THE big rise in the number of people visiting the New Forest has prompted the authorities to close several car parks to protect rare ground-nesting birds.
The national park is an important stronghold for species such as the nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler. The area also contains 75% of the UK’s lowland bog habitat – some of the most important and rare wetlands in Europe that are home to wading birds such as curlew, snipe and lapwing.
To help protect them, Forestry England and the NPA are trying to create quieter areas around very sensitive nesting locations.
This has resulted in the closure for the summer of the car parks at Clayhill, Crockford, Crockford Clump, Hincheslea, Hincheslea Moor, Shatterford, Beaulieu Heath and Yew Tree Heath.
Other particularly sensitive locations have been identified near, Beaulieu Heath, and Ocknell and Whitten Pond
Signs have also been put at key locations around the Forest, highlighting the presence of the birds and the best ways to minimise disturbance.
Leanne Sargeant, senior ecologist at Forestry England, said: “Their nests are so well camouflaged that, to the untrained eye, it is very hard to see them before you are so close that damage has already been done.
“By limiting a few activities and taking care to stick to the main tracks until the end of July, we can all play a part in ensuring these birds can continue to thrive here in the Forest and stop their disappearance from our natural world.”
She added: “All these birds need a quiet area to stake out their territory, nest and then feed their young. As we began the early stages of lockdown, they were busy finding somewhere safe to lay their eggs and we saw birds in places that were normally full of people and dogs.”
Describing the first month as “hauntingly quiet” with few people able to access the Forest, she said the number of visitors had now risen to bank holiday levels.
“This has risked dramatic effects on the Forest’s rare birds as they had nested closer to some of the car parks and tracks in our absence,” she continued.
“Usually they sit tight so long as people and dogs stay on the wide, well-used gravel tracks. But they are easily frightened away if we or our dogs stray into the heather or along the smaller pony tracks.
“This disturbance can mean they give up trying to nest at all – and predators such as crows or foxes will quickly investigate if parent birds are forced to leave eggs or chicks.”
An orange sign means that ground-nesting birds are in the area so walkers and dogs should stay on the main tracks. A red “stop” sign indicates visitors are approaching a very sensitive nesting area and need to avoid it.
Nigel Matthews, the NPA’s head of recreation management and learning, said: “Everyone can play a part in ensuring these birds can continue to thrive in this special place.
“We ask that until the end of July everyone keeps to the main paths when out walking, cycling or horse riding. Please keep dogs on the main tracks too, by using a lead if necessary.”
The campaign is being supported by New Forest Dog Owners Group, whose chair, Heather Gould, said: “We encourage everyone to take special care when on the Forest with their dogs during this time.
“Please follow the advice to keep yourselves and your dog on the main tracks and if necessary, use a lead.”