New Forest Notes by Anthony Pasmore - Lymington Times
Forest pony and cattle numbers
EARLY in every year, the Verderers issue statistics showing the numbers of stock depastured in the New Forest for which have been paid in the previous season. Almost by tradition, the figures are first published by the Commoners Defence Association in its annual report. Normally they appear simply as unadorned tables, but this year they are accompanied by some illuminating comments from the associations retiring chairman Capt. Tim Moore. His observations throw some light on an apparent contradiction in that while market prices are extremely low, stocking densities are not far below record levels.
Conventional wisdom in the Forest is that the commoners respond to rising livestock prices by increasing the size of their herds and vice' versa. A great deal of learned historical research has been based upon this theory, but the end of the 20th Century seems to have turned this unquestioned theory on its head. Taking pony levels first of all, it must be said that, like many statistics, the published figures have to be treated with caution, especially when attempting to assess the actual number of mouths grazing the Forest. To the nominal figure of 3,461 ( for 1997) must be added perhaps 150 stallions for which no marking fees are paid, making 3,611. Then, during the winter months, there may be far less ponies on the Forest than this total would suggest. Many are removed by their owners, either voluntarily or on order from the Verderers. In summer, on the other hand, the actual number of equine mouths greatly exceeds the recorded total. There may be between one and two thousand foals (not liable to fees), there are ponies belonging to people who refuse to pay their marking fees and ponies whose owners are allegedly evading marking fee payment. The extent of evasion is a matter of dispute. My own view is that in these days of subsidies, premiums and a larger agister force, it is much less than in the 1970s. Then there are ponies on Minstead Manor which are not liable to marking fees. The true total is thus very difficult to assess, but five thousand is probably not an unreasonable guess at a summer total.
This brings us back to the question as to why the commoners have not responded to a collapsing market in the traditional way by reducing their stock numbers. The simple answer is that they cannot do so. They cannot sell (at a sensible price) and they cannot cull because of the excessive costs involved. Continued high numbers of ponies in the Forest is the inevitable result. It is true that the figures show a marginal falling of since the 1994 peak of 4,112, but after adjusting for some of the distorting factors described above, any real fall is likely to be insignificant. Capt. Moore says that the Forest can stand 6,000 head of stock (ponies and cattle) in summer, but probably only about one fifth of that number in the spring before the grass has come.
Cattle figures present other difficulties. Here, allowing for the "distortions" mentioned above (although evasion of cow marking fees is not really an option if the agisters are alert), the actual figures are within a couple of hundred of their recent peak. Rather higher levels were recorded in the 1960s when Arthur Dalgety was ranching the New Forest. Capt. Moore speculates on the influence of cattle subsidies combined with the relatively modest net marking fee of £6 after prompt payment discount and a Verderers/ Forestry Commission subsidy of £9 per head.
Cattle subsidies are an obscure and probably uninteresting subject for those not in receipt of comforting MAFF cheques at regular intervals. Provided that owner of suckler (breeding beef) cows has sufficient quota (an allowance of a number of animals in respect of which a claim may be made), he will receive a payment of about £117 per head per annum. If he has a small number of animals in relation to the area of his land, he will receive a further payment of either £29 or £42 per head per annum, depending upon his stocking density. This makes a total of £159 per cow were the higher rate is payable. The low stocking or "extensification" grant is made to discourage over intense grazing. However, in the New Forest commoners turning out cows are effectively deemed to have holdings enlarged in proportion to the number of cattle they depasture. A subsidy designed to discourage high stocking levels in fact works in reverse here! Even more confusing, some of the cattle actually marked and paid for never make an appearance in the Forest at all. Their owners are simply, and perfectly properly collecting extensification payments by exploiting the Ministry's stupidity. Altogether it is an extremely odd system, but one which presumable appeals to MAFF. From all this it will be seen that a large operator with say, one hundred suckler cows running on the Forest will be collecting subsidies in the region of £16,000 each year.
There are, of course, additional subsidies payable on steers - expected to be about £84 per head this year. These may be claimed twice in the lifetime of the animal.
Before anyone gets the idea that cow farmers in the New Forest are coining money, they should realise that there is another side to the picture. Livestock killed in accidents, poisoned, stuck in bogs, harried by visitors dogs, stolen and so on must all be taken into account. BSE and its associated problems have ruined the market and subsidies are only one element of farming. The small traditional commoner with a couple of dozen cattle is certainly not getting rich. Those able to exploit the economies of scale may be doing rather better.
Capt. Moore considers that pony numbers have crept back up to the level which gave problems in the 1970s, while cow numbers have rocketed. The whole picture is of a system under acute strain with small producers in trouble and the Forest under pressure.
