Tag Archives: The New Forest


The day I started writing, the Queen died quite suddenly, but I don’t think it was my fault. Two days before the sad event, Liz Truss visited the Queen to form a new government, and nobody is pointing the finger at her… at least, not for that. Life is full of coincidences: the day Davie Bowie died I found a white Lego figure washed up on the beach, it reminded me of Bowie’s persona ‘The Thin White Duke’, but I’m old enough to remember the character dressed mostly in black, otherwise I might have spun a spooky yarn. Odd things happen… and right now, they’re happening in Britain. I intended to write about increasingly hot summers, but circumstances are so extraordinary back in ‘the old country’, I feel obliged to consider them. I’m slow… it takes six weeks for me to write anything, but apparently that’s more than enough time for a new prime minister (unelected by the people) to tank the British economy and disappear. Such oddness in political behaviour might, in part, also explain why we are experiencing fundamental environmental problems that include the heatwaves and droughts I intend to outline.

Back on June 6th 1977, the Queen lit a beacon at Windsor to celebrate her diamond Jubilee, which set off a chain of events that ruined my evening. Beacon lighting goes back a long way. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a beacon was lit at Kynance Point to indicate the sighting of the Spanish Armanda off the tip of Cornwall; soon beacons were alight around many parts of Britain, but lighting beacons can’t convey much in the way of detail… That’s the problem with fire, it’s not a great way to communicate, but it was at the time better than nothing… but not a lot.

Real problems start in out of the way places where there are no beacons, some people just get creative and set fire to whatever is available, and that’s exactly what happened during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations — I was witness to the event when checking out great crested newt efts in a pond in the New Forest — these newt larvae will come to the surface at night and checking them out with a torch provides a more reliable estimate of numbers than splashing about during the day with a net.

In hot dry summers, the earliest newt larvae to hatch from eggs are the ones most likely to leave the pond before it dries out; they feed on younger smaller individuals, and any that survive that do not have fully developed lungs, will flounder in the drying mud and die.

I was busy counting, when a man walked out of a nearby pub and set fire to a gorse bush, and pretty soon the surrounding heathland was ablaze. With conditions dry and houses nearby — some with thatched roof, this behaviour seemed madness; so I ran to the pub and asked the landlord to phone the fire brigade, and got some very strange looks from the local clientele. It was like a horror movie when a witless, well-meaning character comes off the moor and goes into an inn to report something peculiar. Everybody in the house knows what’s going on…. It’s never good. And that’s the way it was for me.

The fire brigade showed up quite quickly to put the fire out. Then there was the police. A friend was with me and we were asked if we could identify the culprit by the light of the fire… We thought we could and went to the station to give statements. It was 1.00 a.m. before we got away and on leaving we noticed somebody breaking into the local pier, but there are only so many visits you can make to a police station in a single night, so we let that one go. A few days later we were attending a police line-up — the constabulary were taking events very seriously. A politician, active in gay rights, had recently been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and the force had been told to tighten up on procedure. ‘The one on the end?’ said my friend as I emerged from the line up room. ‘The one in the middle!” I responded. Fortunately he was joking. We had both identified the culprit independently and he was later found guilty of starting a fire — to make things worse, he was a volunteer firefighter.

We hadn’t wanted to get anybody into trouble, but the previous summer of 1976 had taught us something — hot dry summers and fires don’t go well together. In recent years extended hot dry periods have resulted in fires of such intensity, they have destroyed both property and swathes of natural habitat around the World: in particular devastating extensive areas of Europe, Australia, the U.S.A., and Russia, this mostly the result of global climate change.

Hot summers inevitably lead to deep burns on heathlands, as was the case in 1976.

The heatwave that hit Britain during the summer of 76 was one of the hottest on record and a great deal was learnt from it, but it was the previous year that had set the ball rolling: June of 75 was cool, followed by two months of intense heat; then came a dry winter and the problems associated with the summer of 76 were inevitable. Besides the fires there was also a drought, resulting in severe water shortages, and in some areas people queued on streets to collect water from standpipes

The 76 fires on the lowland heaths of Hampshire, Dorset and Surrey were extensive. Surrey suffered the worst, with nearly one third of heathlands consumed. Of the four major sites, 55% of the total area was burned. Dorset only lost 11%, but witnessing the destruction first hand was alarming.

The late summer heatwave of 75 is mostly forgotten, because the drought of 76 was one of the most significant in the U.K. for 150 years and so it is remembered.

What we recall from the past usually relates to what is most important to us. I worked abroad for extensive periods of the 1980s and was in Vermont when Britain went to war with the Falklands. I couldn‚Äôt believe what I was reading in the US papers on the day it started, although it was difficult to know exactly what was going on because the U.S. is notoriously disinterested in anything that doesn’t prominently feature an American. It seemed ridiculous for Britain to be at war with Argentina, and the oddness of the event made it memorable. I mention this because the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had not yet implemented the policies she became famous for and would required a second term of office (and then a third) to do so. Her popularity had been flagging… but once the war had been won, her ratings went through the roof. It is difficult not to think of the 1980s without remembering the impact of Thatcher’s policies. What is presently happening in Britain we are also going to remember, but not for the same reasons.

With weather, we mostly recall days when the sun was shining — I would always be out filming when it was. Our minds fixate on memorable events, including hot summers, which until recently were something of a luxury in Britain. Just a few hot days can activate our recollections, but if nothing much changes it is difficult to recall one year from another.

I filmed the aftermath of many heathland fires during the last quarter of the 20th Century; and one in particular on Hartland Moor in Dorset was environmentally significant. The 76 burns had been extensive and deep, which made recovery slow. By the summer of 77 bell heather was present, but there was still many seemingly out of place plants — like rosebay willowherb , which for obvious reasons is known as fireweed.
By 1978 Hartland Moor was showing signs of recovery with bell heather growing well. Some heathlands recovered very quickly, others did not — the outcome depended on the intensity of the burn, wind speed, ground temperatures and how dry the habitat was when the fire occurred.

1976 was an important year for me — I was trying to establish myself in television and on the lookout for news stories that related to the natural world. On summer weekends I would drive into the New Forest and sit outside of Beaulieu Fire Station and wait for a heath to catch fire. Initially there was nothing, but on 6th August everything changed. A man who had been looking at the the rubber pulls that held the bonnet onto my mini asked if they were legal. “Probably not”, I responded, and we got into conversation. He wondered why I was sitting outside of a fire station. I told him, and he responded by saying I was outside of the wrong one, explaining that he’d heard of a big one on the other side of the Forest near Ringwood. I was off like a shot, but it wasn’t easy to find. Going South towards Bournemouth the heathlands become dry and sandy and vulnerable to summer fires. I eventually found what I had been looking for near Ferndown, but by the time I got there, the fire brigade had everything under control. I missed most of the action, but learned a lot about where I could and could not go; and the firemen were helpful, asking only that I didn’t film when they weren’t wearing helmets.

I often filmed in colour, but took stills in black and white, as this was then standard for written news stories.

On 28th August I went to a heathland fire and soon learned of another burning out of control at Matchams, west of the New Forest. Somebody told me it was was one of the ‘wildfires of the century’, but I was doubtful. I needed to get onto the A338 between Ringwood and Bournemouth, but the road was closed. I managed to get onto it using a back road, only to discovered a scene from a disaster movie — there were no people or vehicles — the road stretched away empty, for as far as I could see. I kept going until I got to Matchams where smoke was rising from behind a hill. The undergrowth was shrubby and dense; and there were a lot of rhododendron — mature old plants that drop their leaves which make for a significant fire hazard. Hoping it wouldn’t be on fire by the time I got back, I left my car beside the road and headed in, but didn’t get more than a hundred yards before I could hear and smell the fire approaching, but I never saw a flame. However, with a light wind blowing I knew it was moving more quickly than I could, so I turned and hurried out, but my gear got entangled in the undergrowth, It was a struggle, but I got back to the road unscathed. With an overwhelming desire to record the event, I had approached the fire from the wrong direction — a serious error in judgement that I was lucky to get away with.

Having recovered my composure, I moved to a more open location so that I could keep track of the fire’s movements and ended up close to a farm. Here I found myself amongst people clearing a house, with firemen damping down the area ahead. The crew were standing in a line across the front of a stand of pines and I joined them. They were hosing water into the tops of the trees when the fireman next to me calmly said, “In a minute we will pick up the hoses and run back. When we do, you go with us.” Shortly after he spoke, the men were in rapid retreat. I did as I was told and moved with them, running the camera as I went. There was a sudden roar as fire swept out through the tops of the trees, which were by no means small; it then dipped into the area where we had been standing, sweeping down as if directed by dragon breath to incinerated everything ahead. I still have the footage somewhere — it was spectacular, but once down into the heavily watered area the fire lost enthusiasm, and gave up the fight.

For those who like figures: 1995 was then for Britain the hottest August on record since 1659 and the summer the driest on record since 1766. In the USA between July 12th-15th the midwest was overwhelmed by a heatwave — many died as a direct result, but the experience revolutionized the way Chicago deals with periods of extreme heat.

Through the 1990s there was an increase in hot summers and once into the 21st Century, heat records were being beaten with such regularity that climate deniers had trouble refuting anthropomorphic global warming as a reality, and moving at such a pace, even scientists — experts in their field — have been surprised by how quickly global temperatures are rising.

Lowland sandy heathland is a habitat that left unmanaged will at some stage burn dramatically. Such heathlands were once extensive but they are now much fragmented by development. Today a complete heathland burning may destroy whole populations of animals that cannot easily escape the fire. Featured above is a rare and endangered sand lizard: those that don’t get burned alive may survive for a time in their burrows, but will at some stage have to come above ground onto an incinerated habitat devoid of cover, where predators such as crows are waiting.

2022 will surpass anything that 1976 could manage and become the hottest summer on record for Europe. We know this even though the yearly figures at the time of writing are not complete. The hottest summer on record for the United States is 2021 — the situation has now become so bad we can easily predict the way things are going. Sadly the big money has politicians by the throat with the most powerful hoping to convince us that business should continue as usual — we just need to stop using plastic straws and everything will be hunky-dory. 

In Britain, recent political events have led to both shock and amusement around the World.

The question is: for how much longer can political decision making bolster economies by making the wealthiest people wealthier at the expense of everybody else, and most disturbingly, at the expense of the Planet. Present policies that rely upon the exponential and unsustainable extraction of natural resources — as if they were tokens in some global ponzi scheme — makes no sense. The result has been a tumbling of the diversity of ‘life on earth’ and shockingly, a ramping up of the ever increasing rate of climate change.

Surprisingly, it is Britain (regarded by some as a model for the democratic process) that has destroyed its political credibility by the incompetence a handful of politicians in recent moments of political madness that have trashed Britain’s economic credibility; indicating serious environmental problems cannot be left entirely in the hands of politicians who are either too stupid, or two self interested to make the difficult decisions required that will lead to necessary change . Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but the present fiddling is on a massive global scale as politicians make short term unsustainable economic decisions that have now move past simply allowing the Amazon to burn for decades without making an effort to stop it.

A recent WWF Living Planet Report indicates a massive decline in biodiversity and wildlife populations around the World. Latin American countries have seen the greatest decline with losses in the Amazon region having fallen by an almost unbelievable 94% in the last 50 years — this primarily due to deforestation.

