Covering an area of 570 square kilometres, the New Forest is the country’s second smallest national park, but with more than 15 million annual visitors, it is one of the most popular, no doubt due to its proximity to Greater London – less than two hour’s drive away.
Despite its name, the New Forest is steeped in ancient history, colonised by the Anglo Saxons and later becoming the favoured hunting ground of the royals after the Norman Conquest of 1066. William the Conqueror displaced many of the forest settlers by razing around 30 hamlets and farmsteads to the ground in order to create his ‘new’ royal hunting ground.
The forest clearly meant a great deal to the first Norman king. It was the only forest – Novesta Foresta – described in great detail in the Domesday Book of 1086. Legend states that William’s act of evicting the forest parishioners cursed him, and the subsequent death of two of his sons in hunting accidents in the forest only added to the folklore. One of those sons was his successor, William II, also known as William Rufus. He was killed in August 1100 when an arrow, fired by one of his men at a stag, glanced off an oak. Today, the Rufus Stone marks the spot where he fell and remains one of the most photographed sites within the forest.
HAVEN FOR DEER
Today, the deer of the New Forest enjoy a less harried existence amongst the leafy glades, bracken and heath. In all, five of the UK’s six species of deer can be found here: the native roe and red deer, the spotted fallow deer (believed to have been introduced by the Normans in the 11th century), and two exotics – sika and muntjac – introduced from Asia in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries respectively.
With up to 2,000 individuals, fallow deer are the most common and easily spotted throughout the forest. For many photographers their familiar white spotted flanks and light tan coat also make them the most attractive. They are also the only deer in Britain with palmate antlers – so-called because of their hand-like spread with the points (spellers) extending like fingers from a palm.
Red deer are the largest to be found, but with fewer than 300 individuals they aren’t easy to spot, although the areas around Brockenhurst and Burley are favoured locations. If sika deer are your objective, the largest populations are known to roam near Beaulieu.
Even harder to find are Britain’s other native, the shy and skittish roe deer. Although plentiful in number, their smaller size and preference for hiding in dense, bracken-strewn woodland means they are rarely spotted in broad daylight. Like the tiny muntjac, the best chance of seeing one is when they emerge into the open at dusk to forage.
STALKING AND RUTTING
Whichever species of deer you chance upon in the forest, a long telephoto or zoom lens is necessary to ensure your subject is large enough in the frame from a safe distance. Fallow deer are the most comfortable with humans, but even they will move away if you approach noisily or are too close. Try to approach downwind from the herd as this will keep your scent away.
Carrying a tripod while stalking is not an easy undertaking, and no matter how quickly you can set up, there is always the possibility of the deer moving from their position or taking flight. A monopod is less of a handful and provides extra stability, but many photographers still prefer to handhold their cameras for speed and convenience. If so, you must set a fast enough shutter speed to counteract lateral movements and vibrations resulting from handholding the camera. Activating the vibration reduction system (should the lens have it), will also improve the chances of sharply focused, shake-free images.
The autumn months present another issue for photographers stalking deer. This is the rutting season and October is the peak month. At this time of year, mature males (stags) are highly charged with testosterone, bellowing frequently and entangling their antlers in the undergrowth as they seek to round up harems of females (hinds). Deer are normally shy, but during the rut a large red deer stag can become a dangerous adversary, especially if you stand between him and his hinds.
TREES OF WAR
Although largely flat there is a variety of scenery beyond the wooded areas of native oak, beech and ash. Broad expanses of dry and wet heathland cover as much area within the national park as the woodlands and there are coastal shores and estuaries to explore where the southernmost boundaries of the national park reach Southampton Water and the Solent.
The New Forest was home to a greater range of native broadleaved trees during William the Conqueror’s time than can be found today. For centuries, the forest provided much of Britain’s need for wood during wartime, being a source of timber for Royal Navy ships, including many comprising Admiral Nelson’s fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. During the First World War, many native oaks were felled and replaced with fast growing conifer plantations to meet the demand for wood. This policy continued when the Forestry Commission was created in 1919 with the aim of creating a strategic reserve of timber in the event of another war. Since the 1980s this policy has been reversed by the gradual phasing out of conifer plantations within the forest.
Despite this chequered history, there is still much to see and enjoy for tree-lovers with plenty of 300-year-old oaks, including the feted Knightwood Oak, known as ‘the Queen of the Forest’ and a visitor attraction since Victorian times. This giant and the Adam Oak near Minstead are regarded as the two largest oaks in the forest. Another historic oak is the Eagle Oak, situated in the Knightwood Inclosure, which gained its name and notoriety in 1810 when a keeper shot England’s last sea eagle from its branches. A picturesque detour is the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive and its ‘tall trees trail’, which winds through some of the UK’s most spectacular redwoods.
From late summer when the pink and purple flowering heather on the heaths have reached their peak, the natural colours of the forest constantly change up to the first snows of winter. Falling leaves of ash, beech, oak, alder and other deciduous trees create a colourful carpet on the forest floor and shafts of sunlight scatter through the branches to backlight the thinning canopy.
A dry, still and cool day provides the ideal conditions for the landscape photographer, with soft angled light that illuminates early morning mist and casts long shadows to add contrast. Try wide-angle views of the scene when the morning sun clips the top of the tree-line to spill across the misty heath. Look out for backlit details such as dew-covered spiders’ webs, or focus with a 50mm standard lens on the veins of yellow and orange leaves yet to fall. At ground level, look at where the light falls on the masses of fallen leaves, toadstools and other fungi – these are perfect close-up studies for a macro lens.
Of course, such conditions can be experienced in most native British woodlands during the autumn months, but the New Forest has a special and ever-present attraction for the camera that few other locations can match – wild ponies. These small, shaggy and mischievous creatures roam freely throughout the forest and even turn up on main village roads. Approximately 5,000 ponies live in this corner of England and they have been an integral part of the New Forest landscape for over 2,000 years. Although living wild and free, the ponies are owned by New Forest Commoners, those residents who have ancestral rights to graze their ponies and cattle within the forest boundaries throughout the year.
These rights date back before the Norman conquests and also include rights to dig for clay, cut peat, gather wood for fuel and to turn out pigs between September and November to pannage for fallen acorns and beechnuts. Don’t be surprised if a pig or two wanders into your frame as you press the shutter button!
Centuries of constant grazing by ponies and cows, peat cutting and pig pannage have shaped the New Forest’s ecosystem, limiting growth of some plant species while allowing rarer plants to prosper, such as sundew, wild gladiolus and chamomile. Ground nesting birds such as the Dartford warbler, which are in decline elsewhere in Britain, also thrive on the open heaths. For the bird photographer, the New Forest is a haven for myriad species, including woodlark, pied wagtail, song thrush, nightjar, stonechat, curlew and wood warbler.
The abundance of small mammals within the forest, notably squirrels, rabbits and field mice, means the woods and heaths also support healthy populations of owls, buzzards, kites and other birds of prey. The great prize for any birdwatcher or photographer is the silent and stealthy hunter, the northern goshawk. Few people manage to see one, let alone take a photograph, but even a glimpse of this majestic bird gliding through the thick woods is an experience rarely forgotten.
This was published in the October 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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