The New Forest is not very new any longer. King William I established it in 1079 C.E. and it has persisted in southern England through the present day. I had the pleasure of walking through some of it last week on an ecological tour with Jonathan Spencer and Jane Smith (land managers and very good scientists both). I felt the entire time that I was reading a palimpsest on which layers of history had been written, partly erased, then written over again.
One of the most striking features of the forest is the open heathland, where many forest ponies are grazed by commoners, and have been for hundreds of years. I was surprised to find out that the heaths do not occur in the absence of humans. It is not so much the grazing that maintains them, but the regular low-level fires that are used as a management technique to prevent forest encroachment. The evidence for fire extends several thousand years, so it is not so surprising that these landscapes appear to be natural.
Another surprising feature was the predominance of oak-dominated forests (Quercus robur). These trees are found especially in enclosed areas where commoners have no grazing rights. I learned that 17th century military needs drove this pattern, beginning with King William III attempting to ensure timber supplies for the navy via the passage of the Enclosure Act, “For the Increase and Preservation of Timber in the New Forest”. More oaks were planted in subsequent centuries, but of course the demand for shipbuilding timber has decreased rapidly by now. Still, many trees remain standing as testament to this policy.
And finally, a surprising pattern appeared in many of the hollies (Ilex aquifolium). Low to the ground, its leaves have prominent teeth. The tree hurts when you brush up against it. But above three meters or so, its leaves lose their teeth entirely, and become almost oval-shaped. That height is further up than any modern herbivore can reach, calling into question the selective pressure for the phenotype. One idea is that the spines are an adaptation to deter long-extinct Pleistocene megafauna (see Obeso (1997) and Cooper and Owen-Smith (1986), as well as Crowley and Godfrey (2013) for a Madagascan perspective). A sign of their eating habits remains written on these plants even today.
The forest is not a very wild place, but it is a well-managed place where many different uses have found a way to coexist over thousands of years. It feels very different than any of the national forests in the western United States, where land use intensity has increased so dramatically in just the last two hundred years. We are at the beginning of a much longer journey this forest has already taken.