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The history of the New Forest

A group of horses drinking at Dockens Water, New Forest, Hampshire, with the sun behind them
Horses drinking at Dockens Water, New Forest, Hampshire | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The New Forest has a long history that dates back almost a thousand years. Humans have been living within, changing and sustaining the forest since the Bronze Age, and continue to do so.

The New Forest's early history

In 1079 William the Conqueror took ownership of the area as his own hunting forest. He enforced a forest law, preventing local communities from using the forest to graze their livestock, hunt and forage for food or even build fences, as these activities would interfere with William’s hunting pursuits.

After the death of William, and his successor Rufus, the rights of the common people were eventually restored in the 1217 Charter of the Forest. A special Verderers' Court was set up to enforce the laws of this Charter and protect these rights.

1217 Charter of the Forest

Commoners of the New Forest are people who occupy land or property to which attaches one or more rights over the forest, first laid out in the Charter of the Forest (1217).

Common rights

  • Common of pasture – the right to turn out ‘commonable’ livestock: ponies, cattle, mules and donkeys.
  • Common of mast – the right to turn out pigs during the 60-day autumn pannage season to forage for acorns and beech mast, which are poisonous to ponies and cattle.
  • Estovers – the free supply of wood for fuel.
  • Common of pasture of sheep – still practised occasionally on the Northern Commons.
  • Common of marl – the right to dig lime-rich clay from marl pits to fertilise land or to use for building.
  • Common of turbary – the right to cut peat turves for fuel.

Many of these common rights survive today in the New Forest and are still protected by law. They are attached to land or property (rather than an individual) and people who are entitled to them are called ‘commoners’.

Protecting the commoners’ livelihoods, common rights and the forest landscape are the 'verderers', who have a hugely important role in the life of the New Forest to this day. They employ a team of ‘agisters’ who assist with the management of commoners’ animals.

Cattle standing amid trees in the summer, at Foxbury, New Forest Northern Commons, Hampshire
Cattle standing amid trees in the summer, at Foxbury, New Forest Northern Commons, Hampshire | © National Trust Images/John Millar

20th-century changes

In 1923 the Forestry Commission was put in charge of the forest’s 26,000 hectares of crown land, while the National Trust owns parcels of common land, totalling 1,600 hectares, of what is known as ‘The Northern Commons’.

These hold special meaning to the local communities; being on the edge of the forest, they were and continue to be highly populated and enjoyed by a diverse range of user groups.

The Northern Commons also hold special rights over the crown lands, for example, they are one of the only places you will see sheep grazing.

The National Trust has looked after New Forest Northern Commons since 1928. Here is a timeline of the key moments.

The New Forest and the National Trust

3 March 1928

Bramshaw Commons

464.23 acres of land within Bramshaw Commons acquired from Mrs Briscoe Eyre. This included the twin bowl barrow on Furzley Common. The land was bequeathed with a gift of timber.  

Family on a walk at Furzley Common, New Forest Northern Commons, Hampshire, with a far-reaching view over trees to the horizon

Discover more at New Forest Northern Commons

Find out how to get to the New Forest Northern Commons, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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