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Rewilding The New Forest?

Sir Charles Burrell, Diana Westerhoff, Debbie Tann and Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre

The growl of a large grizzly bear filled the hall at Lyndhurst Community Centre and the audience of two hundred people gasped. As curtains drew back and they were confronted with a huge picture of the bear, they listened attentively to Sir Charles Burrell’s description of his pioneering rewilding project at his family estate, Knepp, in West Sussex. At the event organised by the Friends of the New Forest, Sir Charles explained that rewilding is not currently about bringing back such major predators as we don’t have the right eco-systems. He showed how Britain has only tiny pockets of true ‘nature’, and we need to care for these but also need more, bigger, better and more joined-up areas if we are to have a real impact on nature conservation.

Sir Charles went on to describe how over a period of six years, the Knepp estate moved away from traditional arable and pastoral farming on what he said was very poor quality Wealden Clay land, whose production capacity was falling short of national averages. He divided the estate into three main areas, which were treated differently. In the southern block, formerly mainly arable land, field hedges were removed, and the land was stocked with Tamworth pigs, Old English Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies, while three species of deer soon made themselves at home.  Scrub developed quickly, though each former field responded differently.

The middle block where the old Knepp Castle had been was believed to be a cultural landscape, a park with a large hammer pond designed by Repton. It was re-seeded with grass and wildflowers, which deterred an exuberant explosion of scrub. The resulting grassland is stocked with ponies, cattle and deer but no pigs.

The northern block had been farmed for dairy cattle, and was re-seeded with grasses but no wildflowers, and is now stocked just with cattle. The resulting open farmscape is slowly developing a little scrub. Sir Charles explained how he had been criticised for creating scrubland, and pointed out that pollen data from 6,000 years ago reveals that only one third of Britain was covered by woodland, contrary to the popular myth that a squirrel could once pass from tree to tree without touching the ground from Lands End to John O’Groats.

The Knepp project is steered by an advisory board of international experts from many relevant fields,. In order to have a more convenient term for a ‘long-term, minimum intervention, natural process-led area’, which although accurate would hardly inspire anyone,  ‘rewilding’ was adopted. This team looked at the UK’s extinct animals and selected proxies which would be appropriate, for example, cattle to replace aurochs. Sir Charles enthusiastically described how the animals seem to complement each other, and the new habitats have drawn in huge numbers and varieties of insects, birds and animals as well as plants, many more than when the estate was farmed traditionally. The estate employs a full-time ecologist to survey, monitor and record these. They have also found that their soil biodiversity and function have improved significantly.

Perhaps surprisingly Sir Charles then demonstrated how the changes have also benefitted the estate financially. Even excluding the tourism, camping and glamping activities which he has developed, the income from the farming side of the estate now well exceeds the national average by some 30%.

Sir Charles was then joined on the platform by Debbie Tann, Chief Executive of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, and Diana Westerhoff, a Verderer, to answer questions from the floor. Debbie Tann said that she has visited Knepp and been most impressed by what the estate is doing. She said that wildlife in Britain is disappearing at an alarming rate and we need imagination and new bold thinking to put nature into recovery. She reported that the Trust is looking for opportunities in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to create larger scale reserves and one or two ‘Knepps’.

Diana Westerhoff commented that while the New Forest is very different to Knepp, there have been some efforts at rewilding. The Forest Design Plan is resulting in restoration to traditional land use in some areas, while the wetland restoration programme is returning lost habitats to a favourable condition.

Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre, President of the Friends of the New Forest, noted that one of the six reasons for rewilding listed on the Knepp website was the revitalisation of communities, and wondered how this could be achieved where farms are smaller. To this question, Sir Charles responded with news of an upland farmer he had met at the Oxford farming conference. By changing his pattern of sheep farming including actually reducing stock numbers, and diversifying into holiday lets, he had managed to make his business much more sustainable.

