Tree felling in the New Forest Northern Commons

Horses grazing on the heathland in the New Forest

The cutting of trees by the team at this time of the year can appear very destructive, but these extremely important management practices are undertaken to protect the rare heathland for years to come.

The New Forest has always been a managed landscape, shaped by man and by grazing of animals for hundreds of years. Lowland heathland is one of the most iconic landscapes of the New Forest, with large areas covered in purple heather in late summer and autumn.

Today, lowland heath is an international rarity. Once covering vast stretches of England, 85% has been lost, and the New Forest heaths make up three-quarters of all that remains in Europe. Due to its rarity, and that of the wildlife it supports, the land we manage is part of a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). This means that we have a statutory duty to protect and manage the heathland, keeping it free from invasive species such as pine, rhododendron, Turkey oak and birch.

Lowland heath provides a home to some of the UK’s most endangered wildlife that is unlikely to survive in any other landscape; creatures like the smooth snake, tiger beetle and Dartford warbler. It supports no less than 5,000 species of invertebrates, including over half the UK’s dragonfly species such as the downy emerald and golden-ringed dragonflies, and all six UK species of reptile. 

Dartford warbler
A Dartford warbler perches on a gorse bush
Dartford warbler

By removing some of the invasive tree species, we can protect this internationally threatened landscape and its wildlife. If we allow trees to colonise it, then it will be lost, along with the internationally rare species it supports. 

Lowland heath and carbon

The thin lowland soils found in the New Forest are peat-producing and act like carbon ‘pools’, locking away large quantities of carbon. Tree species left to grow on these sites would eventually degrade and dry out the soil, releasing the carbon into the atmosphere. 

So, where lowland peat soils exist, we should do whatever is necessary to keep them intact and healthy, to prevent carbon release. The larger and less fragmented this habitat is, the more effective and resilient it will be as a carbon store - the New Forest is the most complete interconnected landscape of lowland heathland habitats in western Europe.