New study reveals success of New Forest wetland restoration

A new scientific study (1) in the New Forest by the River Restoration Centre shows that after just five years, one of the largest environmental improvement schemes in Europe is hitting the mark.

The New Forest Higher Level Stewardship scheme is providing the best possible outcome for wildlife and the natural environment of the New Forest in Hampshire.

The National Park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and covers an area of 28,947 hectares. It embraces the largest area of “unsown” vegetation in lowland England and includes a variety of habitat types formerly common but now fragmented and rare in lowland Western Europe. More than 15 million people a year enjoy experiencing this magnificent wild space.

However, an historic legacy of artificial drainage and stream modification across the forest meant that the streams and wetlands affected have been damaged and many are continuing to deteriorate in condition,  as a consequence the many rare and wonderful species that rely on the streams, wet heaths, ponds and mires are struggling for survival. The Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Scheme aims to restore areas of this ancient landscape to the best possible condition.

The recent study commissioned by the Forestry Commission aimed to determine whether the restoration projects funded through the scheme met their objective of improving and restoring the important network of rivers and streams that once meandered through this unique landscape. The study was undertaken by independent experts from the River Restoration Centre in collaboration with Jonathan Cox Associates – you can read it below.

In the forward to the study, the report states, “‘Working with nature, rather than against it, is sustainable both in terms of monetary cost and environmental impact. Restoring wetlands, planting wet woodlands, encouraging rivers to meander over the floodplain and creating ‘upstream’ holding areas and buffer strips are just some of the ‘slow water’ techniques which allow time for underground reserves to fill and prevent flash flood peaks racing downstream. These approaches also deliver improved habitat for wildlife, better quality water and a range of other benefits that impact positively on people and businesses.”

The study, involved four main tasks including a desk based review, field survey and assessment, identification of a sample of sites to be surveyed and final reporting. It highlighted the considerable successes. For example, at Fletchers Thorns, near Brockenhurst, restoration ‘achieved significant nature conservation and ecosystem service benefits in a very short period of time.’ Read more at or watch the video below.

The New Forest Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (HLS) is a 10-year, multi-million pound agreement with Natural England and is managed by a partnership comprising the Verderers, the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.

Jenny Thomas, the New Forest Lead Advisor with Natural England said, “The River Restoration Centre are experts in their field and this scientifically robust study identifies that conservation work to reverse the historic legacy of deep artificial drainage schemes implemented during the Victorian era are  having  very positive outcomes.

“It is absolutely vital that we assess and monitor the effect of river restoration work in the New Forest. These rivers,  streams, ponds, mires, wet grasslands and heaths are the Forest’s life blood for species such as lapwing and curlew as well as nationally rare gems such as the New Forest Water crowfoot and southern damselfly. We need to ensure that any restoration carried out in this ancient landscape is right for the environment as well as the wildlife it seeks to protect.  It is a delicate balance. However, this study offers considerable reassurance that we are going in the right direction.”

The Forestry Commission’s team of experts are currently working to re-instate natural meanders in streams to restore their length and slow the flow, infilling deep man-made drains, and reducing the erosion of bogs and mires.

So far, nine miles of drainage channels have been restored to natural streams, protecting the New Forest’s internationally-important wetlands and helping them to function better. Since 1997 it is estimated that nearly 150 wetland sites have been restored (2).

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Notes to editors:

Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. Established in 2006 their work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.

For images or further information, please contact: 

Morag Walker, Communications Adviser, Natural England, email:, mobile: 07736 124097

Matt Stroud, Matt Stroud, nterpretation and Engagement Officer, New Forest Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, Direct line: 01590 646650, email:

Esta Mion,Communications Manager, Forestry Commission, Queens House, Lyndhurst, Hampshire, SO43 7NH, Mobile: 07900 137 957, Email:

Background to study:

1. The New Forest Wetland Restoration Review by the River Restoration centre in collaboration with Jonathan Cox Associates (ecological consultancy) was commissioned on behalf of the Forestry Commission to independently review a sample of past wetland restoration projects to determine whether the projects have met their objectives.

The findings of the study will help inform future project designs.

The study involved four main tasks, including a desk based review of all potential sites where wetland restoration works has taken place; identification of a sample of sites to be surveyed; field survey and assessment and reporting.

In the conclusion of the report, it states “All of the sites assessed have shown sustained positive change over the period since their restoration both in terms of improving the quality of habitats and restoring the physical functioning of the mire/river systems. Some of the restoration techniques used in the sites that were restored earlier have been changed or adapted since to inform and improve best practice.  There are no examples where techniques which have been found to have failed or be inappropriate have continued to be applied without revision, adaptation or a new approach being adopted.

2. The Forestry Commission, together with various partner organisations, have been progressing Westland Restoration Projects in the New Forest since 1997.  It is estimated that nearly 150 wetland sites have been restored.  Funding for wetland restoration has continued through successive funding streams such as Pathfinder and the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Scheme.  The majority of techniques have that have been used are documented in the New Forest Wetland Management Plan.

Further background on the HLS scheme:

1. The Environmental Stewardship Schemes, of which HLS is one strand, are administered by Natural England, on behalf of Defra, and funds farmers and land managers throughout England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.

2. The role of the Verderers of the New Forest is to protect and administer the New Forest’s unique agricultural commoning practices; to conserve its traditional landscape, wildlife and aesthetic character, including its flora and fauna, peacefulness, natural beauty and cultural heritage;  and to safeguard a viable future for commoning.

3. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible for forestry in Great Britain. It supports woodland owners with grants; tree felling licences, regulation and advice; promotes the benefits of forests and forestry; and advises Government on forestry policy. It manages more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) of national forest land for public benefits such as sustainable timber production, public recreation, nature conservation, and rural and community development. For more information, visit

4. The New Forest National Park Authority works with partners to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Park and to promote opportunities for understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities. It also has a duty to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities within the Park.