In reply to a question about the impact of global warming on wildlife habitats, Debbie Tann agreed that there is some impact on habitats but possibly more on the food needed by wildlife. She gave the examples of a crash in insect numbers and changes in timing of bird migration having severe effects. Diana Westerhoff added an example of the falcon species, the hobby, declining in the Forest because of a decline in the numbers of house martins, a favoured food of their young. And Sir Charles gave his own example of cuckoos, which have returned to Knepp in good numbers. However they feed with swifts in sub-Saharan Africa, and if it doesn’t rain there for five weeks and there are no insects, they never arrive in Britain.

Another audience member proposed that people are increasingly intolerant of wild landscapes and incapable of being sensible round large herbivores, and wondered if rewilding as a concept would help. Maybe because visitors to Knepp understand they are visiting a ‘rewilded’ landscape, they are more respectful of the large grazing herbivores than visitors to the New Forest are with the free-roaming livestock. Sir Charles recalled a neighbouring farmer who runs educational visits finding that even young farmers could not name common trees, and he suggested that we need more nature education as part of the curriculum. Debbie Tann suggested that we need to rewild people and regretted that many children have never known the fun of running around in long grass.

Questioned about the complexities of environmental stewardship schemes, Sir Charles noted that the Rural Payments Agency uses Google satellite images to categorise landscape, resulting in confused and contradictory definitions which need to be sorted out soon. Diana Westerhoff reported that the Higher Level Stewardship scheme includes more or less all grazed land but the Rural Payments Agency excludes gorse as non-grazing land even though ponies happily eat it in winter.

Comparing the New Forest to Knepp, the next questioner noted that while Knepp has withdrawn from management, in the New Forest we manage both land and stock much more. Diana Westerhoff pointed out that the Forest starts from a very different position, resulting from biodiversity developed over thousands of years. It would be good to have other Knepps around the Forest but we could lose from emulating it in the Forest itself. Debbie Tann added that only 55% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the Forest are classified as in a ‘favourable’ condition, little better than  compared with 45% across the whole of Hampshire, and some extra wilding activity might be helpful to improve this. Sir Charles picked up the point of rewilding people and felt that this arises from inspirational things in the landscape – think beyond the box. What about bison?

Focusing on the Forest, it was suggested that the grazed areas of the forest do not enjoy the abundance of wildlife described at Knepp and the questioner asked what impact animal density has on this. Sir Charles felt that it was not necessary to worry about it. This is just a moment in time, and livestock numbers wax and wane over long periods. Diana Westerhoff endorsed this and added that even short-grazed turf may be home to species missing from other habitats. The woodlands are rich in insects like moths and in bats but we just don’t often see them.

Sir Charles was asked to explain the term ‘pop-up Knepps’ mentioned in his talk. He pointed out that farms and estates pass down the generations and landowners may not wish to tie the land forever to specific conservation designations like SSSIs. So a commitment to plan for 10 or 20 years would enable people to choose to return to conventional farming in the future. The Knepp estate has footpaths crossing it and Sir Charles was asked how he manages the public. He stated that longhorn cattle were useful in deterring people from straying from paths, but that dog-walkers were a problem for ground-nesting birds.  He suggested that good paths, routes, maps and signs were all needed.

Thinking again of the Forest, two questions raised the effect of grazing levels on the possible decline in wildlife and growth of new trees, issues welcomed by the audience with applause. Diana Westerhoff noted that studies on the impact of grazing on ground-nesting birds showed that it was hard to separate it from other factors like deer numbers, dog-walking, predators and climate change. But she commented that it was hard to control over-grazing. Tree regeneration is a long-term business and the Forest includes pasture woodland rather than dense canopy woodland.

At this point John Ward, Chairman of the Friends of the New Forest, said that he did not feel comfortable at being told we don’t have enough information so cannot take action, and asked the panel whether, nonetheless, it might be possible to divide the Forest into areas and exclude recreational access to part of it in order to test rewilding. Sir Charles responded positively, saying that the Forest is large enough to do this. Joking, he even suggested bringing back wolves to control the deer! But he felt that it was possible to amend stock intensity and deer density. He also pointed out the value of thorn bushes which protect young trees, quoting an ancient forestry saying: ‘the thorn is the mother of the oak’. An audience member added that a 400-year old oak only needs one seedling produced during its lifetime to replace itself.

