Down in the forest, there's plenty stirring

Lindsey Darking

Lindsey Darking learns about the life of a New Forest commoner.

The first chore of the day for Caroline Stride is to milk her cow Rosie - assuming she can find her.

Rosie is a fortunate cow, one of the animals allowed to roam free through the ancient woodland, heaths and bogs of the New Forest, under a right known as the "common of pasture" which has been practised for hundreds of years.

Semi-wild ponies, along with beef cattle and donkeys, are a more usual sight in the New Forest than dairy cattle such as Rosie, and have contributed in part to a large increase in tourism to the area since the 1960s. But many visitors do not realise that the animals they admire wandering around unrestrained are all owned.

The people who own these animals are called commoners, and it was a desire to educate the public about this threatened way of life which led Caroline and her husband Richard to create open house for school children, as part of "Commoning Days" organised by the New Forest Museum at Lyndhurst.

Commoning has survived the development which has affected other methods of farming and animal husbandry because of its symbiotic relationship with the New Forest's history. When the "Nova Foresta" was declared a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror around 1079, severe restrictions were placed on the activities of the local peasantry so as not to interfere with the supply of deer.

Over time the commoners managed to wrest special rights from the Crown, and these rights - to graze stock on the open forest, to collect turf and firewood, and to let pigs loose during the "pannage" season in the autumn, (so they can eat the young green acorns which would otherwise poison the ponies) - have persisted ever since.

But commoning is more than some quaint relic of the past, according to Louise Bessant, the New Forest Museum's education officer, who is also Caroline Stride's sister and a commoner herself. In numerous reports commoning has been recognised as crucial to the delicate balance of nature that makes the New Forest special. Without the grazing, the forest would be overgrown with gorse and the woodland would become dense and impenetrable, changing the area's ecology, character and tourism potential for ever.

Louise Bessant says: "The Commoning Days don't give a romanticised view. Teachers like them because it is real commoners talking about real commoning. It's a hard way of life with lots of pitfalls and not much money. You have to have lived through it and cried over all the problems to be able to teach the children about it."

The toughness of the commoning way of life is brought home to pupils during the afternoon visit to the Strides' smallholding, deep in the forest at Bolderwood. It's the high spot of the day, when the children can collect fresh eggs, watch Rosie being milked, and ask Caroline numerous questions.

The Strides' cottage has no mains supplies and gets its water from an undergound river, so the daily routines are a challenge. Logs provide all the family's heating and hot water, but these have to be collected from the forest, while the pigs, cow and chickens (some of which wander off into the woods from time to time) have to be found, fed and cleaned out.

In the drift season, from mid-August to November, commoners also help to round up all the ponies on the open forest so they can be branded, checked over and wormed, while all year round, "back-up land" has to be farmed to provide additional hay and sileage for the beef cattle in winter. Richard Stride, like many commoners, also has a full-time job, so holidays and social outings are a rarity, and from an early age commoners' children have to learn to muck in.

The Strides, from a long line of New Forest families, are keen to see the tradition persist, but with only 300 commoners now left (and around 3,000 ponies, 1,500 cattle, and 80 donkeys on the New Forest between them), the practice is under threat.

Commoning is fast becoming uneconomic, as animals are increasingly killed by traffic on the roads, pony prices plummet, and the cost of New Forest houses and back-up land rises beyond many local peoples' reach.

The Commoning Days draw on all of these issues, and provide a wealth of cross-curricular interest for all ages, spanning geography, local history, ecology, arts and crafts and English.

The day, backed by thorough teachers' packs, includes a talk and tour of the museum, and a visit to the Verderers' Court in Lyndhurst, the body which administers commoning and New Forest affairs.

In the ancient courtroom a role play session highlights some of the many conflicting pressures, from aggressive ponies and damage by mountain bikes to traffic congestion, affecting the New Forest's management and future.

o New Forest Museum, High Street, Lyndhurst, Hampshire SO43 7NY. Tel: 01703 283444. Please call in advance if taking a group to discuss requirements and a small charge.

o A team of three Education Rangers based at the Forestry Commission in Lyndhurst organises guided forest walks for schools and clubs and publishes a range of educational materials. Topics include social and natural history of the forest, environmental factors and conservation. Details and booking form from the Forestry Commission Education Department 01703 283141.

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