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Backlash against Chris Packham's call to cut New Forest animals

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TV naturalist Chris Packham has angered commoners by claiming New Forest animals should be reduced
TV naturalist Chris Packham has angered commoners by claiming New Forest animals should be reduced

FORESTERS have hit back furiously at controversial claims by TV naturalist Chris Packham that overgrazing by commoners’ animals is destroying the New Forest.

The criticism of local practices by high-profile presenter Mr Packham, who lives in Colbury, was attacked as an “unbalanced travesty” by the Commoners Defence Association (CDA).

On the BBC1 Inside Out programme on Monday evening Mr Packham (56) claimed that the number of animals, such as ponies, cattle and donkeys, put out to graze on the Forest should be reduced to around 5,000 in line with the 1950s.

He said subsidies paid to commoners via the government-administered Basic Payment Scheme, and topped up for some by the local Verderers Payment Scheme, were partially to blame for encouraging ever-increasing numbers of animals.

Incidences of ponies and cattle stripping bark from trees was presented as evidence that the Forest is being overgrazed, forcing animals to find alternative sources of food.

It had left the Forest at “breaking point” and in danger of being left “bereft of life” as habitats depended on by wildlife were grazed by approaching 14,000 commoners’ animals.

The programme interviewed a figure from the Forestry Commission who backed Mr Packham’s argument – but was contradicted this week by an official statement.

Mr Packham’s warning sparked an angry response from CDA chairman Tony Hockley who stormed: “The programme was, as expected, an unbalanced travesty of the truth. Some of Chris Packham’s claims were simple fiction.”

Dr Hockley said commoners were actively working with Forest organisations to protect habitats and that Natural England had actually requested increased grazing of cattle in some areas.

He continued: “At the same time we have dramatically improved the quality of the New Forest pony, protecting and promoting this rare breed.

“All of this is done in partnership. Chris Packham has chosen not to engage with the New Forest partners. That is his choice, but we have a really strong local partnership, involving all interests, to benefit the Forest, and build on our success over centuries in protecting this incredible landscape.”

Last year the verderers received marking fees for 13,597 animals, but in a statement issued on Wednesday they said this figure was not a true reflection of the actual number of animals on the Forest which varies with different stock throughout the year.

The statement said: “It is a great shame that Mr Packham declines to talk to the organisations which manage the New Forest. Some of his statements are, unfortunately, quite wrong.”

They pointed out that if the Forest was overgrazed, the lack of grass would quickly become evident by the condition of the animals. Bark-stripping was “learned behaviour”, it said, not driven by hunger.

The statement said: “There has been no deterioration in the condition of the stock overall. The verderers, through the agisters, monitor the welfare of the stock closely.”

Every year the verderers undertake two welfare tours attended by independent animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and British Horse Society, as well as Defra. Unhealthy stock are taken off the Forest.

Over the last six years Natural England has been undertaking an assessment of the quality of habitats throughout the whole of the New Forest which has involved working with land owners and the verderers to implement changes where necessary.

Mr Packham is not the first wildlife expert to question livestock levels.

In 2016, as reported by the A&T, Tom Langton, a consultant ecologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Biologists, sent a report to Natural England claiming that conservation interests were being "swamped" by grazing.

The New Forest, he said, was being treated as a “livestock farm” and he called for fewer animals.

However, Natural England, which advises the government on environmental issues, has publicly stated that it would be neither “possible nor desirable” to set a limit on the number of animals turned out.

A spokesperson said: “The New Forest is a stronghold for a many species that were once common throughout the country. Livestock have played an important role in defining the structure and maintaining the health of more than 10 habitats of international interest.”

There was some support for Mr Packham from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust whose chief executive, Debbie Tann, said: “The trust, whilst supporting commoning as vital for the Forest’s care, would like to see appropriate and transparent management of the livestock levels.

“On paper, the total number of cattle and ponies turned out onto the Forest has more than doubled over the last 20 years and numbers are now reported to be far higher than the recommended figures.

“We really need to see a revised funding package for commoners, based on benefits for wildlife, rather than purely on numbers of animals. “

Government figures show that in 2017 practising commoners were able to claim a subsidy of £255 per cow and £170 per pony through the Basic Payment Scheme.

Some commoners (although not all participate) were also entitled to around £75 per cow and £60 per pony through the Verderers Payment Scheme.

The importance of livestock as the “architects of the Forest” was voiced by national park authority chairman Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre who stressed that commoning was guided by a range of organisations, not just the verderers.

He said: “We work in partnership with these organisations to ensure the ancient practice and culture of commoning survives in the future.

“The farming subsidy schemes will be changing when we leave Europe and all these organisations are working together to design a new bespoke subsidy scheme specifically for the Forest, which pays for the good that the commoners do for the unique landscape and wildlife.”

The Forestry Commission, which manages the New Forest for the government, also issued a rebuttal of Mr Packham’s claims, with FC Deputy Surveyor Bruce Rothnie commenting that “snapshot critiques” often lacked understanding.

He said: “Those who work every day within the New Forest and observe its cycles of management know that its condition is best judged over decades of time and not year by year.

“Its diversity of plants and animals comes from traditional practices that have been continuing for hundreds of years including the grazing by animals and burning of heathland.

“Without the New Forest’s unique grazing system and land management we could not sustain the quality and nature of the landscape we all enjoy today.”

The chair of Friends of the New Forest (formerly the New Forest Association), John Ward, described Mr Packham’s claims as having had “the tabloid newspaper headline effect he no doubt wanted”.

Mr Ward said the programme had made no reference to highly successful stream and mire restoration projects in the New Forest that had brought a number of native species back from the brink.

A decade ago commoning was declining so fast there was huge concern for the future of the New Forest’s special environment, he added.

Mr Ward concluded: “Drawing conclusions from a snapshot view of the New Forest is often risky for a place that evolves and fluctuates over long periods of time.

“But, setting aside the passionate performance of Chris Packham, there is a very important point coming out of this programme – the New Forest is still an astonishingly rich place for wildlife and for people. Those riches depend on the continuity of commoning, and commoning needs our support.”

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