Much delayed by Covid 19 we set off to visit our friends and clients living in the New Forest, finally on the 5th October.

We planned to drive up quietly on the Monday, spend Tuesday with our friends Martin and Julia and on Wednesday we would simply visit a few places we love, and have supper with another ‘animal friend’ Daniel, at our hotel in Lymington.

So, we decided to book lunch on the way up. Our first choice had closed permanently and the second public house did not open on Monday or Tuesday. We were making good time hoping to find somewhere along the way to stop when at the beginning of the A31 to Ringwood there was a police diversion; the Ringwood Road was closed and the diversion indicated by the police was completely backed up to the roundabout.

“Go right round,” Cherry said quickly, “I’ll find our way.”

So, we quickly disentangled ourselves from the standstill queue and made for Blandford Forum. We do not use satnav as Cherry loves map reading and was in her element. After about five miles, we found a lovely pub open, and serving food very happily and in line with all the latest Covid rules.

We were welcomed, enjoyed a Cottage pie and sweet and sour pork respectively, and moved on. The detour delayed us but we kept moving which is important to two very impatient people.

We arrived at our hotel, drove op to the front door of an historic building with real character, took our cases into Reception, and told the young lady who was suitably masked, “we are staying here for three days.”

“Not here, you are in the garden,” the young lady concerned was very pleasant and explained all accommodation in the hotel was flats and that the visiting accommodation was by way of garden bungalows, very pleasant, clean and tidy but not what we were expecting, near a gym and swimming pool and Bistro. All the time she was talking, we could not help noticing what appeared to be a blood stained white mask.

“Have you had a nose bleed,” Cherry asked in her characteristic direct manner.

“No, why?” as she took off the mask. “It’s meant to be a poppy.”

Her colleagues laughed at her and the mask, saying that they had not noticed before but it certainly didn’t look very healthy.

We finally took our cases out again and went to find our room according to the map given.

It just was not what we expected. More suitable for ‘Wowcher’ girls and health fanatics, not traditional ageing naturalists!

We enjoyed the rest, it was quiet and we had brought a few drinks with us and had an early night.

The next morning we drove over to Martin and Julia who are like us; naturalists and ecologists, specialising in the wildlife of the New Forest where they look after and rescue badgers, foxes, bats and manage on an honorary consultancy basis the New Forest Reptile Centre and this year a real speciality!

We conversed for a couple of hours , quickly squeezing in the collection together of some facts for Tax Returns, before going off to the White Buck, a pleasant country restaurant and pub nearby. Over lunch Martin told us about the real ‘speciality’. Apparently, goshawks had been breeding in the same nest on the edge of a wood on one of their fields for several years, simply adding layers and layers of fresh branches to the original structure. This year the structure became so large and heavy that the supporting branch broke away and this dumped three chicks on the floor. Apparently, one baby died, one was placed in another nest and adopted by a wild goshawk pair. The last was too big to transfer and our friends brought it up until happily it fledged and flew into the wild.

The goshawk is a much larger cousin of our more familiar sparrow hawk, that is the bird that occasionally visits bird tables taking tits to blackbirds at frightening speed with the birds, blackbirds in particular, screaming with fear. By sheer chance Martin and Julia had recently suffered a sparrow hawk taking birds from their own nut feeders. The gory bunch of small feathers probably a coal tit were the only evidence of the murder. Like the sparrow hawk, the goshawk is a mainly a woodland bird and there is a good population in the New Forest. Like all birds of prey they have been badly persecuted over the years but in these slightly more enlightened times with very strong conservation laws, anti-egg collecting laws, they are slowly recovering. Cherry and I saw one earlier this year in the Tamar Valley just inside Devon.

In a book in my library, “British Birds of Prey” from the New Naturalist Series published in April 1976, the goshawk is described as “a scarce winter visitor,” and “a casual occasional breeder.” Things have changed, thankfully. Anybody can now watch these birds on their nests in several places in the UK on closed circuit tv, including famously in the New Forest.

