If there’s one thing the New Forest is famous for beyond everything else, it’s our free-roaming ponies.
We’ve got around 3,000 of them but did you know how many other animals you might see wandering the woodlands and heath?
From pigs to cattle, donkeys to deer, there’s a whole swathe of beautiful creatures for you to watch and photograph.
Whether they are trying to get into a shop – they seem to love the stores in Brockenhurst and Burley – rolling on a sand strip by the sea, or quietly chomping the grass near a campsite, the New Forest ponies are the stars of our show.
They’ve been here since the end of the last Ice Age, with early records showing the bones of a pony at the Roman Villa in Rockbourne and each one has an owner who is responsible for it.
According to the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society, the earliest proper record of horses in the New Forest dates back to 1016, when rights of common pasture were granted to the people living in what was a royal hunting ground.
They are also the very reason the New Forest looks the way it does. (You must have noticed the wonderful flat-bases of our trees – just the height for a pony to reach up to…). They munch on gorse and keep this plant in order and their lips have become thicker to allow them to nibble prickly food in safety.
Their grazing supports rare plant species including wild gladiolus and chamomile which in turn helps the wider ecosystem and encourages other species to thrive.
Where to find them? On a hot day try the base of a large tree – they love the shade and that’s why you’ll also find them near Brockenhurst’s watersplash and all our other small streams. They love to loiter outside the Drift Pound near Beaulieu (the Drift is our New Forest name for the annual pony count) and they can often be spotted in the centre of Burley or by the sides of our roads.
Their donkey friends are fewer in number – around 200 - but a little easier to predict. They will often shelter in the shade of road bridges and they love to be around trees, hedges and bushes – especially the ones in domestic gardens - so villages are good spot to find them.
Another firm favourite with the donkeys is the front of the Montagu Arms Hotel in Beaulieu and they are seen wandering around the village on most days.
According to the New Forest National Park Authority, there are several thousand cattle on the Forest in summer, with numbers dropping sharply in the autumn and winter when many return to their owners’ holdings. There is no particular New Forest breed but many will be the hardy Galloway and Hereford crossbreeds.
And that leads us onto one of our best-kept secrets – the free-roaming pannage pigs!
These domestic porkers are turned out every autumn to feast on the forest’s fallen acorns, beech mast and chestnuts. Pannage 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.
Now animals like his have become one of the forest’s unique attractions; up to 600 roaming pigs can be seen around the third week of September for up to 60 days. The length of time varies each year and is determined by the Court of Verderers, the ancient body which oversees the forest and its commoners.
There is, of course, another large species of roaming animal and these are truly wild. Our deer species; Red, Fallow, Roe, Sika and Muntjac can be seen in most areas of the forest but you’ll have to get up early – or stay later – to stand a chance of glimpsing them because they are shy.
Up your chances by visiting Burley Park. Or park at Bolderwood car park and follow the signs to the Deer Sanctuary.
Bolderwood is one of the best places to see these shy creatures as there is a purpose-built platform which overlooks a large meadow. If you visit from April to September you can see the deer being fed by the rangers each day.
Whatever you do, please remember that these animals have the right of way at all times. Our 40mph speed limit – although 30mph is much better - is there for a reason and so is the rule about not abandoning your car on a verge – it cuts down visibility for drivers and can lead to accidents.
Deer – and ponies and donkeys – are notorious for just walking or running out in front of vehicles. Along with totalling your car, the incident may land you with a prosecution.
And talking of that, did you know it’s against the law to feed any New Forest animals? Our ponies may give you a sad-eyed look but don’t be fooled! They are bred to live on wild plants and grasses, and bread and even carrots can make them severely ill. Feeding can also encourage aggressive behaviour.
Please admire them from a respectful distance, which should be increased if they have young as all roaming animals are very protective of their foals, fawns and calves and may attack if you come near. Photo-taking is fine, too, but never attempt to touch, stroke or ride any free roaming animals.
Being mindful of the New Forest Code will help you to have a better experience when you’re visiting so:
- Keep your distance from the animals – don’t feed or touch them
- Take home litter and dog waste
- No fires or barbecues
- Keep dogs under control. Don’t let dogs approach or chase any animals
- Park only in car parks
- No wild camping
- Stick to the permitted cycle tracks
- Drive with care – animals on the road!
- Help wildlife by keeping to the main tracks