Plea to restrict visitors to the New Forest amid warning its future is ‘at a crossroads’
CAR parks may need to be changed, campsites closed and environmental protection orders imposed if the special character of the New Forest is to survive, the Official Verderer has declared in a stark warning over the future of the national park.
Stating the New Forest was “at a crossroads” which could lead to the ancient practice of commoning being lost forever if unrestricted access continues, Lord Manners has written to the chair of the national park authority calling for conservation to come before recreation.
The dramatic message has been issued against the backdrop of a huge surge of activity last summer which sparked complaints of parking, litter and antisocial behaviour as visitor numbers have continued to increase “at an intensity the Forest has never previously seen”.
Lord Manners said the letter was prompted by agisters’ reports that large numbers of people was making it increasingly difficult to carry out their jobs, such as rounding up ponies in winter and early spring for welfare checks.
He declared: “These are essential tasks. Due to the number of people using the Forest for recreation this is now impossible at weekends.”
If the agisters are unable to do their jobs, this will threaten the very future of commoning and jeopardise the conservation benefits it delivers, he warned.
The consequence of almost unrestricted access in the national park was akin to “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”, he added.
“Is it just to be a giant recreation area regardless of the consequences, or is it to be preserved and valued as a working Forest and an extraordinarily sensitive and important area for the environment, full of rare flora and fauna?”
Lord Manners said that while the verderers supported the NPA’s recreation management strategy and work to stop verge parking, in particular, progress had been “painfully slow”.
“Difficult decisions” were now needed to ensure the NPA was fulfilling its first statutory purpose to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Forest, he said.
Lord Manners suggested measures such as the permanent closure of some campsites within and around the Forest, car parking charges, and a Public Space Protection Order to tackle “the damaging behaviour of some people”.
He revealed that the verderers received many messages expressing concern about recreational impact on the Forest, with fears 2021 could be worse than last year.
He quoted one which said: “The New Forest is being trashed before our eyes.
“The disrespectful behaviour of the public with uncontrolled cycling, boating and swimming in ponds, wild camping, fires and barbecues, out of control dogs chasing ponies and donkeys, loose dogs far away from their oblivious owners rampaging through heather and bogs disturbing wildlife and ground-nesting birds, cattle and ponies denied access to water, littering and verge parking – the list is endless.”
In a response to Lord Manners, NPA chair Prof. Gavin Parker acknowledged that 2021 was likely to be “another very challenging year”.
He said the authority was working with New Forest District Council and Natural England to tackle “significant concerns” about the number of new campsites that had opened under extended permitted development rights “with no apparent need to have regard for habitat assessments”.
Prof. Parker also pointed to an NPA-led campaign to ban disposable barbecues that had led to 50 local retailers removing them from sale, an initiative that had provided 400 local people with litter-picking kits, and work with other organisations to “robustly address” verge parking.
He continued: “Officers are working with Forest organisations to ensure there is a coordinated approach this spring.
“We will use our planning powers, deploy rangers and other staff to patrol the Forest, relaunch the New Forest Ambassadors scheme and use our significant social media reach to promote the New Forest Code, extend the New Forest Tour season to reduce traffic and will promote the use of rights of way in the perimeter of the national park as an alternative to visiting the open Forest.”
Prof. Parker also pledged to work with Forestry England to signpost people away from overflowing car parks. But he conceded there were “no simple answers” to the issues raised by Lord Manners.