The work of community rangers in the New Forest
PUBLISHED: 11:29 25 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:15 30 January 2018
Braving the winter weather, wildlife writer Tiffany Francis ventures in to the New Forest to discover more about the work of the community rangers
I’m swaddled in two coats and a thick scarf, steaming coffee clutched between mittens as I nibble homemade walnut cake. Before me the landscape of Dorridge Hill rolls down towards a copper boundary of beech trees cloaked in winter, the bright air infused with smoke from the fire nearby. I’ve travelled to Ibsley Common, a National Trust common in the New Forest where a group of volunteers are removing invasive pine seedlings and degenerate gorse from the land. The lowland heaths of the New Forest are considered some of the finest in Europe, and the conservation charity cares for around 4,000 acres of open access habitat in this area, known as the Northern Commons.
Buried beneath a carpet of heather lies Bronze Age barrows and wartime bunkers, as well as gravel terraces left over from the last Ice Age. But while visitors and residents may cherish the raw, ancient beauty of the New Forest, the truth is it’s an entirely man-made habitat, and one that is now globally rarer than rainforest. Our heathlands are the product of thousands of years of partnership between humans and their grazing animals, characterised by heather, gorse, fine grasses, wildflowers and lichens. Around 90% of Britain’s lowland heath have disappeared over the last few centuries, and today hold the highest level of European protection.
In order to keep these lowland heath habitats in prime condition, National Trust community ranger Jake White and wildlife ranger Cat Supple harness the energy of their volunteers to carry out various conservation tasks. Today they are using ‘tree poppers’ to remove invasive pine seedlings. “If we didn’t do this,” says Cat, “the trees would seed out into the wet areas and dry them out.”
The team also cut down gorse shrubs that have grown so large their value to wildlife is lessened; the pines and gorse are then burned on a controlled fire to destroy the remains. Small sections of the heathland will also be burnt later in the season to revitalise the ground and promote new growth.
The rangers work on a rotation throughout the area to create a mosaic of heathland scrub at various stages of maturity, ensuring a diverse habitat for the abundance of wildlife that finds a home here. “Unlike trees, heathland can’t regenerate naturally; it needs our help or it will just revert to species-poor woodland,” says Cat. “We use pretty much the same techniques that have been employed for centuries, and this is done over the winter months to avoid disturbing wildlife like the ground-nesting nightjars.” The larger, older shrubs make great perches for birds like the stonechat and Dartford warbler, while young heather flowers attract the rare silver-studded blue butterfly.
Another part of managing such a diverse habitat is through the use of grazing livestock, owned by local farmers known as Commoners. The New Forest is famous for its curious ponies, greeting visitors and munching on windfall apples, but you can also find cattle, sheep, donkeys and even pigs! The variety of livestock means they each graze on different plants in different ways, ensuring the mosaic of habitats continues to flourish. Pigs are released each autumn for ‘pannage’, a local tradition mentioned in the Domesday Book; the pigs are encouraged to eat fallen acorns, chestnuts and beechmasts which are poisonous to ponies.
While the National Trust team are highly experienced in habitat management, the sight of burning heather and cutting down trees has occasionally drawn negative attention from passers by. To combat this, Jake uses social media and newsletters to inform and engage local people, educating them on the management of lowland heath and how important their work is for rare wildlife. They also hold coffee mornings in spring and autumn to communicate with those who spend less time online. He is keen to highlight the importance of National Trust membership fees, which help to pay for the volunteers’ tools and training. With a wide range of age, experience and knowledge, these volunteers bring immeasurable energy to the Common, and help the Trust’s rangers maintain a high standard of conservation work.
Visiting the Northern Commons
The Commons are accessible to everyone, and a fantastic place to go hiking or horse riding across the seasons. To visit Ibsley Common, use the car park at Rockford’s sandpit near Moyles Court, BH24 3NA. Nearby, take a look at National Trust reserve Foxbury Common, a 150 hectare heathland restoration project brimming with gorse, heather, orchids, foxgloves and blossoming trees. This unique habitat used to be a conifer plantation, but was bought in 2006 and is slowly being restored back to heathland and native broadleaf woodland. Recreational access is currently by invitation only, but the team run a regular program of events and activities for all ages at Foxbury, and are always looking to welcome new volunteers to the project too. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/newforest for more information on the Northern Commons reserves. To find out more about becoming a National Trust member, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.