THE recent reports of fires in the Forest over the Easter weekend raise some interesting questions about our vulnerability to fire once climate change really starts to bite.
My own impression is that in recent years the problem of summer fires in the Forest has been extremely well controlled, despite some severe droughts and hugely increased numbers of visitors whose barbecues and cigarette ends are often blamed for outbreaks.
We are now told that eight fires were dealt with over Easter, “including one that damaged 1,500 square metres of valuable habitat”. Either this is a misprint, or the Forestry Commission is greatly exaggerating its case.
One thousand five hundred square metres is a little under half an acre, or the equivalent of three or four small suburban house plots, so that hardly seems to fall into the category of “devastating wild fires” alleged to have occurred.
Contrast this with the really large fires which were not uncommon in the Forest 50 years ago.
I clearly remember the great fire of the summer of 1959 which burnt from Furzley at Bramshaw nearly to the A36 at West Wellow. Then the fire brigade claimed that 1,500 acres had been destroyed, but I think the actual area was nearer to 500 acres. Even at this lesser total, it makes the current fires seem little more than pin pricks.
In the years that followed the Bramshaw fire there were huge blazes at Handycross Plain and at Hale Purlieu. I can also recall many evenings spent helping to beat out fires in the holiday seasons of the 1970s.
Recent success in fire control is no guarantee for the future, but the New Forest does have some immense advantages over many other heathland areas. The annual programme of controlled burning to secure grazing improvements greatly reduces the risks of accidental fires becoming unmanageable.
Next, the structure of many of the plantations has changed in recent decades so that there are much smaller areas of immature conifer and more relatively incombustible broadleaved woods.
Finally (and of no advantage to the Forest except in the control of fire), the whole area is cut into innumerable small pieces by tarmac roads with margins cleared of vegetation to reduce livestock accidents. That puts a limit to the maximum area at risk from any one fire.
In the Forest there are very few places where one is more than a mile from a public road, while in more remote places like Dartmoor roads may be nine miles or more apart.
For all these New Forest advantages, I fear that in future the number of severe fires can only increase, particularly in summers like that of 2018 if combined with strong winds.
While the controlled burning of early spring is over damp soil, that in summer can destroy gorse roots and even consume large areas of underlying peat as happened in 1976 at many sites across the Forest. The future does not look encouraging.
A phone mast problem
Apart from a few hideous exceptions like the Malwood and Vereley phone masts, the Forest has remained blessedly free from the modern landscape blight of mobile phone towers. This is largely due to the verderers’ refusal to allow such development on land over which they have control and that is principally the so-called ‘Crown land’.
Now a row has arisen over a case where the verderers’ powers may be more limited and where the future of a key piece of landscape rests in the hands of the common owner – Hampshire County Council.
Adjoining Hyde Common there has been a fairly unobtrusive phone mast on private land for many years. I understand that the mast’s operators have sought to upgrade and perhaps enlarge the structure. The present landowner, it seems, has objected and told the operating company to find an alternative site.
The company concerned has taken what it presumably considers the cheap and easy option of trying to impose its development on the adjoining common land, exploiting a loophole in the 2006 Commons Act which would otherwise have given the site protection. The new proposed site is on some of the highest land in the Forest, adjoining Fir Pound.
That is a tree clump originally planted in the early 19th century, apparently because it was clearly visible from West Park near Damerham which was the property of the then owners of Hyde Common.
The site was then evidently regarded as a key location and it remains to be seen how the present owners of the common will value it. A tall mast here would be extremely damaging to the views across a wide area of the Forest to the east.
How far, if at all, the planning authority (national park) can obstruct such vandalism remains to be seen. Its will to do so is also in question because the service provided by mobile phones is extremely popular and there are many who would willingly sacrifice the New Forest to preserve their favourite toy. We are therefore in the hands of the county council.
