The New Forest was created as a royal forest around 1080 by William the Conqueror for the hunting of (mainly) deer. It was first recorded as "Nova Foresta" in the Domesday Book in 1086. The story that the inhabitants of thirty-six parishes were evicted is one of the many myths surrounding the forest's history. Two of William's sons died in the forest, Prince Richard in 1081 and William Rufus in 1100. The reputed spot of the Rufus' death is marked with a stone known as the Rufus Stone. As of 2005, roughly ninety per cent of the New Forest is still owned by the Crown. The Crown lands have been managed by the Forestry Commission since 1923. Around half of the Crown lands fall inside the new National Park.
Formal commons rights were confirmed by statute in 1698. Over time, the New Forest became a source of timber for the Royal Navy, and plantations were deliberately created in the 18th century for this specific purpose. In the Great Storm of 1703, about four thousand oak trees were lost in the New Forest.
The naval plantations encroached on the rights of the Commoners, but the Forest gained new protection under an Act of Parliament in 1877. The New Forest Act 1877 confirmed the historic rights of the Commoners and prohibited the enclosure of more than 16,000 acres (65 km²) at any time. It also reconstituted the Court of Verderers as representatives of the Commoners (rather than the Crown).
Felling of broadleaf trees, and replacement by conifers, began during the First World War to meet the wartime demand for wood. Further encroachments were made in the Second World War. This process is today being reversed in places, with some plantations being returned to heathland or broadleaf woodland.
Further New Forest Acts followed in 1949, 1964 and 1970. The New Forest became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1971, and was granted special status as the "New Forest Heritage Area" in 1985, with additional planning controls added in 1992. The New Forest was proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 1999, and it became a National Park in 2005.
Forest Laws were enacted to preserve the New Forest as a location for royal deer hunting, and interference with the King's deer and its forage was punished. However the inhabitants of the area("Commoners") had pre-existing "rights of common": to turn horses and cattle (but only rarely sheep) out into the Forest to graze ("common pasture"), to gather wood ("estovers"), to cut peat for fuel ("turbary"), to dig clay ("marl"), and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts ("pannage" or "mast"). There were also licences granted to gather bracken after 29 September as litter for animals ("fern"), Along with grazing, pannage is still an important part of the forest ecology. Pigs can eat acorns without a problem, whereas to ponies and cattle large numbers of acorns can be poisonous. Pannage always lasts 60 days but the start date varies according to the weather — and when the acorns fall. The Verderers decide when pannage will start each year. At other times the pigs must be taken in and kept on the owner's land with the exception that pregnant sows, known as "privileged sows", are always allowed out providing they are not a nuisance and return to the Commoner's holding at night (they must be "levant" and "couchant" there). This last is not a true Right, however, so much as an established practice. The principle of levancy and couchancy applied generally to the right of pasture as it was unstinted but commoners must have backup land, outside the Forest, to accommodate these depastured animals as during the Foot and Mouth epidemic.
Commons rights are attached to particular plots of land (or in the case of turbary, to particular heaths), and different land has different rights — and some of this land is some distance from the Forest itself. Rights to graze ponies and cattle are not for a certain number of animals, as is often the case on other commons. Instead a "marking fee" is paid for each animal each year by the owner. The marked animal's tail is trimmed by the local "agister" (Verderers' official), with each of the four or five Forest agisters using a different trimming pattern. Ponies are branded with the owner's brand-mark; cattle may be branded, or nowadays may have the brand-mark on an ear-tag. The grazing done by the commoners' ponies and cattle is an essential part of the management of the Forest, helping to maintain the internationally important heathland, bog, grassland and wood-pasture habitats and their associated wildlife.
The New Forest Heritage Area covers about 580 km² (143321 acres), and the New Forest SSSI covers almost 300 km² (74131 acres), making it the largest contiguous area of un-sown vegetation in lowland Britain. It includes roughly:
As well as providing a visually remarkable and historic landscape, the ecological value of the New Forest is particularly great because of the relatively large areas of lowland habitats, lost elsewhere, which have survived. The area contains several kinds of important lowland habitat including valley bogs, wet heaths, dry heaths and deciduous woodland. The area contains a profusion of rare wildlife, including the New Forest cicada Cicadetta montana, the only cicada native to Great Britain. The wet heaths are important for rare plants, such as marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe and marsh clubmoss Lycopodiella inundata. Several species of sundew may be found in the Forest, and the area is also the habitat of many unusual insect species, including the Southern damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale, and the mole cricket Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa (both rare in Britain).
Three species of snake inhabit the Forest. The adder is the most common being found on open heath and grassland. The grass snake prefers the damper environment of the valley mires. The rare smooth snake can be found on sandy hillsides with heather and gorse.
Numerous deer live in the Forest but are usually rather shy and tend to stay out of sight when people are around, but are surprisingly bold at night, even when a car drives past. Fallow deer are the most common followed by roe deer and red deer. There are also smaller populations of sika deer and muntjac. The semi-wild ponies mentioned earlier are possibly the New Forest's most famous common animals, however.
The New Forest is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), EU Special Area of Conservation (SAC), a Special Protection Area for birds (SPA) and a Ramsar Site, it also has its own Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP)
Among the towns and villages lying in or adjacent to the Forest are Lyndhurst (which claims to be the 'capital' of the New Forest), Abbotswell, Hythe, Totton, Blissford, Burley, Brockenhurst, Fordingbridge, Frogham, Stuckton, Ringwood, Beaulieu, Bransgore Lymington and New Milton. It is bounded to the west by Bournemouth and to the east by the city of Southampton. The forest gives its name to the New Forest district of Hampshire.
See also List of locations in the New Forest.
On 28 June 2004, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael confirmed the government's intention to designate the area as a National Park, with further detailed boundary adjustments. The area was formally designated as such on 1 March 2005. A National Park Authority for the New Forest was established on 1 April 2005 and assumed its full statutory powers on 1 April 2006. The Forestry Commission retain their powers to manage the Crown land within the Park, and the Verderers under the New Forest Acts also retain their responsibilities, and the Park Authority is expected to co-operate with these bodies, the local authorities, English Nature and other interested parties.
The designated area of the National Park covers 571 km² (141097 acres) and includes many existing SSSIs. It has a population of approximately 38,000 (excluding most of the 170,256 people who live in the New Forest local government district). As well as most of the New Forest district of Hampshire, it takes in the South Hampshire Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a small corner of Test Valley district around the village of Canada and part of the Salisbury district in Wiltshire south-east of Redlynch. However, the area covered by the park does not include all the areas which were initially proposed; excluding most of the valley of the River Avon to the west of the forest and Dibden Bay to the east. Two challenges were made to the designation order, by Meyrick Estate Management Ltd in relation to the inclusion of Hinton Admiral Park, and by RWE NPower Plc to the inclusion of Fawley Power Station. The second challenge was settled out of court, with the power station being excluded. The High Court upheld the first challenge; but an appeal against the decision was then heard by the Court of Appeal in Autumn 2006. The final ruling, published on 15 February,2007, found in favour of the challenge by Meyrick Estate Management Ltd, and the land at Hinton Admiral Park is therefore excluded from the New Forest National Park.
The forest has many well kept cycle paths for the use of the large number of cyclists that visit the forest each year. Many outlets are set up to handle the high requirement for bicycle hire, with both Burley and Brockenhurst having facilities.