notable animals of the area
New Forest wildlife
New Forest wildlife is by no means unique, but it’s long been recognised that the area is of very special interest due to the rare mix of habitats that support the area’s animal and plant life.
The three primary habitats found within the New Forest are open heathland, woodland and bogs (wetland) – all a result of centuries of human activities in the area.
It’s fortunate, then, that the New Forest’s designation as a royal hunting ground by King William I in 1079 gave this special area and its wildlife the protection that it did.
This mixture of habitat within the New Forest has led to much of the present day National Park area gaining Special Area of Conservation and Special Protected Area status under European Directives, and it’s now seen as a very important area for wildlife throughout Europe and one of the most important in the British Isles.
New Forest Ponies
Without doubt, anyone who has ever read the words ‘New Forest’ will probably have read the word ‘pony’ in the same paragraph, if not the same sentence!
The New Forest pony represents a major part of the Forest’s heritage, but it’s important to note that these are not wild animals, despite them being allowed to roam freely throughout much of the Open Forest.
They are, however, descendants of the wild ponies that roamed areas of Britain centuries and centuries ago but have long been domesticated and interbred with other pony and horse breeds to improve their genetic makeup.
The idea that all New Forest ponies are direct descendants of Spanish horses that survived shipwrecks, during the time of The Armada, and swam ashore along the southern English coastline is an idea that has long been accepted as a myth.
The New Forest ponies of today are all owned by someone, these owners are known as ‘Commoners‘ and they have the right to graze their ponies on the Open Forest land. This right has been passed down since the times of King William I and the creation of the New Forest as a royal hunting ground.
The ponies are cared for not only by their owners but also by the Agisters, the employees of the New Forest Verderers.
During late summer each year, all New Forest ponies are rounded up in drifts and accounted for. Auctions are held at the Beaulieu Road pony sales which give the commoners the option of buying / selling ponies if they so wish, not to mention having a good get-together.
Pigs can be seen in larger numbers during the later autumn months when they are used to forage for acorns that have fallen from the oak trees, an activity referred to as ‘pannage‘.
Ponies that eat large quantities of fallen acorns can suffer serious digestive problems, and this risk is cut down significantly when the pigs clear the ground of thousands of acorns.
Beware! Foraging pigs can be very aggressive towards humans, and pigs chasing and even biting people aren’t unknown occurrences. For this reason, it’s best to view the pigs from a safe distance, as they can decide to charge at any time and without warning!
The deer of the New Forest are the very reason why the area was designated as a royal hunting ground back in 1079 by King William I.
There are five different species in the New Forest, only two of which are native to Britain. These are the red deer and much smaller roe deer. The three other species are the fallow deer, sika deer and the muntjac deer. These latter two species are found in just a few selective areas of the Forest and extremely elusive; their small physical size and the fact that there aren’t many of them make spotting these animals very difficult indeed.
The red deer of the New Forest, though the biggest of all British deer species, are also elusive and comparatively few in number (numbers are kept to about 100, with an annual cull carried out by the Forestry Commission).
The open heathland around the Burley area and Ober Heath, near Brockenhurst, are good places to see these majestic animals that are more associated with the highlands of Scotland than southern England. The deer are most active at dawn and dusk. A very distinctive characteristic of the red deer is its bark – the loud and throaty bellow is a privilege to hear!
Fallow deer, pictured right, are the most common of the New Forest deer species and have distinctive markings during certain times of the year – the classic ‘Bambi‘ spots can be seen on the flanks of the deer during the summer months, along with distinctive black stripes around the tail area. The bucks (males) can grow impressive antlers, the span of which can be up to 4 or 5 times the width of the animal’s head.
These deer are widespread throughout the New Forest and, although shy, are numerous enough to be easily seen during a quiet forest walk.
Roe deer are also numerous but their smaller size makes them harder to see, especially amongst the thicker undergrowth. Roe deer have distinctive black noses and for much of the year they have a uniform gingery-brown coat.
A roe buck’s antlers are small with few branches, unlike the fallow’s.
The Forestry Commission cull around 800 deer annually; this is a necessary action to protect the vegetation of the New Forest, as there are no natural predators to control deer numbers.
A place to see fallow deer is the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary.