New Forest Committee proposals
The controversial plans by the New Forest committee for it to be given statutory powers have now been considered by the major Forest groups. The verdict from all of them is quite clear: the Committee should not have powers over the New Forest. This is the view of the Verderers, the Commoners Defence, the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society and the New Forest Association. The Forestry Commission is keeping its own council. Opinion is more divided as to whether the Committee should have a role outside Forest lands. There is no doubt what the commoners think. Their committee condemned the proposals and was then supported by an overwhelming vote at their annual meeting. The Pony Breeders are similarly opposed.
The important question now is how the New Forest Committee will represent (I hesitate to say disguise) this solid opposition. Mr. John Broughton, a retired vet and leading commoner, suggested at the CDA general meeting that the numbers game would be played. In other words, equal weight would be given to the East Dorset Society for the Promotion of Outings (if such a body existed) welcoming the Committees plans, and the Forest Commoners Defence Association opposing them. The fact that the CDA is a key player in the management and protection of the Forest and the East Dorset Society is not would be ignored. I expect he is right.
The Countryside Commission is due to "report" to the government on the future of the New Forest, amongst other matters, later this month and the Committee will presumably use its influence to colour that report. It must now, surely, be quite clear that the New Forest Committee is not widely loved among those most intimately concerned with the Forest - even allowing that it has a few enthusiastic supporters. Almost the only compelling argument in its favour I have heard so far is that "You had better agree to what they want or you will have something worse forced on you." That is not a very attractive basis for any sort of management.
The Silent Motorway
Large parts of the New Forest are effectively ruined by noise from the A31road. A zone about half a mile wide is so noisy that it is virtually useless for quite recreation, while noise penetrates into the Forest for at least two or three miles on each side, depending on the wind direction. What makes this so dreadfully sad is that it could be prevented, and at a relatively modest cost.
I recently spent a rare holiday in Paris. One of my Verderer colleagues was unkind enough to express surprise that I should even have heard of somewhere so remote from the Forest's perambulation, but I went and was duly shown everything that a good tourist should see. One structure stood out among all the palaces, statues and fine avenues and that was a suburban motorway to the north west of the city. It is recently constructed and was built in the teeth of opposition from local residents. The French are evidently just as fearful for their property values as we are. Anyhow, that opposition and the builders' efforts to mollify it has resulted in a road which is virtually invisible and all but silent. Although largely built on an embankment, continuous linear mounding on both sides (grassed and planted) conceals all but the tops of the tallest lorries. Potential weak spots in the soundproofing, chiefly bridges, have parapets of high panelling which is translucent but presumably of sound-absorbing material. The result is that one field's width away from the motorway there is less noise than from a country side road. Incidentally, part of the construction threatened the Forest of St. Germain en Laye and was simply tunnelled underneath it, but it is the above ground sections and sound proofing which are really impressive.
In the New Forest, the dreadful effects of the A31 could be removed at a stroke by such imaginative earthwork and sound screening. The cost would be small compared to the vast sums regularly issued by the national lottery for sport and the arts. The grant of ten million pounds to Brighton's West Pier would probably be more than sufficient, especially as large parts of the screening are already in place in the form of cuttings. What a pity that it will not be done. Everyone in the New Forest is far too busy with studies, surveys and visitor counts to take on anything practical. Perhaps the Forests best hope lies in the ultimate upgrading of the A31 to motorway status when proper protective measures could be demanded as part of the compensation deal.
OVER the last few weeks, everyone concerned with the Forest has been busy dissecting the New Forest Committee's "national park" proposals and preparing for battle, for of against them. It is far too early to predict the outcome, but the next steps are easier to anticipate. Probably the Committee will consider the responses made to it, select those it considers most appropriate and then make representations to the government as to the powers it would like to have over the New Forest. The Countryside Commission, recreational pressure groups and others favouring a national park will add their voices to the Committees demands, Thereafter, I imagine, we could be faced with a Parliamentary Bill, more or less hostile. It looks like being a long hard fight.
Back in 1992, the Forest was solidly opposed to the national park proposals. The New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society rejected them outright. The Commoners Defence objected by an over whelming majority at a special general meeting. Even the New Forest Association was forced by its members to oppose statutory powers for the Committee when the plans came before the Association's AGM. The Verderers, then split up the middle as they remain today, wanted any statutory powers to be confined to land which did not comprise the New Forest.
So far this time, not everything has gone the Committees way. The New Forest Association's council, divided as usual on the issue, has decided that the park committee should have no powers over the commonable lands of the Forest. In other words, its activities should be confined to the private enclosed lands inside and immediately outside the Forest boundary or perambulation. Cutting through the jargon, this means that "the New Forest", as it is understood by the public at large, should be outside the control of the quasi national park authority. This somewhat peculiar solution (the best that that could be secured from a divided committee) has also been adopted by the Verderers, In the Court, opposition to any statutory powers at all was defeated by one vote. A national park committee which does not run its own park would fit comfortably into Alice's Wonderland. It is perhaps appropriate that the principle window of the New Forest Committee's office looks out over Alice's grave, fifty yards away in Lyndhurst churchyard.