27th October 2022:The U.N. warns there is no credible way of limiting the rise in global warming, and a preCOP27 report has suggested woefully inadequate action by World governments. In recent years we’ve had a taste of what it’s like to have a World that is on fire and if changes are not forthcoming, an already desperate situation will move beyond its tipping point and there will be nothing we can do to stop it.

Please read PART 2 which provides an outline of the devastating incompetence of British politicians as the crisis unfolded over the past few weeks; it ask questions about the role of Royalty in our time — and on both counts it is difficult to avoid satire. Further details are given on the WWF Report on wildlife decline, along with Britain’s political reaction to COP27.

Life, Death and Landscape Photography… With a Mobile Phone.

My father died on 22nd January 2021 and I recently travelled from Canada to the U.K. to sort out his flat. Last year I tried visiting him, but with the pandemic underway it turned into little more than a game of chicken with the airline; in the end Canada Air cancelled my flight just a few days before I was due to fly — still waiting for a refund, I bought another ticket. Maybe this is symptomatic of the times we live in, but it might also be a case of — ‘Who said life was fair?’

My father with my daughter. New Zealand 2003.

Although my father had a massive brain hemorrhage, it is likely he went peacefully during an afternoon doze on the sofa, but prior to his death there was no doubt the Covid lockdown had affected him — he’d told me that it had been worse than the 2nd World War. Worse than bombing Germany? I asked; and he’d not forgotten the horror of that; but the more recent experience of isolation had been very difficult for him.

I spoke with him every day until the last when there was no response to his ringing phone — he was mid-way through his 99th year and had lived a charmed life.

My parents are buried in the cemetery of St Nicholas Church, Brockenhurst — the oldest church in the New Forest — and I never tire of taking pictures of it.

It wasn’t until months later at the end of July that there was a realistic option to fly to the U.K. and sort out his home and possessions; autumn would soon be approaching and with everybody returning to indoor living, the disease might return more forcefully; and so I decided to make use of this window of opportunity.

My father lived on Southampton Water; and as a child our home had overlooked the tidal estuary of the River Itchen; once you have lived close to the sea, it is difficult to be entirely happy anywhere else.

The end of my 10 day lockdown coincided with the return of cruising and I soon found myself photographing the same ships leaving on a regular basis as most were making only short excursions. The Disney one was a bit Mickey Mouse though, with ūüé∂M I C K E Y M O U S E ūüé∂. blasting out across the water. This wasn’t the way I remembered things when I was a child as the Queen Mary sailed out gracefully along the same stretch of water without any fuss as she started out on her journey to New York.

What was it about Britain I wondered that made me feel good despite the death of a parent. Certainly it wasn’t turning up to find myself so predictably ripped off; and Covid-19 hadn’t helped, with so many companies attempting to recoup their pandemic losses. Hire car companies I noticed had become increasingly expensive, especially when you needed to make a change as I did when extending my stay to a fifth week… It was then they turned the screws.

On the third morning after lockdown there was a horn blowing which woke me at 6.00 a.m.. A cruiser had no business going out so early, and I got up to check things out: it was a fog horn blasting a melancholic warning; and I noticed a replica hull of King George V’s Britannia floating forlornly in the mist — over a century ago the king had requested that upon his death, the real thing be scuttled off the Isle of Wight.

“Don’t whatever you do attempt to visit a beach in Dorset,” a friend insisted — which is what I really wanted to do. “Very few Brits are travelling abroad this year”, he continued, “you’ll drive down a lane and find double yellow lines everywhere; then you’ll get to a field and there will be a man in a little hut asking for 20 quid to park.” I avoided this potential disappointment by being too busy to check it out. Then there were my Covid tests — free in many countries… but not in Britain. My last one cost ¬£119. I took five in all and in the end they were probably more expensive and time consuming than my flights.

I don’t like cats, so why do they like me?

On the first morning of my last visit two years ago, I came into the living room to discover a cat, which had recently adopted my father, it was attempting to kill a wild bird that it had just brought in. I quickly rescued the bird and released it. On this my most recent visit, I had only been in the flat for a day when I saw a cat outside, hunting a blackbird as she gathered food. I quickly chased the bird away, but the cat, unused to such fuss, completely ignored me. The day after I experienced more or less the same thing, but with a different cat and a different bird. Then, when I was allowed out, I saw a young couple feeding a group of cats in a local car park — I could tell that all had homes because each was extremely well fed. I was more used to seeing this kind of thing in developing countries and had never experienced anything like it in Britain. Domestic cats kill millions of song birds every year. ‘It’s only natural,’ people say, but that’s an intolerably stupid way of thinking.

Another cat visiting the sea wall wouldn’t leave me alone. This was possibly the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen… but the logic of allowing these unnatural stealthy predators to roam so freely is beyond my understanding.

At the end of quarantine I was out on what was rubbish collection day gathering cardboard boxes to pack my father’s stuff in… I’d quite forgotten about the grumpy old men (the kind of people who used to say to me, ‘More than my job’s worth governor to let you do that’… whatever it was I was doing). There was an older man standing at the gate of his house and suddenly he began shouting at a near neighbour who had put his bag down within 20 metres of Mr Grumpy’s home. ‘Go and put it outside your own place’ he yelled. The old gentleman put down his bag; and due I think to deafness, moved closer before fully appreciating the abuse he was getting.

The first butterfly I saw on the New Forest as a child was a gatekeeper and the last I photographed (under lockdown) on lavender at the back door of my father’s flat.

The day before I left for Canada, there was another incident. I had gone to the bank and didn’t notice an older man hiding out in an internal doorway; he ignored me until I was leaving and then had a go at me because I had jumped a queue that I didn’t know existed. “Why weren’t you queuing outside like everybody else does?” I asked. “I came in to get out of the rain.’ he sarcastically yelled — it was a beautiful sunny day. Try that with a real Canadian I thought, and all you’ll get is a puzzled look, but I’d understood his meaning and didn’t respond. This of course made him angrier. I had the feeling that if I had noticed him loitering in a recess of the bank and hadn’t walked straight past, he would have been disappointed — where else would he have got his daily dose of hate… We’ll pretend it’s a Covid problem, but I’ve noticed that some Brits carry an underlying frustration; a kind of powerlessness in those who feel nobody is paying them much attention.

Sorting through my father’s stuff was like wading through treacle — nothing was sticky, but the volume of accumulated paperwork made it impossible to make headway — he’d saved everything from the last 30 years and a lot of it needed shredding. I was dealing with some important house documents, when suddenly I realised they had been saved from two houses previous to the one I was now sitting in. This was the way it would be for my first 10 days of lockdown — looking at thousands of bits of paper and then destroying most of what was printed upon them. It was exhausting.

I took a break at the end of the first release day and began my mobile phone landscape project — starting on the beach, this just a short walk from the paper mountain I was presently living under. Evening light would make quite a difference to my images and I’d quite forgotten about the expansive coastal skies of my youth.

Back in the flat I took a mug from cupboard to make tea, and as I poured hot water into it, the bloody thing leaked all over the counter top. Nice one dad! It would have been madness to throw this one away. Then I found a series of magazines on the Second World War, documenting the action as it happened; unfortunately they were in order number from the very first issue in 1939 — I just couldn’t throw them away — clearly I was turning into my father.

Another evening on the beach, another picture — and this one had two things going for it, both of them personal. The last time I photographed egrets was for ‘The New Forest Landscapes’ book I’d compiled more than 20 years ago. At the turn of the Century when I lived in the U.K. seeing egrets was still an event, but now they are common. More personally it was good to see Victoria Country Park across the water where I used to take my children to play when they were young.

The photography thing was also a big thing in my father’s flat — it seemed everybody in the family at some stage had taken pictures — they were everywhere. My dad gave it up at around 80, but my step-mother never stopped… and she was good. ‘But isn’t everybody?’ I thought. My wife takes a nice picture; as do my children. How did I manage to make a living from something that almost everybody now does very adequately? I mentioned this to my wife and she agreed that many people take good pictures and it’s become a lot easier now that so much is automatic. Then she said, but you have the advantage of seeing where the real picture is, and very few people can do that. What a nice thing to say I thought… did she want something I wondered? She’s never big on compliments and I’m still mildly in shock.

A friend who was visiting, felt rewarded when he discovered sea lavender on the local beach.
And I felt something similar when I found a micro moth hanging out on the marshland and occasionally feeding on sea lavender flowers. The salt-marsh plume moth Agdistis bennetii demonstrates my phone’s versatility, as I took this close up in very poor light just as it was getting dark.

During my stay in the flat I had very little time to go out and do photography; and hadn’t in any case brought a proper camera… but that’s not quite true — I had my I-phone which I use almost exclusively as a camera now… anything other than emergency communication is wasted on me — nobody knows my number in any case… not even me.

But I had other things to consider as I steadily became overwhelmed by all the stuff my dad had accumulated. I would opened a cupboard and things would gush out like water coming over Niagara Falls — it never stopped. I had to get away from the torrent or was it torment… Yes, torment sums it up… I could only spare a few hours to go out, and apart from the short evening walks along the coast, I only managed three on the New Forest itself, and didn’t get far beyond the boundary closest to where I was staying. I literally drove over the nearest cattle grid, parked in the first place I could find, got out of the car, walked no more than 20 metres and started taking pictures — it’s so much easier when time is limited.

‘All those amazing images taken by amateurs that win competitions,’ I thought…Is it any wonder… they’ll sit for days in one place and when something finally happens they’ll shoot of a hundred exposures on auto-blunder. Over the course of a year how could they fail not to achieve a picture good enough to enter in one of those chocolate box school of photography competitions that are all the rage now: it’s like monkeys typing for an infinite time and writing the complete works of Shakespeare. Sadly, I’ll never get beyond the basics. For me it is just: ‘To be, or not to be? There are no further questions.’ I take one picture at a time, and have no inclination to spend too much minutes doing it. I take photos like they are a disease that won’t go way and expect good images on a daily basis; achieved I think, by a lifetime of practice and persistent failure.

During my three evenings I optimised my chances by going out only when it was sunny, which offered the chance of a sunset, although with a decent phone camera it is possible to get good pictures consistently, because they usually achieve good definition and colour saturation even in the dullest light.

I stayed out on only two of my designated evenings until the sun had set, and each time tried my best to expose correctly for the sky — which in this case appeared to be ‘on fire’, but to do so I had to let the foreground go.

I walked 200 metres to get around this white pony — technically it’s a grey, (it’s a pigment thing), but in my world the pony was stone cold white. I knew before my walk started I’d be leaving an accompanying darker pony out of the shot because it wouldn’t register under the extreme lighting conditions — and I refuse to use a fill in flash. Add to that, ones and threes are more comfortable in a framing than are twos, and I pretty much knew what the picture would look like before I was in place.

My mobile has two lenses one for wides which is equivalent to about 26mm on a full frame camera. The second — described as a telephoto, has a fairly standard focal length on a full frame camera at around 50 mm, which many years ago when I started out, was my standard lens of choice (or rather, it was the one that came with the camera and the only one I could afford).

On the phone screen you can zoom in, but if you get carried away the image quality goes. Nevertheless, work sensibly with a phone camera and it usually provides exceptional results especially when doing landscape photography, but don’t expect to be out there getting great photographs of wild birds. If the results are going to be disappointing, then there is no point in pushing your phone camera beyond its capabilities unless you are attempting an I.D. or need to show that you saw something unusual.

