Key environment scheme secures further five year funding

One of England’s largest agri-environment schemes, which supports vital conservation projects in the New Forest, has been extended for a further five years.

The Verderers of the New Forest Higher-level Stewardship (HLS) scheme helps to protect the majority of the New Forest National Park’s internationally-important wildlife and landscapes. Its range of projects includes restoring habitats, delivering education, protecting archaeology, and supporting commoning.

The scheme had an original life span of 10 years which expired in 2020. Since then, it has been rolled over annually, so the five-year extension is welcome news. It has so far brought nearly £23 million into the Forest, with a further £2 million granted each year of the five-year rollover.

Natural England provides technical advice and support to the scheme that is managed by the Verderers of the New Forest in partnership with Forestry England and the New Forest National Park Authority, with support from the Commoners Defence Association.

The HLS scheme has achieved an exceptional amount since 2010:

Restoring wetlands: Returned 20 miles of streams, which were artificially-straightened in Victorian times to drain the Forest, back to their natural courses, as well as restoring rare and important wetland habitats. This improves the carbon storage in these wetlands, helps to prevent flooding and supports rare species such as the southern damselfly and curlew.

Restoring rare habitats: 1,000 hectares of heath and grassland, the equivalent of 1,600 football pitches, have been restored back to their natural habitats. This includes through removing trees from plantations to allow rare open heathlands to thrive, ridge and furrow removal, scrub management and bracken harvesting – to support internationally-protected habitats. 23 miles of roadside verges – also included within the Site of Special Scientific Interest – have been restored and protected.

Supporting commoning: Crucial funding and expert advice have been provided to hundreds of commoners, and a range of initiatives put in place to continue the traditional system of land management.

Protecting archaeology: The scheme area has been surveyed using LiDAR, leading to thousands of archaeological sites being identified and recorded, with an on-going programme to manage them with the help of hundreds of volunteers.

Educating the next generation:  More than 18,000 children have gained a greater understanding of the New Forest through school visits.

Removing invasive plants: Rhododendron and other non-native invasive species have been removed or reduced across approximately half of the HLS agreement area, helping native habitats and wildlife to flourish.

Lord Manners, Official Verderer of the New Forest, said: ‘The five-year extension offered from the Rural Payments Agency is fantastic news for the Forest. It means that the partner organisations can build on their existing work as well as put longer-term plans in place to deliver vital projects. The funding is also helping to support the unique system of New Forest commoning, with all the environmental, economic and social benefits that brings, through the Verderers Grazing Scheme and other initiatives.’

He added: ‘As we move towards next year’s full domestic agricultural policy, and the Basic Payment Scheme tapers off, we need an urgent solution to ensure that commoning remains viable. We’re supporting the Forest Farming Group looking into which scheme might be best suited to meet the Forest’s needs and recommending when and how to move into it.

‘There have been further Government announcements about environmental and farming support schemes including a Countryside Stewardship Scheme and, in due course, a Landscape Recovery Scheme. We are considering whether these could be of greater value to the Forest. In the meantime, we look forward to delivering a range of benefits for the Forest through the HLS scheme.’

Craig Harrison, Forestry England’s South District Management Director and Deputy Surveyor for the New Forest, said: ‘A huge amount of work has taken place over the last decade to care for and enhance this incredibly special landscape thanks to the funding provided by this scheme. Its extension allows us to build on this and take further action to help ensure the Forest remains a haven for wildlife and resilient to the challenges faced by climate change.’

Prof. Gavin Parker, Chair of the New Forest National Park Authority, said: ‘The HLS scheme has delivered significant environmental benefits to the New Forest and supports the unique grazing system of commoning that sustains it. This is especially important as we respond to the climate and nature emergencies.

‘The scheme works to increase the New Forest’s resilience to these impacts and an additional £10 million will help further enhance the New Forest’s landscape, biodiversity and historical features at this crucial time.

‘In a time when resources are tight, this commitment is particularly welcome. However, it will be important that the scheme helps secure a longer-term future for the New Forest and the things it delivers for nature, climate and people as we move fully into the new domestic agricultural policy from 2024.’

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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 wellbeing of local communities within the National Park.

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

Forestry England manages and cares for the nation’s 1,500 woods and forests, with over 363 million visits per year. As England’s largest land manager, we shape landscapes and enhance forests for people to enjoy, wildlife to flourish and businesses to grow. We are continuing the work we have already started to make the nation’s forests resilient to climate change and by 2026 we will:

  • create at least 6,000 more hectares where we integrate wilding activities in our productive forests.
  • increase the diversity of visitors to the nation’s forests and have one million hours of high-quality volunteer time given to the nation’s forests.
  • plant at least 2,000 hectares of new, high quality, predominantly broadleaf woodlands.

Forestry England is an agency of the Forestry Commission.

Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. It provides practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone. Its remit is to ensure sustainable stewardship of the land and sea so that people and nature can thrive. It is Natural England’s responsibility to see that England’s rich natural environment can adapt and survive intact for future generations to enjoy.