Despite its relatively small area, the New Forest National Park is home to an incredible concentration of different landscapes and natural habitats. Between its woodlands, heaths, bogs and mires, farmland, grasslands, and coasts, a vast range of interconnecting eco-systems flourish. This makes the Forest a haven for a range of wildlife whose breadth is hard to match elsewhere in Western Europe, as well as the celebrated ponies and other livestock.
New Forest plants
The lowland heaths of the New Forest have a warm, dry climate, and sandy soil, producing a habitat rare in the UK, further shaped by the grazing of the famous ponies. Here many plant species, some uncommon and all beautiful, flourish - including bird’s foot trefoil, bracken, gorse, heather, lousewort, tormentil, lovely orchids, rare petty whin, insect-eating sundew and spectacular wild gladiolus, which grows nowhere else in the UK.
Butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies
The New Forest is also home to a diverse range of beautiful - and often rare – flying insects. Certain butterfly species live only in heathland areas, making the National Park an ideal sanctuary for their colourful displays. As well as the UK’s common species, you can try to spot the well-camouflaged grayling, delicate fritillaries, silver-studded blues, and the distinctive woodland white admiral. One can also spot the delicate dragon and damselflies that inhabit the Forest’s wetland areas, including the rare blue-tailed damselfly.
Trees of the New Forest
The woodland areas of the New Forest are home to the highest concentration of ancient trees in Western Europe. As well as many birch, conifers, and beech (which can live up to 400 years), there are also oaks that are aged up to 800 years old, and some yew trees believed to be over one thousand years old. These grandfathers of the forest are marked by their enormous girth, hollow trunks and a crown much reduced compared to their younger companions. The famous Knightwood Oak has a girth of 7.38 metres, and is around 600! These ancient trees provide the ideal shaded habitat for various birds, bats, and other animals, as well as lichens and fungi.
Ponies and ‘Commoned’ Animals
The New Forest’s most famous residents are not wildlife as such, rather they are owned by New Forest farmers with Commoning Rights. New Forest Ponies have the freedom to roam the Forest, and their grazing patterns have shaped its landscapes, however once a year they are gathered together in ‘drifts’ for health-checks and branding; and there are also sometimes pony sales. Similarly, livestock, donkeys, pigs and sheep that can be spotted at various times of year across the Forest are not wild but have been turned out to pasture, according to Commoning Rights.
The New Forest is one of the best locations in the UK to observe deer. All six of the country’s wild species are found in the National Park’s undisturbed spaces – they are particularly easy to spot in the early morning and evening. In the Autumn, the mating season, or ‘rut’ takes place and if you are lucky you could witness males using their antlers in display fights to impress females.
These mysterious nocturnal creatures remain shrouded in superstition, which just adds to the magic of being able to spot up to thirteen of the UK’s eighteen bat species whilst visiting the New Forest. This includes the common pipistrelle, which is known to eat around 3,000 insects a night, as well as rarer bats such as the Barbastelle and Berchstein’s bat. Research is currently being carried out in order to protect these rare mammals and their habitats, funded by the New Forest National Park Authority. All bats are offered a high level of protection by the law, in an attempt to reverse massive decline in numbers over the last century.
All of the UK’s six native reptile species can be found within the New Forest National Park, and the best spots to see them (remember not to disturb them, many are rare, and all are protected by law) are south-facing open spaces, where they like to bask in the sun to heat up their body temperatures. Adders are common throughout the park, with their famous zig-zag markings running along their backs – pay attention, however, as they are venomous. Harmless grass snakes are found around the ponds and waterways of the Forest. The smooth snake is the smallest and rarest of the New Forest’s three snake species, mainly found on its heather-cloaked heaths.
The UK’s heath areas are rapidly being lost, and so protected stretches of heathland such as those found in the New Forest National Park are particularly important for the unique eco-systems that they support. Rare nightjars sing eerily beautiful melodies on summer nights in the Park’s open spaces, whilst during the day the fluty song of the woodlark can be heard across the New Forest’s heath and grasslands. Extremely rare Dartford Warblers can be found in the gorse scrubland in warmer months, and visiting hobbies hunt the New Forest in Summer too. Stonechats, pipits and cuckoos are also common across the Forest heaths.