I don’t really look at the screen once I have my frame I watch to see where the legs and heads are going, because if your donkey looks uncomfortable in the final image you’ll never show the picture to anybody.

Many phones also zoom out wider and this shouldn’t reduce image quality, but it needs to be used sparingly. I drive my cameras the way I do a car: get into it and get things moving — the other stuff you can do later — learn it as you go along, even if occasionally you find yourself defeated by the machinery. On the trip down from Heathrow I didn’t turn the air conditioner off because I couldn’t figure how to; and when the seat is set up wrongly, I usually adapt my posture because moving your seat at 70mph is a definite no, no. Uncomfortable is good and I usually drive more carefully to compensate… Alright, now I’m making things up! But the parallel is that if you are out of your comfort zone when working with a camera you sometimes get better pictures.

Unfortunately I don’t know any of the modes on a camera unless I regularly use them. Wildlife photography is a very immediate thing and a bit like war, but without the killing; although you do get to do the aiming and shooting. And just like war, mostly nothing happens, but when you’re suddenly in the thick of it, there’s rarely time to make changes: if you’re not ready to go you’re probably going to miss the picture even if it is only a landscape picture — which is about the easiest photography you’ll ever do. Being prepared is still the best way to get a result, although of course it’s a struggle to think what else you need to do with a phone camera other than have it on.

Taking a good landscape picture has less to do with what’s in front of you, than where you’re standing in relation to what you can see. You make the picture by walking parallel to the view which changes the foreground in relation to the background, such moves are sometimes very minor but they can make a big difference. Here I was just on the look out for standing water running out to the right to mirror the movement of the sky — subconsciously this image might be viewed as a reflection.

Wildlife photography at least teaches you to look at the lie of the land and decide what your subject is most likely to be doing before it happens; and let’s face it, your subject will not be doing it all over again if you miss your opportunity. Once you get the hang of it, the process becomes automatic, but if you can’t, then take up ballroom dancing or something that comes more naturally. I don’t seriously mean that, because I don’t believe there’s a person alive who can’t manage something half decent with a camera. Nevertheless, although it is possible to learn a lot, whatever comes to you instinctively is the quickest route to where you want to be.

There is never a good time to mention the advice given in camera books — the problem with camera books… and this is difficult for me to say, because I’ve never actually read one, but I have flicked through a few and gotten the gist from the pictures. I get the impression that some claim that if you understand the science of optics you can take better picture; and I’ve seen plenty of people who love science giving advise on this, but they still manage to take lousy pictures, and rather embarrassingly, fail to notice.

If the advice in the book doesn’t adopt a scientific approach, then it will often move down a more magical or spiritual route… suggesting that what you are really doing is an art form that requires a particular attitude or approach, but I think it rather pretentious to suggest that what we are doing is art — that kind of judgement should be left to others. The process of photography may be based on a combination of science, mathematics and art, but you don’t need any of that to take a good picture.

A favourite myth is to tell us where to place our subject in the frame in accordance with the Golden Ratio — you can read up on this if you like, but in truth, if you measure up for the rule exactly, it hardly ever works out. What people who paint and take photographs do is far more complicated; they come close to following the rule but seldom do so to the letter; and in many cases, belief in the ratio is little more than an illusion.

Sometimes it is good to be uncomfortable with an image. Tension can make for an interesting picture, but given every photgraph featured here was taken within a few hours, I am happy to have gone down the chocolate box route to demonstrate that there is nothing wrong with capturing images that people like; but once you get the hang of it, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be irritating and try something different. In the end whatever you do is a matter of taste, but if you don’t vary your style, your photographs will begin to look very much like all the others that are being taken.

To move or not to move? Should this foreground stick stay or go. Whatever the case I’d always put it back, many a social insect has lost its way home due to a careless change of topography.

When taking pictures, my view is that, when starting out, you should rely on only three things. 1. stand in the right place. 2. Frame the picture well, and 3. Make the right exposure, but the last of these you can leave entirely to your phone camera. The one exception is when dealing with sky, especially early or late in the day. The way phones are set up is to give the best exposure compromise possible. Essentially no camera sees the way a human eye does, as we rapidly adapt to different levels and where the light is coming from in order to best see what we need to, and we are continually compensating; the camera on the other hand is stuck with what you point it at and will read only that value, unless you have set up some internal camera compensation….

With my phone I don’t need to do very much. I just point it at the sky which gives a pretty good exposure for the lightest part of the picture and this also gives a fairly good impression on the screen as to how the sky is looking; but that won’t provide the best value for the rest of the picture, especially at sunrise or sunset, when nearly always you will experience a dark foreground, even though electronic cameras are far more forgiving than film cameras ever were. The advantage of a phone camera is that you can adjust accordingly because your phone camera does things more slowly than your eye and brain combined, and by tilting down from the sky to your final framing you will have time to take advantage of the changes that your camera is making as it compensates for exposure. Work out where your final framing will be and then take several picture when you’ve done your tilting, watching as the exposure changes and each time varying when you press the button. Then select the exposure you want from your series.

This picture was taken within a few seconds of the picture below.
It is up to you to decide how you want the image to look, otherwise there is nothing much else to do but point the camera!

To expose for the landmass the sky will inevitably blow out a bit, but that’s O.K., you just don’t want to lose all of it’s contrast and colour. You don’t even need to practice this — just keep taking pictures until you get what you want and don’t dump too many until you get home and see the results under normal lighting conditions: it is very easy to discard the best picture by dumping them in the half light. Remember that your phone is your friend and it is trying to give you the best compromise by being very forgiving of your human incompetence.

Most phone cameras will also reduce blur and this is helpful if you are unsteady, but don’t rely on it too much, especially in very low light conditions. If you can prop the camera on something, then do so, hold your breath, and try not to snatch when pressing the button. You also need to keep your fingers out of the shot — and that’s sometimes easier said than done.

With electronic cameras, unlike the old days of film, your images are free and you can take as many pictures as you like without cost and sort out the best ones. Fortunately photography isn’t a matter of life and death, and we should all enjoy the process — because in the grand scheme of things it is a trivial pursuit, but by looking back on what we have achieved, we are sometimes reminded of the many happy experiences of living, and the benefits of that should not be underestimated.

With thanks to my friend Dr Mathew Cock for identifying the wetland moth.

Death In The Morning.

October in the New Forest in Southern England is the time of the fallow deer rut and I thought this might be a good time to consider an unusual event that I witnessed exactly 20 years ago today in the early hours of the 19th October 2000.

It was shaping up to be an almost perfect New Forest morning; dawn was approaching, birds were singing and there wasn’t a breath of wind to disturb the air. Ideal conditions for sound recording I though, but still I picked up my camera bag from the back of the vehicle, doing my best to ignore the tape recorder: sound is frequently of secondary importance to cameramen — maybe it’s brain defect. I looked through the trees towards the horizon and instinctively knew the sun was coming up, but not in a meaningful way — a black bruise of cloud was moodily attempting to eliminate daytime altogether, and it seemed unlikely this was going to be the perfect day I was hoping for. For some time there wouldn’t be enough light to film anything, especially under the trees. Reluctantly I switched to the sound kit, but grabbed a stills camera as a comforter — stuffing it into my jacket. 

A week or so earlier I had noticed some early arrivals on rutting stands (animal behaviourists call the sites the females visit where the action takes place – leks). On this stand a buck had arrived attended by two does — this before the ground has been churned up by tussling bucks.

Form many years I had been filming the fallow deer rut on the Forest, rising early through October in an attempt to get footage of the competing males followed by successful individuals mating with attendant does (mature females) these gathered close by the stand while the bucks battle for supremacy. When the bucks are evenly matched the event is quite a spectacle; and the sound of clashing antlers resonating across the forest as the sun comes up is spine tingling experience; and on this particular ‚Äėlights out‚Äô morning sound recording seemed my best option. It would also be a break from filming the activity which in the New Forest can be quite challenging

Occasionally early morning light can be exceptional, but in October there are no guarantee: when it is wet and miserable, activity is often minimal.

Had I been working on this day with the benefit of a modern digital camera I would have certainly managed an exposure even in poor light, but back then film speeds were unforgiving; and to be honest the bracken was so tall on the site I was working, I could hardly see the fallow bucks when their heads were down and locked in battle.

A buck lying down resting on a stand is not easy to see in dense pine woodland.
An active buck is far more obvious, but filming in this kind of habitat can be difficult.

Usually the biggest, strongest buck on a stand will win the opportunity to father offspring, and the most impressive bucks will usually hold the largest entourage of does as they come into season. When we use the term survival of the fittest, this kind of scenario is what we imagine, but natural selection has many faces, and it is difficult not to think of this fight for male dominance in terms of a brutal victory or defeat.

However, closer observation reveals that this really isn’t about damaging the competition, it is about demonstrating greater fitness, which encourage less well equipped bucks to stand down and live to fight another day when they might perhaps become better equipped to challenge as the dominant male. Usually a buck that is losing ground to an opponent will break away and leave the field of play. This is all very interesting to watch, but on rare occasions things can go wrong, with one buck inadvertently causing the death of another, but such events are very unusual and I’ve witnessed it only once.

Open oak woodland is easier to film in than under the pines.

On this stand a buck begins to call — and this is the best indication that the rut has started. Presently he has two does in attendance, and numbers will substantially increase over the next couple of weeks. The ground will be churned as other bucks come in to challenge, and many males will become exhausted by all the bellowing and battling which occurs both in the early morning and the evening. This buck may or may not be robust enough to retain his real estate over the next couple of weeks. The bigger bucks always have the most impressive antlers and in recent weeks will have achieved considerable bulk. As the rut approaches the largest bucks put on weight and develop barrel chests, this the power house that enables them to drive off bucks of a lesser stature.

Wildlife disturbance was a serious problem across the Forest even 20 years ago, especially for deer. I was once sat quietly by a stand when two dogs came rushing through, scattering the fallow in every direction. Two minutes later and older lady came down the ride on a fine horse. I walked out onto the ride and asked if she once had owned two dogs; she admitted that the dogs were hers and I pointed out where they had run through the deer and seriously disturbed them. “What deer?” she said. “There are no deer here”… And you bloody photographers are an absolute nuisance.” I found it hard to disagree and with her final comment Lady Marjorie Brain-Dead kicked her horse hard in the flanks and sped away into the distance.

There are fewer red deer (Cervus elaphus) on the forest than fallow (Dama dama) and their rut tends to occur on open heathland. They will tolerate a presence providing you are in position before it gets light, but it is necessary to keep an appropriate distance and remain very still. What they don’t like is being observed from two positions at once, and when anybody else showed up, I’d lie down in the heather and disappear.

On the day of the unusual event, to my great good fortune, there were no early morning dog walkers, and as I settled into the bracken, a buck immediately started to roar — although the noise is are more a series of deep resonant belches than a roar and can be quite unnerving if you‚Äôve never heard it before. Then, a sudden sharp clatter of antlers to my left revealed a large pair of bucks, with their heads down and legs braced like two opposing teams in a rugby scrum, engaged is a serious game of push and shove; churning up the mud they were evenly matched and appeared to be getting nowhere. Occasionally they would break off to take stock of one another; then, dropping their heads again, they’d smash their antlers together with explosive force. Even in poor light I could see taut muscles straining across their shoulders and hind-quarters as they put every ounce of their strength into the battle. Then, suddenly, another couple of bucks started up behind me.