The next question raised the issue of recreational pressure. Debbie Tann agreed that for the New Forest this is the greatest current problem. The words ‘National Park’ mislead the public, and some rewilding might make the nature and purpose of the Forest clearer. We need to be braver, for example in challenging plans for housing development, and local authorities should be providing alternative green space for recreation outside the Forest.

Finally Peter Roberts, previous Chairman of the Friends of the New Forest, enquired what would be the smallest area which could engage in rewilding, with the large estates around the Forest and the Forestry Commission in mind. Sir Charles gave examples of the area which a pig needs per week, because scale matters. The smaller the area, the more management you have to do. The bigger you get, the more you can sit back and leave it alone.

At the end of a stimulating and wide-ranging discussion, Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre thanked Sir Charles for his talk and admired his courage in rewilding Knepp, also thanking Debbie Tann and Diana Westerhoff for their contribution and finally urging the audience to join the Friends of the New Forest to support its fight for the Forest’s sustainable future.

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Verderers response to BBC Inside Out South

This is the Verderers of the New Forest Press Release in response to claims made on a segment of BBC’s Inside Out South aired on Monday, 28th January, 2019.

It is a great shame that Mr Packham declines to talk to the organisations which manage the New Forest. Some of his statements are, unfortunately, quite wrong. For example, he assumes that every animal for which the Verderers receive marking fees is actually turned out on the Forest for the entire year. We know that is not correct. Commoners generally turn their cattle out in summer but take them home for the winter. Some cattle are never turned out onto the forest.

Some ponies spend most of their lives on the Forest but others are also taken home for the winter. The animal population varies throughout the year.

An excellent indicator of the grazing pressure is the condition of stock. There has been no deterioration in the condition of the stock overall. The Verderers, through the Agisters, monitor the welfare of the stock closely. The Agisters report regularly to the Verderers on the condition of the stock out in the Forest. Any report to the Verderers’ Office of an animal in poor condition is promptly investigated by an Agister. Any animal found to be in poor condition is removed from the Forest.

The Verderers host two Welfare Tours every year which are attended by a number of organisations including the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare, the Donkey Sanctuary, British Horse Society, Blue Cross, Defra and Animal Health/Trading Standards in order that the condition of the stock can be independently monitored and assessed.

In 2016, a small number of ponies were found to be stripping trees of their bark in Mark Ash Wood. Other ponies in the area were not touching the trees. All the ponies in the area were in excellent condition. Ponies do sometimes eat woody material but it is not an indication of hunger. Because it can be a learnt behaviour, the animals responsible were identified and removed from the Forest. We and the Forestry Commission are continuing to monitor the situation.

Over the last eight years, the Verderers of the New Forest Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (a partnership between the Forestry Commission, the New Forest National Park Authority and the Verderers working with Natural England) has restored over 10 miles of drainage channels, which were artificially straightened by the Victorians The work has resulted in more natural wetland systems which help to support the unique biodiversity of the New Forest.

In 2017 the Wootton stream restoration was shortlisted for the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) Awards for Planning Excellence award – the Natural Environment category. It’s a credit to the team and Mott MacDonald who were involved in the planning to restore Wootton Riverine back to its natural meandering route. It’s a truly collaborative project between many partner organisations, who are working towards conserving the New Forest’s unique natural environment.

The Forestry Commission burns about 250 hectares – which is only 2% of the total heathland area across the Crown lands. Even though this is a relatively small proportion of the heath, it ensures we have a healthy and vigorous range of heather heights and ages, which as well as providing diversity also provides us with effective firebreaks to protect large areas of heathland, woodland and private property from wildfire.

There are a number of very rare species in the New Forest whose very existence is due entirely to the hard grazing and the poaching by animals that occurs in some parts of the Forest.