It is a beautiful large hawk about twice the size of a sparrow hawk with fairly similar colouring. These birds are praiseworthy for their Spring display flights high over the woodlands in which they breed. Soaring, slow wing flapping and some shallow undulating flights. They are skilled hunters and flying in forests easily avoiding trees, swerving around the great trunks chasing birds with every twist and turn their prey tries to evade them. They can actually kill animals up to the size of a hare and have voracious appetites.

One of my favourite books when I was a boy was “The Goshawk” by T. H. White, first published in 1951. It relates the story of the traditional methods used by falconers of the time to train and ‘break’ a wild specimen imported from Germany.

Although ill-advised on the standards and styles of today’s falconers (using only birds born in captivity in the main), it tells the story of the intimate initial fire of passion but over time mellows into tenderness and affection. The owner trainer treated himself with the denial of sleep and peace that the hawk endured and the whole book fascinated me. It is still in my library and I have reread it many times and a recently as only a year ago. It was written in particularly beautiful English.

Julia and Martin have very kindly allowed me to illustrate my story here with a superb photo of theirs.

Martin and I walked around Martin’s collection of European reptiles and amphibians in his garden, having already been introduced to his tiny ‘pool frogs’ in a tank on his dining room table! Still some tortoises were out and he showed me where he was keeping some fifteen green lizards he bred earlier. He has kindly reserved half a dozen to add to our collection in the Spring. We both felt it better to let them hibernate in the large enclosure they were used to.

The Western Green Lizard Lacerta Bilineata was originally only found in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, but they have also been illegally introduced on the south coast of England, notably the Poole Bay area.

When adult they measure up to sixteen inches (forty cms) with a body of about five inches, the rest being tail. They are bright green and the male has a larger head and sports a blue throat in the mating season. They don’t become fully nature for some two years and feed on large insects by then. The males are very territorial and fight especially in the breeding season.

After a fairly intensive mating where the male first bites the base of the females tail, she lays from six to twenty five eggs in a humid warm site like damp sand or a rotting damp log.

These lizards can live up to fifteen years and are extremely handsome, the largest lizard in the UK, although the slow worm, the legless lizard, reaches almost that length.

If they are kept in captivity, apparently one male and two females are likely to live happily together.

We look forward to adding them to our collection.

We said goodbye to Martin and Julia.

The next day we had an enjoyable drive to some of our favourite places ending at Bolderwood, but did not see any deer for which the walk is famous. On the way back to our hotel we passed through the attractive forest village of Brockenhurst, where we pulled off into an easy parking space in front of Forest Park Country Hotel and Inn which turned out to be utterly charming, full of historic character with a stunning bar and newly refurbished elegant restaurant looking over beautifully styled gardens. The staff were charming and within minutes of ordering and receiving our drinks I went to the reception and booked three days away to celebrate our thirty seventh wedding anniversary in early December.
After sharing a couple of roast beef sandwiches, we returned to our hotel. That evening we were to entertain a very good friend of ours who has helped us in attaining animals and moving youngsters to suitable homes.

Daniel arrived with a discreet package under his arm. It was hidden in a black cloth bag.

“I think that you will like this,” he said, handing over the package to me.

I opened a beautiful massive book of animal photography by Tim Flach. Cherry and I were in awe at its beauty and precision and thanked him enormously. The book was dedicated to us personally.

“I thought you would like it,” Daniel said. Such a very charming, quiet but incredibly efficient is our Daniel, even with words.

We enjoyed our meal together until 10 pm when we were all asked to obey the Covid 19 evening close down. Our conversations ranged on all topics animal. But, one piece of advice we immediately agreed take about our new deer paddock. I had wanted to bring in some red deer, hinds hand reared and a stag later. Daniel suggested that with their weight they could be extremely dangerous. He advised us to consider Fallow deer as a much more amenable creature. Since then we have now agreed to take, before Christmas, a herd of five young does and a young buck. There is little point in having experienced friends if you ignore their warnings or advice.

