MORE than 15-million recreational visits are being made to the New Forest National Park a year, according to research published ahead of plans for tighter control of activity in the area.
The estimated number of visitor days for 2017 alarmed conservationists – but also raised concern from the tourist trade that they might be used to constrain businesses that employ thousands of local people.
The numbers released by the national park authority show a 12% increase from the previous estimate in 2004 of more than 13.5-million visitor days.
According to the report, the total could hit 17.6-million by 2037.
New Forest public bodies, fronted by the NPA and including the Forestry Commission, local councils and the verderers, are working on a new recreation management strategy in the first major shake-up since the 1970s of how visitors are controlled.
It could include the closure of car parks, public toilets and tracks in a bid to divert both tourists and residents away from the most sensitive areas.
Separately, the NPA and New Forest District Council are currently also proposing planning policies to deliver more than 11,000 new homes in their combined areas by 2036.
NPA chair Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre said: “I think people will be surprised to read just how much pressure the New Forest is under and the huge number of visits to these protected habitats.
“There are important health and economic benefits to this recreational activity. The New Forest is also home to some of the UK’s and Europe’s rarest wildlife species and habitats.
“This is why all the organisations responsible for caring for this precious area are working together to manage it for both people and wildlife. This new study will help inform future decisions.”
Visits have been increasing by about 1% a year, mostly based on population increases, said the report. There are now 16-million people within a 90-minute drive of the New Forest.
The scale of activity, combined with more than half the park designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, means the New Forest now has more visitor days per square mile of protected conservation land than any other English national park, said the NPA.
Gale Gould, vice-chair of conservation group Friends of the New Forest (formerly the New Forest Association), reacted with “alarm and concern”. She predicted a “huge impact” on the local environment and heritage, such as commoning.
She said: “It will be interesting to see if the recreation management plan addresses this in meaningful terms. That’s what needs to happen.
“We want people to come to the New Forest because there’s no other landscape like it – not because there’s no other place to go because people do not have space in their own communities to kick a ball, run about and walk the dog.”
More than three-quarters (77%) of visitor days were by regulars who mostly live in or close to the national park and return home on the same day. About 12% were by holidaymakers staying in the national park.
The research by RJS Associates was commissioned for the new recreation management strategy, and based on desktop research.
More detailed data is being gathered through thousands of interviews with New Forest visitors, the NPA said.
Concern was voiced by Anthony Climpson, chief executive of tourism group Go New Forest, that the figures might be used to justify restrictive policies that could be damaging to traders.
He said: “What is a concern for our industry when surveys such as this are presented, is that the headline figures might be used to further constrain businesses that still have plenty of spare capacity most of the year.
“It will be very interesting to see the detailed results of the forthcoming ‘user survey’ when hopefully we can all get a far better and up-to-date picture about the patterns and scale of use placed on the Forest by local people.”
Mr Climpson was unsurprised at the surge in visitor numbers, because of wider social trends of longer life expectancy and more leisure time.
The most popular activity was dog walking, which contributed 4.2-million visitor days, followed by short walks with 3.9-million. Cycling was 857,000, eatery visits 168,000, and horse riding 94,000.
Tony Hockley, chair of the Commoners’ Defence Association, warned the New Forest’s popularity, including homes becoming unaffordable, posed a “very real risk that the goose that lays the golden egg will be killed”.
He said: “To be effective, policy must focus on the most damaging activities – those that threaten the sustainability of the New Forest.
“It must aim to turn around the growth of intolerance to the grazing and land management practices upon which the special qualities of the landscape depend.
“Commoning is a vocational commitment subsidised by other income, and these very real pressures are putting the real New Forest at very real risk. If it is lost, everyone loses.”
The RJS Associates figures were produced by applying data, including population and tourism trends, to the 13.5-million figure estimated by Tourism South East in 2004 before the New Forest gained national park status.
Bruce Rothnie, the Forestry Commission’s Deputy Survey of the New Forest, said: “The report confirms the increase we have seen on the Crown land and why managing public access while protecting the Forest’s very special qualities is an increasing challenge.”
To read the full report, go to www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/documents/conservation/new-forest-national-park-recreation-leisure-visits/