The present high number of animals for which marking fees have been received is, we believe, due wholly to the present farming subsidy scheme. We hope the Basic Payment Scheme, which we do agree with Mr Packham, is not appropriate to the Forest, will change after BREXIT, and we are calling for a bespoke subsidy scheme for the New Forest run by the Verderers, the Forestry Commission and the National Park Authority with the invaluable input from Natural England. These are the organisations which, together with the commoners, have managed and protected the Forest and will continue to do so for many years to come.

The Forest is facing ever more pressures, especially from increasing recreational use. The best way to ensure its survival is for the organisations responsible for its management to continue to work in partnership. Those who disagree with their management should engage constructively with them.

30th January 2019

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Forestry Commission response to BBC Inside Out South

This is the Forestry Commission Press Release in response to claims made on a segment of BBC’s Inside Out South aired on Monday, 28th January, 2019.

Deputy Surveyor for the New Forest, Bruce Rothnie, at the Forestry Commission, said:

“Those who work every day within the New Forest and observe its cycles of management know that its condition is best judged over decades of time and not year by year. Its diversity of plants and animals comes from traditional practices that have been continuing for hundreds of years including the grazing by animals and burning of heathland. Without the New Forest’s unique grazing system and land management we could not sustain the quality and nature of the landscape we all enjoy today.

The fluctuating density of grazing season by season and year by year is exactly what creates the special nature of the Forest. The habitats created are a haven for some of the rarest plants and animals and the New Forest is the only stronghold for many. The condition of the grazed habitats and the commoner’s stock is assessed regularly by experts. It is the longer term trends that are important for the future of the Forest. Snapshot critiques often lack the understanding of those trends and nature’s pace of change. The commoners are rightly proud of the standard of welfare of their animals and they would be quick to address any concern if their stock were deteriorating due to shortage of vegetation.

The partnership of organisations including the Forestry Commission, National Park Authority, Verderers and the Commoners Defence Association, is focussed on finding the best solution to support commoning and land management post-Brexit. We are working hard to influence how any new subsidy system could be shaped to deliver the best outcomes for the New Forest and its long-term future. The Forest is poised to demonstrate the immense value for money it provides for society.

The regeneration of the grazed woodlands is another feature which responds at nature’s pace and will occur over time periods that extend well beyond the memories of a single lifetime. History tells us that regeneration has occurred in pulses over many decades and these woodlands will naturally go through periods of more open character and more closed tree cover – that is the natural cycle of woodland regeneration where grazing animals roam.”

Shared with kind permission of the Forestry Commission. Our Chair’s Response to the BBC program is available here.
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Our Chair Responds to BBC Inside Out Allegations

Friends of the New Forest Chair, John Ward, responds to claims made on a segment of BBC’s Inside Out South aired on Monday, 28th January, 2019.

In a short programme it would be too much to expect explanation and discussion, but Chris Packham’s assertions, “the Forest has been drained, burnt, overgrazed and suffers a catastrophic decline in species” certainly had the tabloid newspaper headline effect he no doubt wanted.

Perhaps stream and valley mire restoration, the fact that a decade or so ago there was a great worry that commoning was declining so fast there would not be enough animals, and recognition that species decline is often rooted in causes much wider that the New Forest, might also have been mentioned.

Drawing conclusions from a snapshot view of the New Forest is often risky for a place that evolves and fluctuates over long periods of time. Grazing within the cultural landscape of the Forest has always varied. For example, the dairy herds of the 1960s are no longer present and agri-environment grants come and go.  But, setting aside the passionate performance of Chris Packham, there is a very  important point coming out of this programme. The New Forest is still an astonishingly rich place for wildlife and for people, those riches depend on the continuity of commoning and commoning needs our support. One of the many challenges that the Forest faces for those of us seeking its long-term protection is to find the right way to make that support.