The Pony Breeding Society, as staunch an opponent of the national park as ever , has come out firmly against the proposals and the Commoners Defence has yet to decide . Interestingly enough, some of the minor local authorities who last time simply assumed that a national park must be a good thing, have this time begun to express reservations.
If the New Forest Association's line is followed, it will present the New Forest Committee with a considerable dilemma. It will either have to ignore the demands that it should have no power within the Forest, relying on the inevitable support of the big councils and outside pressure from recreation groups, or accept that it is to have no role in the management of the Forest. I cannot see it doing the latter. Being confined to tinkering with obscure planning matters in the suburban fringe between the Forest boundary and the so called Heritage Area Boundary (a concept which very few people understand or ever will understand) is an unappealing prospect for any ambitious group of land managers. Dealing with recreational and planning opportunities and overseeing the running of the Forest itself is the real prize and no doubt what the Committee is after.
How such ambitions are to be thwarted further down the legislative line is an interesting question. In 1949, the Forest societies combined with the Verderers in a series of petitions against the New Forest Bill and perhaps that is again the way forward. However, we have some way to go before that stage is reached, and I am beginning to wonder how much stomach the government has for another bruising battle with a rural community. Farming, hunting, and land-owning interests have all had their toes rather badly crushed over the last few months. The national parking of an angry New Forest could just be one countryside contest more than the government wants at present.
Four years ago, Jude James published his valuable history of East Boldre which I referred to in these notes. The village, almost entirely made up of land encroached from the Forest, probably had had its origins as a dormitory area for labour in the shipbuilding industry on the Beaulieu River. If that was its purpose, the settlement probably dates from the early eighteenth century.
Throughout the remainder of the Forest there are similar but smaller encroachment settlements, portions of which fell into decline and reverted to the heathland from which they had once been reclaimed. Such sites were usually undocumented and are extremely difficult to date. For this reason, an excavation undertaken by the New Forest section of the Hampshire Field Club last summer was particularly important. The report issued this month, gives the first archaeological dating evidence for one of these "Forest edge" abandoned encroachments.
In the north west of the Forest is a remote area of heathland surrounding Linwood and once known as Ogdens Purlieu. The name is still applied to a portion of heath on the edge of Ibsley Common. Until 1802, the soil of Ogdens Purlieu was claimed by the lord of the manor of Linwood, but an arbitration in that year awarded it to the Crown. Evidence produced to the tribunal by the claimant showed that the owner of Linwood was granting leases of portions of waste (to be enclosed) during the first half of the eighteenth century, but it was evidently insufficient to convince the arbitrators and the case went against him. Most of the land taken in seems to have remained enclosed, but on the east side of the Purlieu, near Hasley Inclosure, is a small abandoned paddock or pound. This was the subject of the excavation. True to the form of most archaeological work in the New Forest, it was hardly spectacular or likely to appeal to the devotees of televisions "Time Team". It did, however, produce a few scraps of pottery dated to the first of the eighteenth century, thus exactly tying in with the recorded expansion of Linwood. Why the site was later abandoned remains a mystery. Its remote and exposed location, together with its poor soil may at least be part of the reason.
A full record of the work at Ogdens Purlieu appears in the New Forest sections report for 1997 which is about to be published.
More Cycle Pressure
The almost invariable justification for heaping yet more recreational pressure onto the New Forest is something along the lines of "we only want a little bit of land and the Forest is large". Individually unexceptional, these "little bits" accumulate over time into a damaging and overwhelming whole. Managers and authorities who ought to know better are taken in by this plea over and over again. Last month the Verderers Court saw a classic example of this. Someone (it is not entirely clear who) has devised a road cycle route to run through the New Forest, without consulting the Verderers, or, it seems, even the Forestry Commission. What is clear is that the route is sponsored by a large national bakery and backed by Hampshire County Council who certainly ought to have been aware of the intolerable pressures on the Forest. Not a bit of it! Former council leader Mike Hancock, the publicity leaflets states, " looked forward to the National Byway bringing the same benefits (and I assumed the same pressures) as the Tour de France's visit in July 1994". Of course the route will "only" affect a corner of the Forest, only the residents of Godshill and Woodgreen are likely to be inconvenienced, only one area of the Forest will be subjected to more intense picnicking, deviation onto Forest tracks and the use of the bushes of lavatories. That evidently did not matter to Councillor Hancock who confidently predicted " the National Byway will help attract visitors from all around the country as well as from abroad". It will of course, be Councillor Hancock's late authority (Hampshire county Council) which will control the New Forest if a national park is successfully established.
The Verderers, in a rather spineless response, threw up the opportunity of demanding a change in the route to avoid the Forest and agreed to the erection of signs through Godshill and Woodgreen. In mitigation, it has to be said that the signs were accepted under threat that the County Council would probably paint them on the road to evade the Verderers jurisdiction if the Court did not consent. So much for talk of conserving the New Forest. Where sport and recreation conflicts with the peace of the countryside, conservation and the convenience of residents, the Forest does not stand a chance.