCA, have had a major influence on tranquillity and pollution. In contrast, the innovative 40 mph speed limit across most of the National Park and the installation of posts (‘dragons’ teeth’) and ditches to prevent vehicles driving onto the commons have helped to reduce the impact of vehicles and erosion.

In 1989 an unelected, non-statutory New Forest Committee was formed, comprising organisations with an interest in managing its assets and use. In 1994 this resulted in replacement of the greenbelt by the New Forest Heritage Area which gave planning protection ‘as if it were a National Park’ because of its combination of recreational, landscape and biodiversity importance. This was a precursor to its designation as a National Park in 2005, covering 75 per cent (570 km2) of the NCA, the first in southern England and the smallest, apart from the Norfolk Broads. The Forestry Commission remains directly responsible for the Crown lands within the National Park, while the National Park Authority is the planning authority for the whole park and works with the Commission and others on land management, recreation, socio-economic policy and environmental education.