I had never witnessed two pairs of bucks battling in close proximity before, but today it happened — obvious because for once, I’d gone out into the natural world without my cine camera — but never mind — I had been in place for half an hour and there was still no light to speak of. A third equally impressive contest then started up way over under the pines in woodland 100 yards to my right; and t first I wasn’t much interested because this was a stand that I’d looked at before, and the bucks there had been young and very half-hearted about things. In any case my preference was to watching fallow beneath stands of oak trees where the forest had opened out a little and there was more light. This couple were in any case deep in the bracken and didn‚Äôt gain my full attention for about twenty minutes, until they eventually arrived where I was, and almost ran over me. I had realised there was something odd about them from the start, and I began to make sense of it: not once had they raised their heads to assess one another, and it was clear their antlers were locked: instead of attempting to gain advantage they were simply trying to break free, bouncing and whirling like energised toys equipped with those special batteries that never run down.

Suddenly one of the bucks dropped to the ground almost in front of me.

The the poor animal that went down as if by misfortune he‚Äôd been given the cheaper batteries that always let you down in a crisis. Neither buck had been aware of me, and so I moved closer, just in time to see the stricken buck rise up and slam against a tree; but this was now a puppet show, the fallen individual had no life of his own and was moving entirely under the control of his opponents strength, the dead dragged along by the living buck’s immense power. Then the standing buck saw me… more to the point he saw how close I was. I thought my presence might change the dynamic enough to startle the living animal into breaking free — bat stayed a fallow deer body length from the action (for obvious reasons). With a Herculean effort the big buck pulled his head up and to one side and then down, pivoting on his front legs he brought his whole body in an arc across his dead adversary and with that the antlers detached and the stricken body lay like a sack of dead meat on the ground, which is exactly what it had become. Despite the still poor light, I snapped a moody picture of the pair just as this occurred. The less artistic amongst us would describe the image as blurred… But I’d would call it atmospheric. The detached buck once free disappeared into the forest in an instant and I was left at the side of the ride with a corpse at my feet.

The reason I didn’t submit my article for publication was that my pictures were unpublishable: magazine editors can be a dreary predictable lot — but this is the kind of pictures I’d prefer to take — one that reflects the reality of a situation, although it wouldn’t win any awards in ‘The Chocolate Box School of Photography’ category. I could of course have used a flash and achieved a very different image — but that’s a matter of personal choice: what I would describe as dramatic others might consider no more than peculiarity of choice.

 I suspected the dead buck had a broken neck, but I wasn’t sure; and I’ll admit my first thought wasn’t, ‘Does this meat belong to the queen’, but rather: “How can I get this animal into the back of my estate” parked as it was 50 metres back along the drive Then I suddenly remembered Woody Allen’s comic piece about shooting a moose in the woods after which he tied the body to his fender and drives home. The moose of course wakes up. Imagine then what might happen if a full sized fallow buck woke up inside rather than outside of your vehicle — probably not quite so funny when you’re driving along the M27. But it was never going to happen: I could just about lift the bucks head by his antlers – without a winch there was no chance that I could get the dead animal into my estate… So, there was a sudden change of plan.

A still warm fallow buck that has died under such unfortunate circumstances is very sad, but I was overcome more with the thought — why waste this? I hardly ever eat meat, but I hate waste and there’s enough here to feed a family through winter, without anybody even having to kill a turkey for Christmas: but the idea that I might move a dead buck by myself was entirely impractical.

So, I went off to visit the keeper who’s beat this was. He knew I was filming nearby, and this was his day off, but he was still pleased to see me… Until I told him my story and said that I really needed him to come and winch the dead buck into his vehicle. We could then take it back to his place, do an autopsy and try and work out exactly what had caused the buck to conk out under the stress he had suffered: fallow bucks don’t eat much, if they eat anything at all during the rut and their physical condition quite naturally deteriorates over a two or three week period, but seldom do they die. It was a long shot to find out and my friend was less than excited about the prospect of cutting up a dead animal on his day off, but he agreed and we took the buck back to one of his outbuildings to take a look at his insides.

The first thing we noticed was an external mark low on the buck’s thorax — this area was badly bruised, but the skin wasn’t pierced; most likely this injury was the result of a sharp prod from the point of an opponents antler. As a zoology student I had become interested in dissecting any dead animal that I happened to find, but through most of my adult life I’ve resisted the temptation to pick up every thing I come across that isn’t road kill, just to find out why it died — The ‘why’ of things has always interested me. This would be the largest animal I had worked on… And as I haven’t since stumbled across a recently deceased elephant… it still is — but there’s always time.

We cut into the thorax very carefully, avoiding nerves and blood vessels and discovered the lungs to be intact and undamaged; but there was a bloody mark on the inside wall of the chest that lined up with the external mark that we had already noted and both marks lined up fairly well with what appeared to be minor damage to the lower tip of the heart.

It is impossible to say for certain, but it seemed likely that the blow the buck had suffered, might have been survivable, had he not locked into a prolonged tussle with another male. The match had gone on too long and most likely the unfortunate creatures heart had given out, and in that sense it might be considered to be a rare battle to the death.

 Somewhere in the woods, the champion of this match might have been mating with does that this buck had paid the ultimate price for. There is perhaps a romantic notion that if he had not received a fatal injury, then he might have been the one carrying on his genetic line, but the temptation to say that he had died of a broken heart, even for the anthropomorphically minded, might prove to be a literal step too far. 

This is the stand amongst the pines from where the locked together bucks had started on their fatal journey. In 2020 on an early October morning another buck will now be in place waiting for all comers, because holding a traditional stand seems to pass through time from one generation to another. Back in October 2000, within a few days of the unfortunate event, this buck, with a substantial wrack of antlers had moved in, and his characteristic barrel chest suggests that he might have ended up as one of life’s winners.

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Stream Sides and Woodlands.

The banks of New Forest streams have changed significantly over the years.

Long before I started photographing the New Forest in the 1970s streamsides were steadily being opened up by livestock as they grazed and trampled these fragile areas into blandness, and it is a problem that continues to the present day. 

If managing the open Forest continues to prioritise traditional practices, then maybe it’s not such a bad idea to refer to photographs taken earlier in the 20th Century to gain a better understanding of the changes that have¬†occurred.¬†

Many New Forest streams are very beautiful, but their banks are often barren and grazed completely free of undergrowth - in the past this certainly wasn't the case.
There was a time within living memory when bramble and other dense growth ran along many waterways which prevented livestock from getting in – consequently stream side banks regenerated without interference and there was less soil erosion, providing better water quality.

Many stream banks were grazed out long before I began taking pictures in the early 1970s, but nevertheless, I have still managed to record many changes over the years, often without the realisation that I was doing so. When I started out, the New Forest was already heavily grazed and I had not expected things to get worse, but generally they have, with very little in the way of critical comment.

The picture below was taken in the Spring of 2016 at the the edge of a heathland that I know very well, this about 100 metres from the pond that I discussed in my previous article, although it is not necessary to have read it to comprehend the changes discussed here. Over grazing has certainly degraded the surrounding heathland, but things get far worse on approaching the tree line.

In the 1970s this was a much different habitat; a stream runs just beyond the trees to the right. There was once a broad band of bramble and clumps of undergrowth running along this side of the trees which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring - the present habitat is no longer suitable for 'any' snake species and now so degraded the environment is rapidly becoming a lawn.
In the 1970s this was a much different habitat than today, with heathland to the left and extensive patches of undergrowth running along the tree line and the stream side just beyond the trees to the right. 

 The broad band of vegetation that ran along this side of the trees was made up largely of grassy clumps of bog myrtle and patches of bramble, which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring. The present habitat is extremely degraded and most of the heather has now disappeared.  All of the low cover that bordered the stream side has been eaten out and is rapidly becoming a lawn that is not well suited to any species of snake.

This location has extensively changed even since the beginning of the new Millennium.

I took this picture on the other side of the stream in January of 2000 because it is unusual to see hoar frost lasting in the Forest when the sun has hit the branches of the trees, but it also srevees a record of the heathland at its most dormant and demonstrates that back then there was plenty of ground cover much of which is now been lost.
I took this picture on the opposite side of the stream in January of 2000 initially to show hoar frost on tree branches on a very cold morning. What the frost also shows, at a time of year when most plants are dormant, is how much good ground cover there was back then. Today, much of this has been grazed out, although it is not as badly affected as the opposite bank where I once regularly filmed adders.

At one time the surrounding heathland provided a variety of habitat types suitable for all three British species of snake. Within an area of about 500 hundred square metres there was mature heathland that ran into heather of various ages, before arriving at a pond and a stream side both of which had banks covered in undergrowth. This is important because there are but a handful of places in Britain now where you can find all three British snake species in close proximity and most of these locations are in the New Forest.

The grass snake, this one photographed here in the mid-1980s has also suffered habitat loss.
A grass snake photographed on the stream bank in the mid-1980s; another species that has suffered habitat loss.

On severaI occasions I was fortunate to film the adder dance in undergrowth along the¬†stream at a time when it was less heavily grazed and I was present when an adult male climbed up through a gorse bush to investigate a dartford warbler’s nest. During spring it was commonplace to see a dozen adders over a one hundred metre stretch here. On returning to the streamside during the spring of 2016 I searched for three mornings in ideal weather conditions but didn’t find a single snake.

This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.
This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.

Trust me, I’ve put in the hours. ¬†

You know how it is if you want to place a bet – say, on who will win the next general election… Past experience tells us that is unwise to rely on pundits or exit polls to make a winning decision. The best option is usually to look at the odds a bookie will give you – because if they keep getting it wrong they’re out of business and clearly there is no shortage of bookies. I won’t claim to be an expert on every plant and animal on the Forest, but when it comes to snakes I am a bit of an adder bookie; if you want to know where they are, then I’m the person to ask – I once spent months of the year finding and filming these beautiful reptiles and how many people can honestly say they’ve paid their mortgage by watching snakes. I won’t go as far as to claim there are no snakes left at my favourite filming location, but even a glance reveals no suitable ground cover for snakes in a place where they were once common, which makes the odds on finding one pretty slim.¬†

I am using the adder as an indicator that represents a general decline in the numbers and diversity of many other species; everything from rodents through to invertebrates have become more scarce here during my years of observation and once again I am speaking about animals that were once common. The tendency is to dwell on the disappearance of the more showy Рbutterflies and moths for example, for which the species in decline list is long; but I will chose one species only, and it is a plant rather than an animal. I have noticed that there are now far fewer sundews than there once were at this location. I filmed them many times during the 1980s and 90s, when they were common in boggy areas. This is a species that does well on wet heathlands when grazing is optimal and the decline suggests that grazing levels have become too extreme. 

Damselfly caught on sundew - a carnivorous plant - on boggy heathland sometime in the mid-1980s.
A damselfly caught on sundew – a carnivorous plant of boggy heathland. Photographed at the location described above sometime in the mid-1980s.

Only a short walk away there is another site that also provided an ideal adder habitat.

Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather - this was once an important adder habitats.  A car park has now gone in and the place is busy with dog walkers who are probably pleased not to see an adder, but nevertheless the habitat is totally sterile.
Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather providing a wonderful environment for adders. More recently a car park was put in; the area is now busy with dog walkers and most will be pleased there are no longer any snakes to be found. Whatever your view, it can’t be denied that the habitat has become totally sterile – this picture Spring 2016.

During the 1970s and 80s I regularly filmed adders on this bank, but none can be found here now. The bank, once protected by inclosure, has more recently returned to open Forest and in consequence is heavily grazed. I accept that Forest plantations are not inclosed indefinitely, but those that are fenced will grow deep heather along their borders because of the reduction of grazing pressure. This location is about half a mile from the degraded streamside I have already mentioned, and it is difficult to understand how so much habitat appropriate for snakes, along with many other plants and animals, has been allowed to degrade over such an expansive area. The situation is depressing and it would perhaps be kindest to suggest that this is no more than a case of careless management, because it is difficult to believe that the real priority has been to open up yet more Forest for grazing to the detriment of almost everything else.

Here is the bank as it was during the 1970s

Courting adders in spring, a female, with four males in attendance in the mid-1970s. (The females head is not visible). This picture was taken to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. On a spring day in 2016 -  the heather has gone, entirely replaced by short grass and bare sandy soil.
I frequently filmed adder courtship here during spring through the 1970s and 80s. In this case a female has four males in attendance, although the females head is not visible here. This image was taken just to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. The heather is now clearly gone, replaced entirely by short grass and bare sandy soil and this suffers extensive erosion.

Without the labels in the above picture, you might not notice the snakes at all Рtheir markings disguise them almost perfectly amongst the heather which was once the most dominant plant. Part of the problem is that older heather is especially brittle and when the inclosure fences came down the whole area was trampled by livestock. Herds of cattle will lie down in different places each night and this destroys the heather base and damages the habitat. 

A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour - they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to the female. Lying together increases their body temperatures. A week or so later the males performed the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.
A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour; they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to their potential mate, making little jerky head movements whilst scenting with their tongues as they move slowly over her body.  Lying together will increase their body temperatures in early spring, allowing the snakes to become more active. A week or so later I remember the males performing the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.

And it’s not just the snakes that have disappeared:

the band of heather that once ran along the tree line was, during the 1970s, teeming with invertebrates. I know this because I sweep netted the area regularly to identify the spiders and insects that were present. Heather cover is akin to a miniature forest; different animals live at different levels and many will rise to the top on warm sunny days where their presence will provide food for a variety of other creatures.

A bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.
A ‘true’ bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.

With the destruction of its heather the site has now become barren. Gorse will eventually regenerate, but if the pressure of livestock is not reduced the heather will not¬†be able to. This is a common pattern repeating itself across the open Forest…. There’s something not quite right here – the environment is rapidly becoming sterile and there should be cause for concern.

It isn’t just the act of munching that is a problem, it is also the peripheral activities undertaken to support it. Back in the 1960s as a teenager I witnessed wetlands being drained to increase the availability of grazing and that proved to be a disaster for many wetland species. Some bog areas have more recently been re-instated, so it isn’t all bad news, but burning and scrub clearance to promote a browser friendly habitat continues, which inevitably has an impact. When things all begins to look the same, wildlife diversity always suffers.

Most New Forest woodlands that are not within a fence line are also overgrazed.

The open woodlands, just like the open heathlands are also disappointing – many now display very little ground cover due to heavy grazing and this has had a knock on effect, reducing plant and animal numbers along with species diversity; in particular it has affected the many small animals that rely upon low spreading plants for food and shelter.

New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of  beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey, which has been grazed out by livestock and deer.
The New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey because it has been grazed out by livestock and deer.

The New Forest suffers greatly in terms of the fine details. Almost nothing vegetative survives here unless it remains out of the reach of grazers: much that can be eaten will be eaten – by ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and deer – the munching is relentless.

It is not uncommon to find old beeches barked - in this case by ponies.
Sadly great old beech trees are now more frequently barked Рin this case by ponies. This behaviour has become worryingly more prevalent in recent years as ponies run low on other food.

When you have seen old beech trees growing from childhood and they are suddenly damaged in this manner it is difficult not to become despondent. Some of the older pollarded trees on the Forest have been standing for more than three hundred years; it is likely that some trees were planted, but many others will have self-seeded.

Due to a hard grazing  regime, the survival of trees that seed and grow naturally is now almost zero. Dense undergrowth such as bramble which was commonplace in the past allowed native tree seedlings some protection from hungry mouths, but today there is very little undergrowth available to act as nurseries and very few young trees survive the onslaught.

In areas where there are alien conifers, for example along the  Ornamental Drive and in the Boldrewood area unpalatable conifer seedlings are growing well in a beech and oak woodland, but there is not much in the way of regenerating native trees.
In areas where there are mature alien conifers, for example: along the Ornamental Drive and at Boldrewood, conifer seedlings unpalatable to livestock are unfortunately growing very well. This is supposed to be a beech and oak woodland, but there are hardly any regenerating native deciduous trees.

A few non-native conifers soon self seed as is the case in this New Forest woodland.
Even when there are only a few mature non-native conifers, they soon self seed, as is the case in this deciduous New Forest woodland.

I also found time during my Spring visit of 2016 to go to a friend’s privately owned property situated next to the open Forest; it comprises fields, pasture and what interests me most, a fenced off woodland.

I well remember going out on the open Forest during the 1990s to film the fallow deer rutt and on early mornings it was common to find inclosure gates wedged open by pieces of wood to allow livestock in… Not content with destroying the fabric of the Forest, some locals felt that natural undergrowth protected by inclosure was simply a waste of grazing potential.

In the private woodland things couldn’t be more different. The soil type is the same as on the adjacent New Forest, but free from ponies and cattle the¬†understory¬†looks healthier; and any stock animals that do find their way in are soon put back out.¬†

An off the Forest bluebell wood that hasn't been eaten out or trampled by livestock.
My friend’s private woodland is beautiful. During the spring bluebells were coming into bloom; they are here because the¬†understorey¬†hasn’t been trampled, or eaten out by stock despite the presence of deer. This photo was taken during Spring 2016 one day after the previous three pictures were¬†made¬†on the open Forest.

 There were also quite a lot of other plants in bloom, this to the advantage of a variety of attendant invertebrates, in particular insects feeding on the variety of wild flowers.

Wood spurge growing nicely, and celendines in the foreground along with wood anemones behind starting to come into flower. This kind of ground cover is non-existent on the open areas of the New Forest.
Wood spurge was growing well, along with celendines (in the foreground) and wood anemones (behind), these just coming into flower Рthe kind of ground cover that  is non-existent on open areas of the New Forest.

It’s spring, so there are also primroses amongst the wood anemones.

Fantastic. In the private forest where there are deer but no livestock the ground cover is good.
In the private woodland despite the presence of deer the ground cover is impressive.

And just in case you aren’t convinced, the next day I was back in the New Forest and the contrast was quite shocking.

Back on the Forest a day after my visit to a neighbouring private wood. I got a chance to photograph a roe deer and he didn't see me, but there' not a lot else to get excited about.
¬†I got a chance to photograph a roe deer that didn’t see me, but there wasn’t much else to get excited about.

Many other treasures will become evident in the private forest as summer approaches, whilst back on the open Forest there will be little in the way of food plant such as bramble flowers that adult butterflies and other insects need to feed on, and very few plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on which their emergent caterpillars require as a food source. All of the action will be happening in the private wood; and any butterflies seen flying across the New Forest will, most likely, be passing through in search of somewhere more useful, and a good deal more interesting than the convenient dog empying fascility that the Forest has become.

In Victorian times there were descriptions of butterflies rising on New Forest rides in such numbers that it was difficult to see down them. Such radical change over the last 150 years is not unprescendeted elsewhere, and such changes are not entirely due to grazing regimes, but the extremes of change over periods a little too long to notice in a human lifetime is nevertheless disturbing.

A silver-washed fritillary photographed regularly during the summers of the 1970s 80s will be less often seen in the Forest of this new Millennium  because there is little in the way of food plants for them, which is sad.
I photgraphed silver-washed fritillaries regularly during the summers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but they are less often seen in the New Forest of the new Millennium because there is so little in the way of food plant for them to feed upon and that is depressing.

So what’s gone wrong?……..

The answer is complicated – the New Forest came under the auspices of the Forestry Commission in 1924, and commercial forestry did not always sit well with the needs of conservation; sadly, too many native deciduous trees were felled to make way for alien conifer plantations.

In consequence there was a decline in species across the Forest under the new tenure, but there were other factors to consider: rapid urban development was beginning along the New Forest borders; pesticides and herbicides were coming into general use and people began visiting the area in greater numbers. This was a period of considerable change and it would unfair to lay the blame entirely at the feet of one organisation.

Cattle in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest in the late 1980s.
Cattle under holly in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest Рautumn 1999, but it could easily be far earlier because changes in the Forest before the New Millennium were often very subtle and it is interesting to consider that the hunting grounds of Norman kings may well have looked similar to this (without such beefy cattle).

In 1969 the Forest became a National Nature Reserve and the Forestry Commission  began working in unison with the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England), a relationship that was strained at times but in retrospect, relatively successful.

In 1971 conservation measures were undertaked in a more organised ¬†manner as the Forest was declared ‘A Site of Special Scientific Interest’. Nevertheless, how intensely the New Forest should be grazed has for many years been a thorny issue . The¬†subject will always be controversial, because those with grazing rights believe the well being of the Forest relies almost entirely upon them – they are it seems doing us all a favour and views to the contrary are not often well received.

Commoners come together at Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture taken some time in the 1990s.
Commoners come together yearly opposite Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture was taken during the 1990s. Over the centuries the people of the New Forest have had many ups and downs – they are consequently a stoic people; but their interests should not be put above the general well being of the environment that they make their living from.

The British have a long history, and so it is understandable that sometimes they look backwards to earlier times to find solutions for current problems, when perhaps it might be wiser to be looking to the future; and the New Forest is no stranger to this approach.

For as long as I can remember management policy has never been entirely driven by science based evidence directly linked to the New Forest’s flora and fauna, because it has always been difficult to separate the uniqueness of this place from historical tradition – but the world is changing. Ancient Forests have all but disappeared now and it is essential to consider every aspect of their conservation before deciding how best to manage them.

The effects of grazing must be more carefully considered and take precedence over Commoner’s rights, because the Forest isn’t best served by maintaining age old traditions to the exclusion of everything else, and recent additional grazing subsidies will certainly have clouded the issue. Sadly, what is best for the environment is not necessarily decided by logical argument. Politically, it is easier to favour a traditional way of life over nature itself. When you live in a democracy nature doesn’t get to vote. ¬†

An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I'd be in favour.
An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course both dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I’d be in favour.

The intention has always been that tradition and nature should work together, but any argument that puts outmoded ‘rights’ before the realities of the current situation makes no sense and the present lack of an appropriate response is tiresome.

Looking at the British¬†countryside from the air, demonstrates that much of what remains outside of standard agricultural use is grazed by livestock – in particular sheep – thus prohibiting any possibility of a return to wilderness. Indeed, the British National Park mentality sees cropping by domestic herboivores as essential to maintaining ‘a traditional look’. It is as if we are too frightened to allow wilderness to return to Britain. Policy makers seem set against allowing the natural world to make a comeback, which is unfortunate because a little bit of ‘wild’ is good for us and even better for the environment.