Cherry and I both enjoy the New Forest. It is so different from our favourite, Dartmoor. The huge hills and grey, threatening Tors are replaced by open heath spaces where the six British species of reptile live. The very rare smooth snake, a very slim well marked creature, the better known grass snake with its yellow collar and longer and bigger in build, the short stocky adder with its shaped marking on the back of its head, the common slow worm (the most common of all lizards), the common izard which bares live young and lastly the rarest of all, the sand lizard which lives in the dry sandy areas where the male sports a bright green throat and general colouration in the breeding season and where the female, slightly duller lays her eggs in a burrow she digs.

The forest has large areas of trees and woods, as would be expected and this is where the herds of red deer, roe deer, our only true races of deer, as well as fallow deer brought in by William the Conqueror, live along with many rarer small mammals and birds, such as the aforementioned goshawk, hobby, woodpecker and bats. The rare Dartford warbler and merlin, stonechat and wheatear live in the more open areas.

But the New Forest is famous for its ponies and other free ranging domestic animals. The grazing of these animals was designated by Royal Charter in 1217 although the Forest was originally designated as a forest by William the Conqueror for hunting of deer and was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 as “Nova Foresta.” The New Forest became a ‘site of special scientific interest’ in 1971 and a National Park in 2005.

The ponies, pigs, donkeys and in certain areas, sheep, graze and forage over unfarmed common land and are owned by local families using their commoners rights. There are rights attached to land they own, rent or share that allows them this privilege.

The management of the Forest is by ‘The Court of Verderers’ which is a corporate body set up under the New Forest Act of 1877. The Verderers responsibility to the regulation of Commoning on the Forest and inquiring into unlawful enclosures, but are extended to development control and conservation. The Court has the same status as a Magistrates Court and consists of ten Verderers; five are appointed by the Commoners and the other five are appointed by DEFRA, the Forestry Commission, the National Parks Authority and Natural England. The official Verderer is the Chairman of the Court and is appointed by the Monarch.

The Verderers’ primary objective is to regulate and protect the Commoners interests and to preserve the natural beauty and traditional character of the Forest. The positions are honorary but carry high esteem.

The practical work is supported by Agisters appointed by the Verderers.

Firstly, the five Agisters have an intimate knowledge of the Forest, the domestic animals and the workings of the Forest.

The are employed and are officers of the Crown. They are adept at handling all types of livestock being excellent riders and often walk on their own. In spring they collect the “marking fees” the cost of commoning each animal in the Forest. They monitor the health of stock and take necessary action in animals found out of condition or involved in traffic accidents. The five Agisters; a Head Agister and four colleagues each are responsible for a specific part of the Forest. In the late summer and Autumn, they organise the round ups or ‘Drifts’ of the Forest ponies, mark them with specific cuts of the ponies tail hair. It is at these ‘drifts’ that ponies are removed for sale or given a thorough health check before being released back into the Forest pastures.

Like the ponies on Dartmoor, the animals are semi-wild but larger and more suitable for larger riders and drawing crowds of admirers just as on Dartmoor.

Again, like on Dartmoor various types of cattle are to be seen, belted Galloways, Dexters, Charolais Herefords and Belgian Blues, and of course the formidable looking large horned Highland Cattle. Unlike Dartmoor, it is fun to suddenly come across a small herd of donkeys. Whereas we are used to seeing a very large number of sheep on our moors, there are only about 200 in the New Forest and they have attached rights to the commoners land.

One of the most interesting features on the Forest is “Pannage.” Because there are so many oaks in the Forest they obviously produce vast amounts of acorns. These are poisonous to ponies and cattle so pigs are allowed to roam the Forest during the autumn pannage season, lasting for a minimum of 60 days. Written permission must be received from the Forestry Commission. The pigs are known as privilege sows.

All too soon our short trip was over but we can look forward to another visit in December subject to Covid rules of the time.

Tony Blackler

- A collection of short stories -

Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.

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