The erection of this one mast is a serious matter for the Forest, but cannot by itself be regarded as devastating. It is the precedent which will be set if the county council gives way, leading to similar impositions on the Forest elsewhere, which will be very damaging indeed.
Perhaps the conservation designation of the land (Hyde Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest) will help, but Natural England is not known for paying much regard to landscape considerations.
Letting Crown freehold properties
At the May Verderers’ Court the chairman of the New Forest Commoners’ Defence Association (CDA), Tony Hockley, made a strongly-worded complaint against Forestry England for its actions and alleged failures in the letting arrangements for agricultural and residential property which it manages in the New Forest.
Those of us who see a little of this from the inside find it difficult enough to understand all the complexities, so I fear that some of what Dr Hockley had to say may have fallen on stony ground among people not so closely involved.
Most of the New Forest is made up of common land, together with certain plantations which are temporarily freed from the exercise of common rights. All of this is managed by Forestry England, but it also controls a huge estate known as the ‘Crown freehold’. It is an area reputed to be over 2,000 acres (800 ha), most of which, like Bolderwood Grounds and Pondhead Inclosure, is woodland.
However, there is also a large amount of agricultural land, much of which has cottages attached to it. After the Second World War, the Forestry Commission (as it then was) sold off many properties to private owners. Examples are Broomy Lodge and Ladycross, but the sales proved very unpopular with the public and the government eventually stopped them. Letting of land and houses then became more usual.
In the early 1990s a set of recommendations known as the Illingworth Report advised that surplus properties not required for Forestry Commission staff should, where possible, be let to practising commoners at affordable rents. This was in the days before great subsidies for farming reached their present levels.
At that time there were fears that farming in the Forest could eventually decline. The promise or threat of national park status with vastly increased property prices and overwhelming visitor pressure was already on the horizon.
Initially the Illingworth recommendations (which were broadly accepted by the government) appeared to work well enough, but in recent years the Forestry Commission seems to have been trying to move to more economic levels of rent for its properties.
This has caused friction arising out of rent reviews, where the tenants claim that the proposed increases are unreasonable in the light of government policy to support commoners. Worse still, from the CDA’s point of view, has been the attempt to secure full market rents on re-letting.
This, of course, is not strictly a matter in which the Verderers’ Court is involved, but Illingworth did suggest that the verderers should have a non-statutory role in tenant selection, again on the principle that small farmers using the Forest should be encouraged.
This lies at the heart of Dr Hockley’s complaint. He asked the verderers to avoid getting involved in further tenant selection so long as Forestry England pursues its apparent policy of seeking the best rents possible, saying that this is an attempt to entrap the court in a “disgraceful strategy of privatisation by stealth”.
Of course there are two sides to every question and the verderers have yet to hear from the Deputy Surveyor Bruce Rothnie and his staff. Of the former, Dr Hockley has said his association has lost confidence that in this respect the Deputy Surveyor will put the Forest first.
The CDA has written to the secretary of state asking for an end to this “disgraceful episode”. In response Mr Rothnie has told the court that he cannot comment until after the minister has considered these matters. I take it that this is standard procedure in a case such as this.
So how exactly should the scarce and potentially very valuable cottages and land be let?
Part of the problem seems to be that there is now more than one type of commoner, in contrast to the circumstances prevailing 30 years ago. Then all were struggling small farmers quite unable to afford market rents, let alone able to purchase land.
Today this still applies to a large number of them, but there are others who are becoming wealthy on the back of present-day subsidies with their incomes from this source alone amounting to tens of thousands of pounds a year.
They will be well able to compete in the market, while some of their less fortunate colleagues, who do not even qualify for the EU largesse, struggle to afford even a concessionary rent for a cottage and a couple of acres.
Instinctively one would like to see support for the second group. The small man with a handful of cows or ponies is the traditional backbone of the Forest and, to my mind, far more worthy of support than the cattle barons.
The government is going to have to lay down clear rules as to how it wants its New Forest properties managed and whether economics or support for the community is to be paramount.