A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s. I an animal very fond of these animals, but the many that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called 'Daphne' competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties rather than has happened so often in the past - on a Frenchman's dinner table.
A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s, an animal that I am fond of, but presently many of those that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called ‘Daphne’ competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties, rather than as has happened so often in the past – on a Frenchman’s dinner table.

In the New Forest it certainly isn’t too late to make a change for the better by reducing livestock. In the short term, private landowners will carry the burden of maintaining wildlife diversity on adjoining properties until ‘common sense’ prevails over ‘common rights’, although making changes remains an uphill battle.

Most environmentalists recognise the benefits of grazing as a conservation tool, but it has to operate at an appropriate level. Clearly this isn’t happening in the New Forest. Britain’s most recently designated National Park is increasingly, looking like a badly worn snooker table and it makes sense to be honest about the direness of the situation. At the very least the problem needs to be recognised and those in control politely asked to start making intelligent choices that are long overdue.¬†

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Heathlands.

Overgrazing the New Forest – a major contribution to species decline.

I wrote recently about ‚ÄėThe New Forest‚Äô and the obvious truth that it has a litter problem, but there is something more consequential going on that has been bothering me for years – the fabric of the Forest is being eaten away by herbivores more quickly than it can regenerate, and rather like the litter – there is no sign of a change for the better.

New Forest ponies in mixed open habitat. April 2016.
New Forest ponies in a mixed open habitat that is now heavily grazed. Picture: April 2016.

¬†The New Forest, for those who don’t already know, is a patchwork of habitats ranging from lawns, through open heathlands to forests and all are maintained by grazing. This has been achieved through the centuries by giving local people the ‘right’ to graze livestock on the open Forest and those entitled to exercise their ‘common rights’ are known as ‘commoners’.

Pony an foal crossing the heath. Summer 2000.
A pony and foal crossing the heath. Summer 2000.

The look that is achieved with this approach to management isn’t exactly wild, but neither does it feel agricultural – it’s somewhere in between and usually happens in areas where the soil is too poor to support more intensive forms of agriculture. If such places were left to their own ends they would eventually return to the wild.

The British have always had an uncomfortable relationship with wilderness, we pretend to like it, but in truth we can’t seem to leave the natural world alone. ¬†Every available space, especially common land has to be useful and any environment that hasn’t already been utilised is just begging to be grazed, rather than allowing them to return to overgrown wastelands – the terror of it! The New Forest is no exception; in ancient times it was often described as a furzey waste. The prevailing view is, that if we can’t make use of such places, then they are no use at all.¬†

The Furzey waste as it was in late summer of 2000
A view across the ‘furzey waste’ as it was in late summer 2000.

The idea that every bit of land has to be owned by somebody, or at the very least has to be useful in some way is ingrained in us – it’s almost a religion. We believe it because our predecessors believed it – a process that has gone on for generations, with nobody stopping to ask: would the natural world really be such a bad place if we just left it alone? Sadly, this is an errant thought because it’s never going to happen, particularly in the New Forest where local people see grazing livestock as their birthright.¬†So, what exactly does that leave us with?

Apparently something that’s not half bad; semi-natural habitats maintained by the munching of farm animals which benefits a variety of plant and animal species when it is done right. ¬†Ponies, cattle and in some places sheep – these in very low numbers, wander the open Forest all year round. And during autumn, pigs are turned out to feast on¬†fallen acorns that ponies would otherwise fill up on and poison themselves – they are a bit stupid like that. Pigs on the other hand seem able to convert almost anything into bacon.

A presumably happy pig on his way in a search of acorns and anything else he can snuffle up Autumn 1999. Fritham.
A presumably happy pig on his way in search of acorns or anything else he can snuffle up. Autumn 1999. Fritham.

The big question is: how much grazing does the Forest need to maintain healthy eco-systems and when does it become too much? Even to an untrained eye the New Forest is presently going through a prolonged phase of overgrazing – and with all of the other pressures that now exist – probably one of the worst that has occurred during its long history.

When I was filming for the BBC back in the 1980s the heathlands were healthier - that's not to say that there is no mature heather now, but back then it was certainly more extensive and less damaged and in places I deep enough to hide in order to film birds.
When I was filming wildilife for the BBC back in the 1980s the heathlands were healthier – that’s not to say that there’s no mature heather now, but back then it was more extensive and less damaged than it is today and sometimes deep enough to hide in.

In 2010 Natural England designated 16 million pounds to encourage the ancient right of commoning, essentially to promote grazing. In April 2016 under a partly European funded Verderers’ Grazing Scheme the pot was increased to 19 million pounds which allowed a per annum payout for each animal of around 85 pounds for cattle and just short of 70 pounds for each pony. A recent EU-funded ‘Basic Payment Scheme’ was introduced to help farmers in general, which might entitle commoners to a payment just short of 250 pounds for each of their cattle and 269 pounds for each pony, with no cap on the number of animals for which payments can be made. Essentially this has become a licence to print money for anybody living in the Forest exercising their grazing rights, which is an extrordinary deal considering that the land being utilised doesn’t belong to those who are putting stock out. So, everybody and his auntie must have joined in by now because it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know of any commoners who would be ostentatious enough to wallpaper their bedrooms with fifty pound notes, but many will have at least taken the opportunity to update their four wheel drives.

New Forest Pony in beautiful deep heather. Summer 2000.
A New Forest pony in beautiful deep heather back in summer 2000.

Promoting grazing with financial incentives seemed like a good idea around about the time the New Forest became a National Park, because this was a period when putting animals onto the open forest no longer appeared to be giving a good return and for many commoners didn’t seem to be worth the effort; stock numbers were beginning to fall, and with few exceptions wildlife was starting to benefit – because creating the right level of grazing is a difficult balance, but a drop in numbers was clearly proving to be good for the environment. Sadly, there was only a short respite. Throughout my lifetime the trend has been for stock numbers to increase, with pony numbers more than doubling in the last half century to around 5,000 and cattle numbers also increasing significantly in recent years.

Now that grazing is back with a vengeance the New Forest is looking increasingly like a badly worn pitch and putt – or should that be ¬†‘a badly worn crazy golf course’! – because the traditional furzey waste that has existed for centuries is now in rapid decline.

The intention was, “to attract new, younger commoners to continue the traditions that have contributed to the rich biodiversity of the forest”, perhaps this quote should have stopped at “to continue the traditions” because there are no grounds for suggesting that this is contributing to the rich biodivesity of the Forest. The good news continues with, “to preserve the rich beauty of these acres” which might be nearer the truth because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that takes on a whole new meaning when money is involved. What would really benefit the Forest is for control to be wrestled from the traditionalists and placed in the hands of those¬†who have a better¬†understanding of the ecology of existing habitats.

A New Forest up to it's belly in heather and with long grass in its mouth isn't so often seen as it was back in the summer of 2000 when this picture was taken.
A New Forest pony up to its belly in heather and with long grass in its¬†mouth, which isn’t so often seen today. This¬†picture was taken summer 2000, five years before¬†National Park status.

Most would agree that the open Forest requires grazing because this is a process that creates not only the look of the place but also very specific environments that are seldom seen elsewhere. Overgrazing on the other hand can cause considerable damage and that is the present situation.

There are a handful of wild plants that benefit from a heavy grazing regime, but there are many others that provide food and cover for butterflies and other animals, that are being grazed out of existence. A diversity of plants is necessary for the¬†maintenance of well balanced ecosystems, but this diversity is now being lost – and that’s not an extreme opinion, it’s a matter of fact.

Through summer there is now very little bramble flower to feed butterflies and other insects on the open Forest during summer- this picture taken in July 1979.
 The open Forest now has very little bramble flower for butterflies and other insects to feed upon during the summer. This picture taken in July 1979.

Over the years I’ve spent many thousands of hours observing the New Forest through a camera and have gained some understanding of the ecology, as well as the distribution and behaviour of many of the animals that live there. But it doesn’t matter what I think I know about the place, it is the changes recorded by photography – particularly during the last quarter of the 20th Century, that provides evidence beyond dispute, demonstrating a general degradation of the environment directly linked to overgrazing.

Many say that the New Forest hasn’t changed much over the years, but if you go away for fifteen years and then come back as I have done recently, ¬†you certainly notice a difference.

But let’s go back further…

The date of this picture can't be disputed - this is my young son in a New Forest pond while his mother blows raspberries at him which he seems to enjoy.
Taken on open heathland not far from Beaulieu the date of this picture cannot be disputed – it was early summer 1992. My young son is in a New Forest pond with his mother; she is blowing raspberries at him and he seems to be enjoying it.

This is a fun picture, but it is here for another reason… as a record of the surrounding habitat as it once was.

Behind all the splashing a band of gorse and heather can be clearly seen at one end of the pond.



Compare this to a picture taken in 2016 two months short of a twenty-four year period, this time looking in the opposite direction across the pond.

This the reverse view shows the gorse burnt, which is normal because crashing it or burning manages the plant and it grows back as it is doing here, but look closely at the ground, there no heather regeneration.
Spring 2016: The reverse view shows the gorse burnt out, which is not unusual, because along with brashing this is a recognised method of management – gorse soon puts out fresh growth as it is doing here, but look more closely at the ground… there is no regenerating heather. In fact there’s not much growing at all.

The reason the place looks so barren is entirely down to the impact of large numbers of herbivores – in this case ponies and cattle – and it isn’t just the munching of fresh growth that has caused the problem, it is also down to trampling, in particular of the heather.

I don’t think anybody can say exactly how many stock animals now graze the Forest, but the steady increase over the years is at odds with maintaining balanced ecosystems. Perhaps as many as 170 species have been lost from the New Forest since I started taking pictures in the late 1960s and there can be no doubt that some have disappeared as a direct result of heavy grazing.

Besides New Forest ponies there are a lot of cattle in the area and their trampling presence is noticeable, especially around the edge of ponds.
This picture of the pond was taken on the same day as the previous picture during Spring 2016. Besides New Forest ponies, a great many cattle are also grazing and their destructive presence is noticeable, especially around the edges of ponds where they turn the banks into mush.

This isn’t to say that ponies and cattle don’t play an important role in managing New Forest ecosystems, just that there are now far too many animals for effective conservation to operate. The question is, why has this been allowed to happen? Some will say that the payment of subsidies and a mis-guided management is to blame, but these are topics that are off limits for discussion.

There have always been deep seated attitudes in favour of grazing which has become the ‘Holy¬†Grail’ of New Forest management – not because it is best for the environment, but because it is ‘a way of life’ for the commoners who live there, and their ‘rights’ always take precedence; and this is something that is unlikely to change.

A common sense approach would be to manage optimally to benefit New Forest ecosystems, using grazing as one of the many tools available to¬†achieve this end rather than as an end in itself. The pretence is that this is already happening, but nothing could be further from the truth… but I’m old enough to realise that arguments based upon facts and logic don’t always win the day.

