If you go down to the New Forest from Monday September 13, you’re sure of a ‘pig’ surprise!

Because the National Park’s free-roaming ponies and donkeys have now been joined by several hundred of our unique Pannage pigs – domestic porkers turned out every autumn to feast on the forest’s fallen acorns, beech mast and chestnuts.

Like many things New Forest, Pannage, known as ‘Common of Mast’, is one of six ancient rights accorded to commoners from the era of William the Conqueror and is believed to be unique in the UK.

It originally started as a practical way of ensuring that the forest’s glut of acorns, which can be harmful to ponies if eaten in quantity, were taken by the pigs. A pig will pick up an acorn, crack it like a nut and eat the kernel after spitting out the harmful skin, whereas if ponies eat too many green acorns, the tannins in them can destroy their liver.

Every year Pannage dates are decided by the Court of Verderers, who sit in their own ancient courthouse in Lyndhurst, the New Forest’s ‘capital’. The timing varies a little every season, dependant on the progress of the acorn crop and this year you’ll be able to spot pigs at Pannage until November 14, when they are all recalled for the winter (unless the season is extended further).

Like the forest’s other roaming animals, the pigs - which can be any breed, from Tamworth to Saddleback to Gloucester Old Spot - are not wild and all belong to commoners to whom they return each night before being released the next day. Additionally, each Pannage pig has its own ear tag and a nose-ring to limit ground damage by rooting.

Trotting around under the forest canopy, rootling through the dead leaves, the pigs make wonderful subjects for a photo and have graced many an Insta-feed over the years! Like all our animals they are generally happy to be photographed or observed from a respectful distance but must never be approached, touched or fed – no matter how cute they look! – and never approach their piglets. If you have a dog, keep it on a lead and don’t let it disturb the pigs. They are protective of their young and each other and on rare occasions they can bite.

If you want to find them, try the ancient oak forests, especially around Bolderwood and on the Knightwood Oak Trail, and you can often spot them around Bramshaw village in the Forest’s north. They have even been known to wander through villages and if you’re quiet in the woodland, you may just hear their grunting nearby.

*For more information about Pannage visit thenewforest.co.uk