Our habitat blog will shortly feature more detailed consideration of the issues at hand as well as statements from other organizations including the Forestry Commission. The Press Release version of our Chair’s Statement is available here.
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Guest Post: High Level Stewardship AGM 2018 — Official Verderer

The New Forest HLS is England’s largest environmental improvement scheme, launched in 2010.  The scheme is managed through a formal partnership between the relevant statutory bodies for the Crown Lands: the Verderers, the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.

This year the AGM was preceded by an Open Day afternoon in the Garden of Queen’s House, featuring stands and displays from representatives of various HLS projects, festive New Forest Marque nibbles, and a mare and young foal (perhaps one of the first many had seen for the year).  Here Lord Manners, the Official Verderer, reflects on this year’s achievements.

Today

I hope you have all had an opportunity to visit the open day and enjoy the new format. Do please give us your feed back on what you thought worked and on any areas where you think we could have done things better or differently.

As we have had an open day there are no speakers or presentations this evening apart from me. In the next few minutes I propose to run over some of the highlights of the past year.

Education

I would like to start by mentioning the educational aspect of the HLS. It is vital that we do as much as we can to educate our school children about the special qualities of the Forest.

2136 pupils from 47 schools were able to take part in educational visits this year, thanks to HLS education access funding. The slight decrease in numbers is due to curriculum changes at GCSE level. Schools visited all through the year. Human impacts and activities, and investigation of the special qualities of the Forest have remained the most requested teaching sessions. HLS funding ensures that the schoolchildren visiting the Forest not only enjoy their visit, but leave with a much greater understanding of its heritage and landscape.

Lost Lawns Restoration – Tree and scrub management

Consultation site visits took place in March to view the following lost lawn locations: Bramshaw, Brook Wood, Broomy/Splash Bridge and Milking Pound Bottom. Following the issue of a felling licence in September works commenced at 2 out 4 sites – Splash Bridge/Broomy (Dockens Water) and Milking Pound Bottom. At Elkhams Grave, Trenley Lawn, Red Rise tree and scrub felling took place as agreed with consultees. At Bolderwood hollies habitat restoration and pine clearance of some mature trees was carried out. Slender Cotton Grass habitat at Holmsley bog was cleared of willow and birch encroachment. A total area of 66 Ha was achieved.

Wetland Restoration

In Summary the following wetland restoration areas were achieved:-

  • 2532m of meanders were restored.
  • 1078m of drain was in-filled
  • 1079m of channel was bed-level raised

Two planning application sites were part completed:

  • Wootton Riverine Woodland Phase 1 was completed following the work that was undertaken last year.
  • Pondhead (Parkhill Lawn, Matley) was part completed. Weather and seasonal constraints limited full completion in 2017.

Noads Mire This site has been re-programmed into the summer 2018 wetland restoration works and will be completed by George Farwell.

Ferny Crofts South was also partially completed this year.  However due to the weather delays experienced on site through August and September 2017 it was decided that the completion of this site should be delayed until August/September 2018.

Coxlease Lawn. The site was subject to wet weather delays for seven days. The site became too wet to continue work within the 2017 wetland restoration season and it is proposed that this work will be completed in 2018.

The short wetland restoration season was curtailed further by wet weather causing many of the sites being too wet to work for large periods of the summer. Work was not possible due to wet ground conditions on approximately 45 days out of a possible 105.

Bracken Management

This was carried out by two local contractors MJ Hoare and Dan Shutler. 33 days of bracken forage harvesting was carried out between them covering a total area of 69 Ha.

The bracken sprayer covered an area of 134Ha over the following sites: Bolderwood, Turfhill, Sloden and Milkham.

Control of Non native species

Non-native plant management was carried out across the Forest, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Catherine Chatters and her hardworking team of volunteers. This involves control of Pitcher Plants, monitoring and controlling Cotoneaster, Control of Parrot’s Feather, Japanese knotweed, Pickerel weed, Yellow Azalea and Golden Club.
Rhododendron. Cut & burn areas were tackled in January on the beat of Patrick Cook, site locations covered include the following SSSI units: Busketts, Ironshill, Rhinefield, Bolderwood, Burley through to Anderwood, Knightwood, Gritnam, Allum Green, Acres Down & Lucy Hill. Total time spent equivalent to 80 man days. Rhododendron spraying was carried out at Acres Down, Burley, Minstead and Allum Green, Bolderwood.