The same pond in the summer of 1978. A different time of year so it is unfair to make direct comparisons, but it is impossible not to notice that back then there was heather and other plant growth around the pond edge and it is not completely trampled.
This is the same pond as discussed above – the cattle from the previous picture would be in the foreground and once again we look back across the pond, but this picture was taken far earlier during the summer of 1978 and because it is a different time of year, it would be unfair to make direct comparisons, but it is impossible not to notice, that back then, there was a lot of heather and other plant growth around the edge of the pond and this has now completely disappeared. Back then, I wouldn’t have¬†considered the cover quite enough for optimal diversity, but today, this habitat is quite devastated.

Behind the pond in the above picture is an area of heathland that has, for as long as I can remember, been a good environment for the small and very beautiful silver-studded blue butterfly, an extremely localised species usually confined to heathlands that have been managed to maintain short heather. This can be achieved by controlled burning, a strategy that is not popular with all conservationists because it is so indiscriminate, but done at the correct time of year may be less damaging than an accidental fire during late summer when a burn can go deep into a dry peaty surface, resulting in a recovery time of many years. Whatever the case, the 2016 pictures demonstrate that this heathland has burned recently which should provide nourishment to an otherwise poor soil and aid in the regeneration of heather, but this clearly isn’t happening here.

This habitat is no longer maintained the way it was from the 1970s through to the new Millennium, a period when I filmed the silver-studded blue on many occasions. This heathland environment has changed substantially in recent years and not for the better; today it has almost no heather in places where it once grew profusely and is beginning to turn into a lawn.

Silver studded Blue butterflies prefer short heather and there have been years when for a few short weeks the heath here has been busy with them.
Silver-studded blue butterflies prefer short heather and in a good year for a few short weeks the heathland close by the pond is usually busy with their courtship.

There is however a difference between short cropped heather and no heather at all.
There is however a difference between short cropped heather and no heather at all and in heathland close by the pond that is the ys things are going.













Another argument for maintaining areas of short heather is that a  handful of plant species do very well under a closely cropped grazing regime Рusually small plants that are easily overwhelmed by other more robust species. However, it is common to find these  mini-botanical wonders in other places where the heather is older and denser; along the edges of well trodden pathways for example, which provides a trampled habitat approriate for their survival.

There are clearly areas where plants that are specialists of short heathland can survive without resorting to heavy grazing. Despite this I am not trying to make a case against putting livestock out altogether РI appreciate that they are an effective means of managing open Forest environments but essentially it is a matter of degree. The process should not be used simply as an excuse to graze stock without due consideration for the Forest as a whole. Sadly, the degredation I have outlined on a heathland I am familiar with can now be seen across much of the open Forest.  

Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica attended by ants on well grazed heath this.
Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica another small plant that does well on well grazed heath is attended here by ants.

Heath milkwort, Polygala serpyllifolia - just satiny and lso present today.
Heath milkwort, Polygala serpyllifolia is just so tiny and is also commonly found on grazed heathland.








The present heavy grazing regime inevitably leads to the formation of lawn areas which the New Forest has no shortage of. Fewer grazers would lead to more balanced habitats with greater variations in heather maturity and the regeneration of many other plant species that have been eaten out.                            

The situation is depressing, because back in the 1960s and 70s environmentalists were already moaning about grazing pressures, and it is difficult to fathom how it is possible for things to have become so much worse. It certainly isn’t true that the Forest can’t survive without ‘commoners’ exercising their grazing rights to the present level, although in some quarters it is controversial to even hint that there is a problem.

Donkeys grazing the open forest near Beaulieu.
Donkeys grazing the open forest near Beaulieu.

 An argument that the New Forest pony might become extinct if numbers were reduced is a ridiculous proposition. The possibility that the breed might disappear was far more likely during the Victorian era when efforts were made to improve the ponies by adding new blood Рa procedure that very nearly turned the New Forest pony into a completely different animal.

When I was filming on the Forest during the 1990s, there was a concern, that at auction, ponies were less likely to find their way to good homes in this country, and far more likely to end up on the dinner tables of the French; this was accompanied by concerns about how humane it was to transport the poor creatures alive across the English Channel for slaughter in Europe.

Don't get me wrong. I love the New Forest pony and believe that pony welfare is not best served by too many ponies on the Forest.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the New Forest pony, but I believe that the welfare of these animals is best served by not allowing too many out onto the Forest.

It should be remembered, that although some of us are sentimental about New Forest ponies and concerned for their welfare, there are others for whom they are just a business.

The reality is that there’s no longer a need to ride around on a pony as for a century or more most of us have been using alternative transport. ¬†Riding a pony can be a pleasant activity, but few now wish to live in a mythological version of the Middle Ages, although on the Forest there are still those who¬†cherish the idea, just as long as the present grazing subsidies remain intact.

New Forest heathland during the 1970s when heathlands were less heavily grazed. healthier
New Forest heathland during late summer 1988 when heathlands were less heavily grazed and consequently healthier – even back then many people thought there was room for improvement, but as always, how bad things really are is just a matter of where you measure them from.

Any ¬†rational person might consider that lowering the present level of livestock grazing on the New Forest is fundamental to the conservation of species diversity in what is without doubt a unique combination of habitats; but despite evidence to the contrary, there is enormous opposition to any reduction of grazers and the unhindered continuance of what has become an environmentally unsound ‘right’.

Now is the time for a more balanced view and this needs to come from an independent source, in particular from people whose judgement is not clouded by the lure of subsidies and who essentially can more clearly differentiate a ‘right’ from a ‘wrong.¬†

With thanks to Jen for being the inside of a New Forest pony and the New Forest Visitors Centre for loaning the outside.

Next: The Overgrazing of Streamsides and Woodlands.

The New Forest – Living in the Past With Lots of Litter.

For most of my life I lived close by the New Forest in Hampshire and have always considered it special, because although busy with visitors during summer, it has remained an important haven for wildlife as the surrounding countryside has steadily urbanised.

The New Forest looks natural, but in reality it is heavily managed, and with increasing pressures from both inside and out, some say that it is no longer the place that it once was – but people have been saying that for generations. A more considered analysis suggests, that it is just a question of how far back you want to go before you start moaning about what you think has changed.

In many ways this is a notoriously conservative area, stuck architecturally somewhere between the Middle Ages and the early 20th Century. The Forest certainly isn’t noted for its modern energy saving buildings and panoramic views across the heath, because few such places exist.

It is difficult to make the case for modernity, when there are cottages as beautiful as this one near Lyndhurst. I am guessing it was named Bee Hive Cottage because of the similarity of the thatch over the door to a traditional straw beehive.
New Forest cottages are often small utilitarian buildings and not many are as beautiful as this one close to the main town of Lyndhurst. Its name Beehive Cottage might have something to do with the thatch over the door which is not dissimilar to a traditional straw beehive.

There has been very little movement beyond Edwardian ¬†times, apart that is, from the traffic – almost everything else appears to have stalled around 1910, and ‘being there’ sometimes feels more like a museum or theme park experience than any modern reality… and this is unlikely to change now that the New Forest has become a National Park because Britain’s National Parks seem habitually locked into some imaginary idyl of the past. But then that’s essentially what us Brits do best – don’t you know? ¬†We look back fondly and say, ‘things were better back then’ – which of course is little more than delightful delusion.¬†

The creation of the New Forest landscape is down to management with particular emphasis on the grazing of livestock but its scenic beauty is not in question.
The creation of the New Forest landscape is very much down to management, with particular emphasis on the grazing of livestock, not that this detracts from its scenic beauty.

I once considered buying a house in the Forest, but was put off by the crumbling mud wall of an outbuilding that had to remain exactly as it was for historical reasons, along with a rusting tin roof that on no account could be replaced by something more appropriate; such exacting attention to detail can only have heighten my appreciation that the Forest is at least genuinely old.

A Brief History of The New Forest.

In the past the Forest was often referred to as ‘a furzey waste’ (meaning gorse covered) a term that goes back well before 1079 – the year the New Forest was designated a royal hunting ground, primarily to provide Norman kings with somewhere to pursue and kill deer which appears to have been their favoured leisure activity. Having fun was often unsophisticated and violent; and back then, the notion of ‘fun’ didn’t feature in many people’s lives. If for example you were a peasant trying to make a meagre living off of the Forest, and got caught killing a deer to feed your family, the penalty could be the loss of a hand, and in a worse case scenario, an unpleasant hanging.

Even kings didn’t have it all their own way. On 22nd of August 1100 King William (Rufus) – the son of William Conqueror – was hit in the chest by an arrow and killed outright. There is a stone to commemorate the event, although even the briefest of research indicates that this was no more than an 18th Century vanity project, and the original site remains to this day, uncertain.

Beauileu Road pony sales some time during the 1990s, but that doesn't really matter - not a lot has changed over the years apart from ladies hairstyles. It was just such a local named Purkis that found and hauled the kings body to Winchester. Purchase is a local name and until fairly recently there was a butchers shop run under that name in Brockenhurst.
Beauileu Road pony sales during the 1990s, the exact date doesn’t really matter because other than women’s hairstyles not a lot else has changed over the years. For generations locals have been coming here on a yearly basis to sell their ponies. Around 900 years ago it would have been just such a local who found and hauled William Rufus’s body to Winchester; we know his name was Purkis, a common surname in the Forest, and until fairly recently there was a Purkis ¬†butchers shop in Brockenhurst.

So, a peasant called Purkis slung the king’s body onto a cart and transported it to nearby Winchester ¬†– those were the days! The Normans reigned through a time when history was really happening in the area, much of it of their own making. To have a king shot more or less on your doorstep must have been quite something, but when all the excitement died down, the Forest subsided back into its usual state of Snoozeville and nothing much else happened over the centuries until the arrival of the M27. However, if you had been a biologist back at the time when the New Forest was founded (admittedly long before biologists existed) and could magically have lived for a thousand years, you’d certainly have noticed a great many changes in the formation of the landscape we see today.

'Forest' might seem an odd description for a place with so much open heathland, but there is a timeless quality here. This might have been taken during the Middle Ages, but sadly bak then there were no cameras to show exactly how it looked.
‘Forest’ might seem an odd description for a place with so much open heathland, and despite its man made origin there is a timeless quality to the landscape. This picture might have been taken during the Middle Ages, but back then of course, there were no cameras to show exactly how it might have looked.

When I was a child this agreeable place was crown-land managed by the Forestry Commission and that’s the way things would remain until¬†1st March 2005 when the Forest transitioned into the smallest National Park in the country, a status initially unpopular with many locals, but under different management livestock grazing became a priority (not that it was’t a major consideration before); this would be of great benefit to the commoners (the locals who live here) who for centuries have exercised their right to graze stock on the open forest.

When kings began to find more interesting things to do than take pot shots at deer, forestry quickly became the key activity and the woodlands would soon provide an important source of timber – in particular the provision of oak trees for the building of naval ships. Enclosure (usually referred to as Inclosure) of wooded areas to protect trees from grazers, started under the reign of Elizabeth I, a procedure that became more rigorous during the 1700s and was further refined as time passed. Over the years there have been periods when trees have been the priority and periods when they have not – and the same might also be said of the grazing of livestock and the management of deer.

Besides livestock, a great many deer graze within the Forest. Fallow are though to have been introduced by the Romans and they remain very successful.
Along with commoners animals, there are  a great many deer grazing upon the Forest. Fallow are though to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans and remain consequential modellers of the landscape.

