Spring in the New Forest

A Dartford warbler

The New Forest is a great place for wildlife during spring. The little Dartford warbler flits between clumps of yellow gorse, reptiles bask in fresh sunlight and wildflowers carpet the open heathland.

March to July is the breeding season for ground-nesting birds such as the Dartford warbler, nightjar and woodlark. During this period they'll be establishing territories, building nests and bringing up young. Many of these species form vital elements of the New Forest’s Special Protection Area (SPA) designation.

Ground-nesting birds choose to nest on, or near, to the ground on the open heathland of the New Forest. Using long grasses, bracken, heather or gorse to make their nests, they rely on camouflage to keep safe from predators. These birds mostly feed on insects that naturally occur either on the open heathland floor and surrounding plant-life.

Heathland flora in the New Forest
Heathland flora in the New Forest, Hampshire
Heathland flora in the New Forest

We manage our New Forest commons to ensure that there is sufficient open heathland habitats to support these species. They offer the perfect environment, offering a mosaic of open grassland, gorse, heather and bracken, with sporadic tree cover for perching posts.

Key species that thrive here

Dartford warbler

The New Forest is a UK stronghold for this reddish-brown/grey bird. It has a disctinctive shrill, scratchy call and a characteristic long grey tail. The Dartford warbler usually nests in thick gorse bushes close to ground level, feeding on small invertebrates.

Nightjar

This mottled brown, nocturnal bird flies over from Africa in late April to breed in the UK, creating its nests directly on the ground amongst the heathers. After sunset nightjars take to the wing to hunt moths and establish territories.

Male nightjars produce a distinctive ‘churring’ call when perched on a tree branch, creating an air of mystery that in the past earned itself the name ‘goat sucker’ – it was believed they drank milk from female goats at night.

A very well camouflaged nesting nightjar
Hard to see a resting nightjar, because it is so well camouflaged
A very well camouflaged nesting nightjar

Woodlark

A light-brown, speckled spcies that nests on the ground in short rough grass of heather. This bird is identifiable mainly by its distinctive call, a loud “lu-lu-lu” of descending notes, hence its latin name Lullula arborea.

Help us look after these nesting birds

While nesting on the ground, these birds are particularly at risk of being disturbed by either naturally passing predators, livestock, or Forest visitors such as dog walkers, horse riders and cyclists.

During the spring and summer months, please stick to gravel tracks and well-used paths while you’re out in the New Forest. Keep dogs on leads, especially in areas of thick vegetation. We advise taking routes through woodlands, where these birds are less likely to nest.

Disturbance of a nesting bird can cause it to abandon its nest, reducing the breeding success of these already rare species. With your help we can make sure they're thriving in this special environment.