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13 June 2014
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Woodlands | New Forest

Winter woods

The New Forest in Hampshire dates back to 1079 when William the Conqueror established the area as a royal forest and hunting ground - his 'Nova Foresta'.

If you go down to the woods in winter, you'll discover lots of fascinating wildlife.

 

New Forest - winter woodlands - a stronghold for protected species.


The New Forest is a nationally important wildlife environment comprising woodland pasture, heaths, bogs and the remains of coppices and timber plantations.

Covering a huge area, its 145 square miles of virtually undisturbed deciduous and coniferous forest provide excellent opportunities for nature watching.

The forest still retains many of the traditional practices including the pasturing of cattle, pigs, ponies and donkeys by local people known as Commoners.

Over the centuries the forest has been shaped by man, notably by successive monarchs who used it for timber, recreation and hunting, and by the Commoners grazing animals.

The New Forest was designated a National Park in 2005, and nature highlights include deer, badgers, foxes, old trees and lichens.

Ancient trees

TreesWinter is a good time to look at the shape of some of the New Forest's ancient trees when they aren't in full leaf.

One of the most famous of all is the Knightwood Oak, possibly the oldest tree in the forest, dating from an age when wood was used for fuel, buildings and boat construction.

The Knightwood Oak measures seven metres in circumference, so it could be 600 years old.

Hundreds of years ago when this tree was young, it was pollarded or cut back to rejuvenate its sapwood.

Pollarding helps trees to live longer as it re-sets their biological clock by making them grow more slowly.

The pollarding process was carried out six to ten feet above ground, often by a man standing on a wagon to keep the re-growth out of the reach of animals.

Each winter the new tree growth was cut back and used as fodder, firewood or fencing.

Most of the very oldest oak and beech trees in the Forest have been pollarded.

To find out the age of the ancient trees, simply measure their girth which is a better indicator than height.

A good indicator is that a tree of 7.5 metres width equals about 600 years in age.

Secret streams

FishAs well as the New Forest's magnificent old trees, the forest's waterways are home to some secretive wildlife.

This area of Hampshire is criss-crossed with small woodland streams that flow straight into the sea.

It's in these shallow waters that a fabulous feat of migration occurs at the same time every year in early December.

Sea Trout make their way upstream, taking advantage of early winter rain, which makes the water deep enough for their journey.

The trout are salt water fish, spending most of their time living around Britain's coasts, but they return for just a few weeks every year to make the journey through the New Forest's fresh water currents

From the banks of the forest's streams, you can see them making this strenuous journey - watch out for their backs and fins sticking out of the water.

The male fish can be recognised by their distinctive hooked lower jaw, and often can be seen snapping at each other in a macho display for the females.

The destination for the Trout is the tops of the streams where their lives began - this is where the female spawn.

The female fish turns on her side and wiggles her tail over the gravel on the stream's bottom, depositing her eggs which the male fish then fertilise.

In just a few hours a female can lay up to 10,000 eggs before they head back to the sea.

The calm water and gravel beds of the New Forest are ideal for reproduction and young fish because their waters are rich in oxygen, and they provide protection from predators.

Wildlife stronghold

ToadsThe New Forest boasts is a stronghold for many rare and protected species.

During February visitors can witness another marvellous spectacle - the Toad and Frog breeding season.

Like the Atlantic Trout, Toads return to the same places in which they were born year after year - in this case the ponds in the forest.

Toads only live in water for a short period of time and are well adapted to life on land.

The females are bigger than the males who always outnumber their prospective mates so competition is intense.

Male Toads can be seen wrestling with others to capture the attention of the opposite sex, and there can be up to 10 males fighting for a single female resulting in a 'mating ball' of Toads.

Once mating takes place, females lay 'strings' of spawn which develop into toad tadpoles which are jet black and thought to taste foul so they rarely get eaten by predators.

Getting to the New Forest's ponds is a hazardous business for the Toads who often make the migration at night when many get killed as they cross roads.

Find out how you can help save the Toads from the roads on a Toad Watch.

 

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