In the early 1850s there was an attempt to get rid of the deer altogether with the passing of ¬†‘The Deer Removal Act’ – no doubt the Norman kings must have been turning in their graves; but clearly the policy didn’t achieve its longterm aim, although it did herald the modern period of silviculture that the Forestry Commission has carried through to the present day.

Clearly The Forest has seen a rollercoaster of changes, but from our modern viewpoint of rapid economic growth, this interesting mix of woodland, heaths and open lawns seems to have hardly changed at all, and from a layman’s point of view it is an ancient place that has been standing still for centuries.

Classic New Forest Heathland during summer as it was at the end of the 1990s as ponies come to a lone holly tree to seek shelter.
Ponies seek out a lone holly tree for shade on a hot sunmer’s day towards the end of the 20th Century.

There have always been many different opinions as to how the New Forest should be run and the resulting issues are wide ranging: is there too much grazing or too little (sadly, I’ve never witnessed too little!). Other considerations include commoners rights, shooting, horse riding, bike trails, heather management ¬†(burn it or cut it, and then how frequently), deer culling, tourism, nature conservation… the list goes on; and with so many interested parties, co-ordinating management is a nightmare, especially when the pressures on the Forest are ever increasing.

In total, the New Forest covers about 25 square miles, and considering all that is expected of it, this is is not a very extensive area. ¬†Its borders now end abruptly, which wasn’t the case when I was a child. Rapid urbanisation and population growth to the east and west have squeezed it, and this is one of the reasons the New Forest is now such an important recreational area. Add to this how accessible the Forest has become in the last fifty years. The M27 (developed during the 1970s) ripped through its heart as devastatingly as the arrow that ripped through Rufus, with its ‘straight as an arrow’ functionality in stark contrast to the narrow backroads that meander through other regions of the Forest, many of which haven’t changed for years.

During winter conditions can be harsh even for hardy New Forest ponies - but it is wet and cold rather than dry and cold that really gets to them.
During winter conditions can be harsh even for hardy New Forest ponies – but it is continuous wet weather rather than cold weather that really gets them down.


I returned for a visit the New Forest a few weeks ago; living as I do on the west coast of North America I haven’t spent much time in the area since leaving Britain in 2002, which has been rather useful, because it is easier to notice changes that I might otherwise have missed had I continued to wander the Forest on a daily basis.

Prior to leaving Britain I was frequently out there filming wildlife films for television, along with videos of the area. Sometimes I would just wander through for pleasure, but I rarely did so without a camera, which over the years has resulted in the taking of thousands of photographs, in particular during the last quarter of the 20th Century – this period became the subject of a book – but more importantly it is pictures that have provided a reliable method of making comparisons of change.

The Landcacpes of The New Forest. A look at the seasons of the Forest over the last twenty five years of the 20th Century.
The Landscapes of The New Forest looked back at the seasons of the Forest over the last twenty five years of the 20th Century (first edition only and now out of print).

¬†Since my childhood I’ve observed visitor numbers steadily rise on the open forest, and this is especially noticeable during holiday periods, but in general I’ve avoided photographing this aspect of life – even I am locked into my own interpretation of how the Forest should be – essentially devoid of people. People will occasionally get in the way of a decent photograph, but few wander very far from the car parks and their presence is easy to ignore, although of course there is a bigger picture to consider – one that involves increasing pressures upon the landscape.¬†

An Image used for one of  videos and a DVD's on the New Forest.
An image used for the cover of one of my videos/DVDs – ‘An English Forest’ which was available around the Millennium.

So, is it an increase in visitor numbers that has caused the Forest to become so blighted by litter? The very first scene I filmed for the B.B.C was a seemingly timeless view across a pond, but when I viewed the result, there was a Coke can bobbing in the lower left hand corner of the frame which meant I had to go back and film the scene again. This was embarrassing, because even an exceptional liar would find it difficult to deny the presence of something once it has been recorded on film or video; but the fact is, having litter in your frame of view was a far less common event back in the mid-1970s than it is today.

I never made this mistake again, and since then, havealways carefully checked the frame of view before making a picture. Increasing New Forest litter isn’t then a matter of opinion, or a false memory of better times; it is a judgement that can be empirically measured by the time it takes to clean up before going all happy snappy with the camera. Thirty years ago, clearing up litter before taking a photograph wasn’t a prime consideration… and now it is.

A certain percentage of the population will always be morons - and when visitor numbers goes up inevitably the litter count increases. In this case at least the discard bottle is green, so should this be a little less disturbed - I don't think so.
A certain percentage of the population will always be morons, and when visitor numbers go up inevitably the litter count increases. In this case at least the discarded bottle is green. ¬†Should this then be a little less disturbing?… ¬†I don’t think so.

A bottle in a natural area will often provide a tomb for small creatures that once in cannot escape.
A bottle in a natural area will often provide a tomb for small creatures – once they have found their way in, many cannot get out and the process of dying is often prolonged and unpleasant.

On the 29th April 2016 I parked my car in a New Forest car park ignoring the obvious litter in the immediate vicinity and walked along the roadside noting the spread of rubbish to as far as about five metres from the carriageway. There was clearly no shortage of the stuff, but it dropped off as I moved towards the heathland, which suggested that most of it was flung from moving cars, but even at a distance way past the range of an Olympic javelin thrower there was still plenty of rubbish to be found strewn across the open heath.

It is great to see such variety, which suggests that litter may not be attributable to particular groups - when it comes to a drinking there seems to be something out there for every taste. All of these were photographed within about 20 minutes of walking plus a whole lot else, which suggests that there is a problem.
It is just great to see such a variety of taste, which suggests that litter may not be attributable to particular sections of society – when it comes to drinking there is something here for everybody. All of these beverage containers were photographed during a 20 minute walk and there was a whole lot else thrown down as well, which indicates that there is a real problem.

One of the reasons that I wanted to leave Britain was litter, because it was almost impossible to ignore, as was the response of foul language and abuse that I usually received when I politely asked people to pick up what they had discarded ¬†– this most noticeably from children… which was depressing.

When my family and I moved to New Zealand in 2002, one of the best things about the change was that litter was less a feature of the N.Z. landscape than it was in Britain, and you might reasonably consider this to be down to a lower population… but it was more than that; in New Zealand there was a different attitude – people were actively searching out bins to put their rubbish in, and throwing rubbish onto the ground didn’t come naturally to that many people. The one time I did ask a child to pick up his discarded rubbish when walking along a street in the small town of Te Awamutu he did so at once, if rather sheepishly, and then apologised – which really stuck in my mind because this had never happened before. Living on the opposite side of the world away from what I considered a cultured society, I suddenly discover that what I might initially have considered to be the back end of nowhere was altogether more civilized than what I had become used to in Britain, and this was a real culture shock.

Back on the Forest I'm still finding litter. Fast food packaging forms a major part go it, and judging by how washed out these containers are some have been out on the open heath for some time.
Back on the Forest I’m still finding litter and fast food packaging forms a major part of it. Judging by how washed out these containers are it is clear they have been out on the open heath for some time.

I’ve lived in Canada now for about six years, and it would be crazy to suggest that Canadians don’t litter, but they don’t do it to anything like the degree that some people do in the U.K.. The writer and humorist David Sedaris has written and talked about littering in Britain and believes heavy fines would make a difference. By his own admission Mr Sedaris is disturbed by this oddly British problem, and some might say he is a little obsessive judging by the amount of time he is prepared to spend picking it up. He is a native of the U.S.A. but has lived elsewhere and travelled extensively – he clearly knows what he is talking about and Britain is lucky to have him.

When I lived in the U.K. I used to walk to the letterbox at the end of the road and I’d pick up all the litter on one side of the road going down and pick up the rest on the opposite side coming back. My neighbours thought I was barking mad, but to me it just seemed the responsible thing to do. If I was now living close to the Forest I’d take a bin liner out with me once a week and pick up as much as I could during my walk.

There was witty litter on the open Forest as well. The only bramble I saw where once it was extensive - maybe the aroma puts the grazers off.
There was witty litter on the open Forest as well. The freshener was attached to the only bramble I saw where once it was extensive Рmaybe the aroma puts grazing livestock off.

Fining people isn’t going to solve the problem in out of the way places where they are unlikely to be watched . Littering is a mind set in Britain and many won’t readily change their behaviour with good grace, and so sadly, it falls to the rest of us to clean up if local authorities are not going to do it, because littering will only get worse if we decline to rise to the challenge.

When I was regularly using the New Forest as a subject for my photographs I had no trouble clearing up litter when I saw it – and I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that if you walk your dog on the Forest then you should consider doing the same. Anybody who walks on the open forest regularly should be ¬†prepared to occasionally take a bag out and pick stuff up.

I have no problem with dog owners on the Forest, I owned dogs myself and they often accompanied me... when I wasn't filming deer!
I have no problem with dog owners on the Forest, I had dogs myself and they often accompanied me on photgraphic outings. If people are happy to pick up their dogs faeces, picking up a bit of ¬†litter really shouldn’t be too much of an ask.

¬†There are people who expect to find a bin wherever they go – even in the natural world – and when they don’t, they find it acceptable to discard their rubbish wherever they are. I have no idea what must be going through their pea sized brains… but I suspect very little.

The discarding of rubbish when the bins run out isn’t a problem restricted entirely to Britain.¬†I am presently in Mexico photographing parrots in what I consider a remote place, but of course it isn’t remote to the locals who live here. Today I’ve walked along a gravel road and it is this which allows easy access by vehicle to a swimming hole on a river that runs parallel to it and it is close to there that I am taking pictures.

I am having trouble photographing orange fronted parakeets in the gloom of the canopy above me.
Looking up into the gloom of the canopy above, I am attempting to photograph orange fronted parakeets preening.

The locals say they live in paradise, but at ground level almost directly beneath were the parrots are preening it is a different story.
But look down and things are very different. This is an area that even local people call paradise. Less that twenty metres to my left there is a pile of rubbish steadily building day by day. There is no bin here because other than a parking area this is essentially a natural setting.

Rather than take their litter home, people are steadily adding to the pile – its very presence seems to have validated this as a place to dump. The rubbish might at some stage be cleared by a local authority, but in the meantime it will take only one windy day to redistribute this junk into the river and surrounding forest and that is depressing, because in every other respects this is paradise.

Look carefully on the other side of the rocks the redistribution of litter is already happening along the river.
Just over the rocks is the river and if you look carefully you will notice the redistribution of junk has already started in particular light polystyrene.

In another location walking out of the beautiful coastal town of Yelapa, litter dutifully goes into bags along the track, but litter reappears by the riverside once into the countryside where the collection bags run out.
In an entirely different location walking out of the beautiful coastal village of Yelapa, litter dutifully goes into bags along the trackway and the area remains very clean, but further on, once out into the coutryside, the collection bags run out, and litter soon begins to appear along the riverbank.

I hate to be critical of Mexico because it is such a wonderful place, but it does have a litter problem, although of course I’m selecting by recent experience. The truth is, that with just a few exceptions, littering is a worldwide problem.

It seems that no matter where we are, when the bins run out, so does our restraint. To see piles of rubbish elsewhere in the world certainly puts the New Forest problem into perspective, but the pertinent question remains, in a place where there is no shortage of wealth and education… should we be seeing litter there at all?