The New Forest National Park is the largest surviving open area of ancient pasture woodland in England. It covers 92,000 acres and ponies, cattle and livestock are allowed to roam free. The New Forest lies within the county of Hampshire, on the south-central coast of England, and is predominantly occupied by an area formerly just called the New Forest, approximately 150 square miles in size and once a royal hunting ground for King William I and his noblemen, in the 12th century AD. The New Forest boasts an attractive coastline bordering the Solent, the stretch of water dividing the Isle of Wight from the mainland. This makes the small region rich in variety with respect to landscape, wildlife, flora and fauna. The National Park status (given March 2005) was awarded to the New Forest and immediate surrounding area (220 square miles in total) in recognition of the many qualities that the Forest holds.
The rare blend of open heathlands and ancient woodlands makes the New Forest – affectionately called the Forest by locals – a unique and very special place indeed, the underlying features of which have changed little over the centuries.
The area was famously named a Royal Forest in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, and with the exception of the inevitable road and rail networks transgressing their way throughout it, the landscape has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.
For King William I the area was an ideal hunting ground, covering over 200 square miles of ancient woodlands and heathlands close to the royal capital of Winchester. In the 14th century the royal interest in deer conservation diminished as the demand for timber increased. The new scale of timber production for ship building and fortifications prompted the enclosure of thousands of acres of forest land for timber growing.
Today, after 900 years, more than 100 square miles of the Forest is still owned by the Crown but administered by the New Forest National Park Authority. The ancient system set in place to protect the woodlands and wilderness heaths still works today through the efforts of Verderers, Agisters and Commoners, the judges, police and land users of the Forest.
This area is hugely popular as a tourist destination due to the hundreds of miles of beautiful footpaths and open heathland, the attraction of the coastline and proximity of summer resorts such as Bournemouth, and to the many sites of historical interest such as Beaulieu Abbey, Buckler’s Hard, the (relatively) close Portsmouth Historic Shipyards, the Bronze Age barrows scattered over the area as well as Hurst & Calshot Castles to name a few. There are also a plethora of family entertainment venues such as those found at Paulton’s Park, The National Motor Museum, a variety of forest wildlife parks, Calshot Activity Centre.
Ponies have been present in the area for thousands of years, but today’s carefully maintained breed, recognised as a native pony breed of the British Isles, is the result of 1000 or so years of animal husbandry. William I brought horses across the channel when he invaded in 1066, and in the intervening period the quality of the breed has reached both highs and lows.
The results of this lengthy experiment can be seen clip-clopping around the Forest to this day, and are predominantly bay and chestnut up to about 1.5 metres in height. Owned by Commoners (residents of landholdings granted the Right of Pasture), the horses are free to graze the New Forest alongside their bovine, porcine and long floppy-eared equine counterparts. These animals help to maintain the unique landscape, which continued grazing has shaped over the last 900 years.
All such animals have right of way over the (mainly) 40mph limit roads, but despite this there are many road accidents every year involving hapless animals and cars. So watch out for them – steer clear and give them a friendly wave!
Flora & Fauna
The New Forest is now recognized as one of the most unique and important wilderness areas in Western Europe. It comprises 140 square miles of a diverse range of landscapes – heaths, bogs, pine forests, moorland, and of course the ancient and ornamental beech and oak woodlands for which it is famous. There is no other area in lowland Britain that contains such a mix, and many of these habitats are increasingly rare.
Our amazing habitats are home to thousands of common and rare species of flora and fauna, including five different species of wild deer. It is estimated that nearly half of the 2,500 species of butterfly and moth in Britain have been found in the Forest. In addition, 9 rare and 25 nationally scarce species of plant are recorded. Some of these, such as the wild gladiolus, are only found here. There are also nationally important birds and rare reptiles, such as the sand lizard and the smooth snake.
The Forest is free for you to explore at your leisure and there is an extensive network of footpaths and cycle paths to help you do this. Alternatively, you can visit one of the many wildlife attractions – all of which provide organised events and activities to help you enjoy the area’s natural treasures.
Although the New Forest is a free and open place, there is a code you should observe whilst in the area. This code has been implemented by the Forestry Commission and is there for the well-being of the Forest and for the safety of visitors. Preservation and long-term conservation are goals of the Forestry Commission and following their simple rules will help. The well-being of the animals and the special needs of the countryside come first.
Driving at 40mph or below on all unfenced forest roads greatly reduces the number of accidents involving ponies, cattle and deer – especially at night.
Parking on the roadside causes congestion and great damage to verges. Use one of the 150 Forest car parks, but remember to lock your car and take valuables with you.
Cycling is extremely popular but also destructive if the cycle routes are not followed; please keep to marked paths and cycle tracks. Give way to walkers and horse-riders and please travel at moderate speeds and avoid wheel spins and skidding.
Ponies are wild animals and should not be fed by visitors. Feeding the ponies encourages them to stray onto dangerous forest roads. Ponies and donkeys can also be very aggressive if approached, and young children are particularly at risk.
You may walk on any footpath or track unless it says otherwise. By keeping to paths you greatly reduce the risk of disturbance to wildlife and their habitats.
Fire is a great threat to habitats and wildlife. No picnic or campfires are allowed but BBQ sites are provided by the Forestry Commission. To book, telephone the Forestry Commission on 023 8028 3141.
Litter should always be placed in litter bins or taken home with you.
Open all year. Short breaks available in low season. We regret no smoking and no pets (except assistance dogs).