Because of its southerly location and relatively warmer climate, the New Forest is home to all of Britain’s species of snakes and lizards.
The most notorious of these is the adder, (shown right) Britain’s only venomous snake. The distinctive ‘zig-zag’ pattern running the entire length of the snake’s body makes it very easily identifiable, and during the warmer summer months adders are likely to be seen basking in the sunshine on the edge of pathways and tracks.
Like most snakes, adders are easily scared and will disappear into the undergrowth at the slightest sign of an approaching human or dog.
Adder bites to humans are rare, maybe 5 or so a year in the New Forest. The venom is strong but the very small amount injected into the victim limits the severity of the bite, unless it triggers an allergic reaction in the victim.
However, any bite or suspected bite from an adder should be dealt with as soon as possible – local clinics and hospitals hold the appropriate anti-venom.
Dogs that suffer an adder bite should be taken to a local vetenary clinic as soon as possible, although unless the snake was seen by the owner it’s very difficult to know whether the dog was bitten or has suffered another kind of injury.
Both species of British lizard, the common lizard and the sand lizard, can also be seen in the Forest although you have to have sharp eyes!
The unmistakable sand lizard is Britain’s rarest reptile and only survives in certain areas of the New Forest now thanks to a successful breeding and release program. The sandy open heathlands are this animal’s preferred habitat, with the course heather providing excellent protection from natural predators.
As well as snakes and lizards, the New Forest is also home to toads, frogs and three different species of newt which can be seen in many of the Forest’s smaller temporary ponds during the spring months.
A fine place to try and see all of the New Forest reptiles is the New Forest Reptile Centre, near Lyndhurst.
Other important New Forest animals
The best time for badger watching is at dawn or dusk when they come out of their homes, or ‘setts’, to forage for food. The badger is a shy animal and easily startled, so a badger watching session needs to be done quietly and from the cover of trees or bushes.
Foxes are much more common throughout the Forest and indeed can be found in many urban areas throughout the National Park, where they scrounge on domestic rubbish.
Grey squirrels and rabbits are very widespread throughout the area, both inside and outside of the New Forest National Park boundary.
Grey squirrels actually do more harm than good and, like the deer, their numbers are kept under control by the Forestry Commission. The squirrels can not only damage the quality of trees that are grown for commercial use but also pose a threat to natural birdlife in the area by stealing eggs from nests for food.
Rabbits can be seen at any time of day or night, commonly grazing on the open areas of grass and are often seen on the grassy embankments of New Forest roads. Since the myxomatosis outbreak of the 1950s throughout the UK, the rabbit population has recovered well in the Forest and continues to rise.
Although large in numbers, rabbits aren’t seen as a big threat to the vegetation of the area simply because their main diet is grass.
New Forest birdlife
Not surprisingly, the New Forest area enjoys a very healthy birdlife. The mixture of open heathland and woodland provides a safe haven for the majority of Britain’s species, as well as for summer visitors such as redstarts and wood warblers.
Winter visitors such as fieldfares and red wings can be seen feeding on the berries of holly trees all over the Forest.
Notable bird species found in the New Forest include the honey buzzard (although small in number), common buzzard, goshawk, hobby, Montague’s harrier (rare), crossbills, the tiny goldcrest and firecrest and the Dartford warbler. This rare warbler can be found in various locations around the open heathlands and is usually seen amongst the gorse bushes.
Stonechats (pictured left) are common in these same areas, their unmistakable song sounding like two stones being repeatedly hit together. The birds hop from one gorse bush to another and are a common site during a heathland walk.
These heathlands also provide a home to a small number of nightjar during the summer months.
Other species of interest include hen harrier, sparrowhawk, tawny owl, woodpeckers (green, lesser spotted and greater spotted), nuthatch, treecreeper, curlew, snipe and redshank, and while on a walk in spring 2008 I was lucky enough to get close to a Ring Ouzel (photo below).
Without doubt, the New Forest wildlife is a massive part of the National Park’s attraction. Whether it’s the free-roaming commoner owner ponies, cattle and pigs that you’re almost definitely likely to encounter, or the elusive red deer of the Forest, you’re sure to have a rewarding visit to the area if you keep your eyes peeled!