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Forest Diary: Restoring the New Forest’s lost lawns

Published: Friday 17 November 2017

Forest Diary: Restoring the New Forest’s lost lawns

Lucy Andrews, Works Supervisor for the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, talks about her work restoring lost Forest lawns.

Just like us, trees live, breathe and grow. So it comes as little surprise that, like our own communities, our forests are changing all the time. 

Of course, some of the changes in the New Forest are seasonal and can be seen from week to week – like the spectacular show of autumn colour we enjoy each year.  But other changes are longer term, a tree’s character develops as the decades pass, with the ravages of time slowly making their mark.  An oak really starts to get interesting when it reaches 200 years, limbs break off, branches die back, and fungi take a hold – all good news for wildlife. 

lost lawns


Part of the Forestry Commission team’s work is to monitor many changes to the habitat and take action. The goal is to ensure that we are all able to enjoy a healthy and flourishing forest before passing on the baton to the next generation. 

An amazing variety of wildlife can be found in here in the New Forest, and it’s vital that we help it to thrive. About one-third of the New Forest is known as the Open Forest – the woodland, heath, boggy area and grassland where commoners’ animals graze. The Forest stock allows for the species-rich grassland surrounding the magnificent old trees to be maintained in the best condition.  The use of livestock at correct densities prevents land reverting to woodland, whilst allowing for the greatest potential range of plants and animals to be found. 

Without the grazing animals the lawns of the New Forest would need to be mowed. However, this technique creates very rapid habitat change and leaves behind a uniform structure. Mechanical methods cannot replicate the unique conditions that grazing animals create because they pick and choose what they eat throughout the year. As they graze across the landscape, the animals decide for themselves where to concentrate their efforts and create a mosaic of different lengths of grass and micro-habitats. This creates areas that play host to a range of wildlife that will not be found elsewhere in the UK.

After the ground nesting bird season, during the winter months we carry out a programme of work, removing areas of vegetation, like gorse bushes, willow and young birch trees that are encroaching on areas of the Open Forest. At this time of year you may see machinery in parts of the forest, or hear the buzz of chainsaws, even the scent of wood smoke, but please don’t be concerned this is just the initial stage, after a few seasons the grass and other flora will flourish.

The work may look dramatic (below), but once the vegetation is removed it allows for the heathlands and wood pasture to be grazed by the New Forest ponies and cattle thereafter. Within each site some large trees are retained, as older trees support many insects, etc.

Also, by removing non-native conifer trees it creates a more diverse, open heathland structure allowing more light into the ground, which will promote the growth of wildflowers, the seeds of which are lying dormant in the ground.

beechwood


Our work aims to maintain the rare open heath and wood pasture, preventing the landscape from turning to scrub and supporting precious habitats and reconnecting lost grassy lawns. The improvements made will bring vital benefits for declining bird species, such as lapwing and curlew that breed in the grass and bogs of the New Forest.

A key part of this involves good planning, which we do through consultations with representatives from the New Forest Verderers, Commoners Defense Association, the Keepers and Natural England. Five to six locations are identified each year, as a result of survey work and in agreement with interested parties.

Over the past three years you’ll have seen a noticeable difference to the Forest grasslands, we’ve managed to enhance 40 hectares of lawn – that’s equal to over a million grass tennis courts at Wimbledon!

Returning former lost lawns to open forest and improve grazing for Forest stock, is part of the New Forest HLS Scheme that is held by the Verderers of the New Forest. The scheme is managed by them in partnership with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.