Gemma Stride, HLS Monitoring Officer

Riverfly Partnership

Volunteer rangers have been carrying out surveying of specific wetland restoration stream sites for riverflies, since 2015. All of their collected data has been input into the National riverfly database, and used locally to see abundance scores of riverflies and how they have re-acted before and after restoration. I would like to express particular thanks to those volunteers for participating in what is an extremely valuable but painstaking process.

Programme of Data Processing and Ground Surveys for Historical Features

2017 saw a successful survey season with the target coverage of 2,013 hectares reached. This work involved 131 volunteer days. Again I would like to express my thanks to the volunteers. During these days the volunteers helped to record archaeological sites, undertake detailed geophysical surveys of specific sites identified during the Lidar surveys and clear vegetation from scheduled monuments. During 2017, work also continued to clean survey data and submit records to the County Historic Environment Records Office. All the above work continued to feed into wetland restoration, lost lawn, verge restoration and ridge and furrow proposed schemes. Of the 20,130 hectares to be surveyed during the HLS scheme, only 3,342 hectares remain to be surveyed. This leaves 1,671 hectares to be surveyed during 2018. This work started in January. Work will also continue to identify monuments that require restoration works and collaboration between the appropriate parties to ensure the best results for the monuments and the habitats they are found in.

Beaulieu Road Sales Yard

Grazing Management

The HLS supports a wide variety of activities in order to maintain and improve grazing management.
494 Commoners received grazing payments

The HLS makes funds available to improve and develop Infrastructure for Livestock Management by means of a Small grant scheme. The HLS delivered 39 grants in 2017 for contributions towards stock handling systems. 15 grants are still to be claimed for 2017.

The HLS also makes funds available to improve and develop infrastructure for livestock management by improving sightline fencing and drift fencing,

Projects delivered were Boltons Bench: 120m Drift style fence, Pilley Allotment : 210m of wire fence, Hatchet Mill : replacement of oak split rails, Burbush : 85m of oak sightline fencing.

Sloden & Trim Holly Pounds were rebuilt in 2017.

Improvements to the welfare standard for ponies are achieved through the pony welfare scheme. The number of ponies entering the welfare scheme has increased this year as commoners are becoming more aware of the scheme. The scheme does appear to be reducing the older mares on the Forest as we are having less welfare issues over the winter.

Improvements to the value and diversity of the New Forest Pony Breed is achieved through the New Forest Livestock Society

The New Forest Livestock Society receives VGS funding towards the cost of marketing in order to increase sales at Beaulieu Road. The aim is to provide known potential buyers with regular reminders about sale dates, and to advertise the sales as widely as possible to attract new customers.

Looking ahead

This year the HLS is funding ridge and furrow restoration and stump removal in areas that have been felled. I think these are particularly exciting projects as they will not only improve the habitat but also improve the restored areas for stock and making drifting over those areas possible. I would encourage you to visit the area recently restored at Dur Hill as an excellent example of what can be achieved.

We have now completed 8 years of the Verderers HLS. The current scheme expires in February 2020. The Forest Farming Group, under the energetic chairmanship of Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre, is actively engaging with Government both at the political level and with the relevant civil servants. Our strong preference is for a bespoke, flexible scheme that suits the needs of the Forest. It is too early to say what the future holds but I am confident that the public and environmental benefits delivered by the Forest make it a strong candidate for future support.

Finally a thank you to the many people who work so hard to deliver the benefits of the HLS, they are too numerous to mention but they know who they are and they are due thanks not just from me but from all of us.

Lord Manners
Official Verderer
25 April 2018

Provided with permission by the Official Verderer, to whom we send our thanks.
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