Saturday, 20 October 2012

Rewilding the New Forest


I was in the New Forest the other week. For those who don’t know it is an area of forest and lowland heath in Southern England, about 500km2. It is a lovely place and I have been a few times. It is also deeply unsatisfactory. Despite its size, it is completely criss-crossed with road, paths, cycle paths and other bits of human infrastructure. There are many fences too, and houses dotted here and there. Looking at it on Google Earth is like looking at a chess board with no parallel lines. It feels in short, like a very large city park.

Now, given where it is, it is a wonderful resource, but it could be so much better. Do we really need so many paths? Do we need a road that runs right through the middle, cruelly cutting it in two? Would it not be a wonderful  plan, a wonderful dream , to begin to make it a bit wilder, a bit more conducive to wildlife and everything that goes with it?

It wouldn’t take much to make a real difference. Close a few roads, send them around the outside. Reduce the number of paved paths, reduce the amount of signs. There will still be space for many paths, but as someone who has attempted to go off-piste in the New Forest, I can safely say that you hit a path about every 100 metres. And many of them are big enough to drive a car down! Enough.

At the same time, the New Forest ponies, charming though they are, are clearly over-abundant. In many areas the levels of grazing resemble a city lawn. Yes, I know grazing is a natural process, but in the absence of predators, and with so many deer and semi-wild ponies, the ground is stripped bare.

No doubt there will be some who say that this is crucial to maintain the New Forest the way it is, but I suppose I don’t want it to be the way it is. I want it to be better. A 500km2 heart of darkness in the Home Counties. Okay, that may never happen, but we could make a start.