On the forest floor, life is bliss for the birds and bees

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The Independent Online
It is easy to take the New Forest for granted: more than 8 million visitors do that very thing every year, walking, riding, biking, camping and picnicking as if they owned the place. Yet a day spent with one of the men who look after this former royal hunting preserve reveals what complex management is needed to keep it in shape.

Within the perambulation, or traditional boundary, of the forest lie 95,000 acres, almost all the property of the Crown, and the chief executive agency, which carries out most of the work, is the Forestry Commission. Yet, because the whole area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, English Nature is heavily involved in management, and the 10-strong Verderers' Court, which dates from Norman times, also wields a powerful influence.

Andy Page is one of 12 keepers employed by the Forestry Commission. Now 36, he knows every square yard of his 7,000-acre beat, designated N4. He is on the ground day in, day out, culling deer in winter, checking and recording birds' nests in spring, noting changes in vegetation, keeping an eye on the public in summer, generally policing his territory and making sure that ancient statutes are observed.

For visitors, the least interesting areas are those known as the Inclosures - stands of conifer and oak which are managed as normal commercial plantations. Far more fascinating are the Ancient and Ornamental woodlands, the open forest, or heathland, and the valley mires, or bogs.

Even in winter, the A&O (as the keepers call it) is an astonishing sight, for policy here is one of almost total non-intervention. Gigantic trees lie where they fell, 10, 20, 30 years ago. Those that came down in the hurricane of 1987 have scarcely started to rot, and their gently decomposing trunks will provide a habitat for rare insects far into the next century.

Since time immemorial these woodlands have been grazed by deer, cattle, pigs (in autumn) and the semi-wild ponies belonging to the commoners who live in and around the forest. Arguments rage about whether or not the grazing is excessive; but the effect of it is to keep ground vegetation to a minimum and to leave the forest floor bare, producing an environment that cannot be matched anywhere in Europe closer than eastern Poland.

On the one hand, the intensive grazing means there is practically no natural regeneration of trees. On the other, it produces ideal habitat for insects and ground-nesting birds such as wood warblers and redstarts.

Andy is keen as mustard on his birds. As we picked our way between lichen- covered hulks of fallen trees, he stopped and said: "There! That chipping call. That's a hawfinch. He'll be up in one of those big beeches."

As we searched with binoculars, he went on: "It's a bird I'm very fond of - a very stout-billed bird. That call was a contact call, but when the hen's on the nest, she does it very fast - chip-chip-chip-chip - and she's actually calling the cock to come and feed her."

At last we spotted our quarry - a stout magnum chaffinch - and Andy's morning was made.

Out on the open heath we saw three species of deer - fallow, roe and red - within a few minutes. But again the main excitement came from birds: a Dartford warbler displaying on top of a gorse bush, and a male harrier gliding over the heather, elegant and menacing in its grey and white plumage.

Andy emphasised that out in those open spaces the main management tool is fire: at this time of year small areas are set alight in controlled burns, to produce a mosaic of fresh heather and grass. The main enemies are pine trees, which encroach on the heath with extraordinary persistence: wind-borne seeds produce so many saplings that pine-clearance is a non- stop (and very expensive) necessity.

One day was far too short to discuss every topic that came up: how the Forestry Commission spends up to £20,000 a year pulling ragwort; how the forest edge shifts in and out over the generations; how green acorns can kill ponies but do not harm deer; how the behaviour of nesting curlews has changed in response to pressure from human interlopers (instead of getting up at long range, the birds now sit tight, having apparently realised that disturbance is likely to be so frequent that only by remaining in situ have they any chance of hatching their eggs).

Change in the New Forest moves at a snail's pace: so many agencies are involved that decisions are notoriously slow. Yet, in Andy's view, this very fact is in itself a form of strength. As he says: "We're all here for the benefit of the forest, and all we're trying to do is to conserve it as best we can."