The magical New Forest is famous for its roaming ponies and donkeys.
But what about our fallow deer? Or our shy smooth snakes? Or all the other amazing wild creatures – not to mention the unique habitats they live in?
If you’d like to treat yourself or the children to a close encounter with some of the UK’s rarest creatures, the New Forest is the place to come.
To be in with the best chance, start with New Forest Wildlife Park at Ashurst. Here, you can get up close to the sika, fallow and roe deer that roam freely within the park. See if you can spot the resident adders, water voles and owls, as well as the non-native animals, including the popular wallabies and lynx.
New Forest Reptile Centre, near Lyndhurst, will be reopening this summer! Marvel at the beauty of a sleeping adder or the bejewelled skin of a sand lizard or a toad - all our native reptiles have awakened from their winter hibernation and, when it opens later in the summer, you’ll get the chance to spot them in an environment that’s safe for them and for you.
Up your chances of spotting the forest’s bird and animal treasures by booking a guided nature walk. Book onto one of Wild New Forest’s walks – perfect for learning more about this unique habitat. Their New Forest Explorer Walk is around 5 km long and two hours duration, and provides opportunities to explore and learn about some of the New Forest's special habitats and species through the seasons.
Prefer gardens? Over in Minstead, Furzey Gardens, offers monthly guided walks for visitors to learn in an informal environment about some of the species that can be found in the garden.
At Exbury Gardens walks are offered for groups including the Senior Guide Tour or the Head Gardener Tour, both of which must be booked in advance. This is a fascinating way to glean more information on these beautiful gardens and the history of the family which owns the estate.
Look out, too, for guided nature walks at Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s Blashford Lakes nature reserve near Ringwood, or at Lepe Country Park, near Exbury. Moors Valley Country Park runs a variety of guided walks with rangers focussing on some of the wildlife that you can find there.
Or take yourself off for a quiet wildlife wander on your own. Just within the borders of the New Forest National Park you will find Landford Bog nature reserve. Expanses of heather and wet woodland can be found here and the reserve is not only a Site of Special Scientific Interest but is home to many species of insect.
With salty lagoons, reed beds and stony areas, Lymington and Keyhaven marshes nature reserve offers a special habitat for wetland birds as well as breeding pairs of linnet and Dartford warbler. Take the Hurst Castle Ferry from Keyhaven Quay and you will pass through some of this protected area.
Interested in our wild plants – especially those that can be used to make food? Hedgerow Tours offers sustainable seasonal foraging, working with nature to pick nothing but the bare ingredients to make into delicious recipes.
If you’d like to see some more domesticated animals, look no further than Longdown Activity Farm, near Ashurst, a working farm where children can have a go at feeding ducks, bottle-feeding calves and handling small animals. There are also on-site indoor and outdoor play areas for young visitors as well as go-karting.
Hockey’s Farm and shop also doubles up as an animal attraction with the resident animals including alpaca, donkeys and ponies.
If you love horses then the Dorset Heavy Horse Farm Park near Verwood, just to the Forest’s west, is a must. It offers the chance to get close to some of the world’s rarest animals. Recognised as a multi award-winning day out for all ages, the farm is home to the Shire, Clydesdale, Suffolk Punch, Percheron and Ardennes breeds of heavy horse whose job over the centuries has included carrying soldiers into battle, transporting goods up and down the country, hauling barges and tirelessly ploughing lands. The centre also has a Pet’s Corner as well as plenty of opportunities to learn more about these magnificent and gentle animals.
Interested in seeing some non-native creatures? Near to Winchester, just a short drive from the New Forest, Marwell Zoo is home to a wealth of exotic species from across the globe, with a strong emphasis on conservation and the breeding of endangered species, from giraffes to tigers.
Back in the forest you’ll find some of our largest native mammals if you take a trailer ride to see the red deer at Burley park with New Forest Deer Safari. Or take the short walk from Bolderwood to the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary and its deer-viewing platform. During the summer months, and at special times, Forestry Commission Rangers will feed the fallow deer, offering a spectacular and truly Insta-worthy sight! You can also extend the walks around the area by following the various route markers and see what other wildlife you can spot. There are often nature trails running and don’t forget to stop by at the Forestry England's information point for a wealth of information on the species you can find here in the New Forest.
*As with everything at the current time, always check the website of the attraction you want to visit for the most up to date news. Not all are open as this newsletter goes out and most activities will need advance booking.