Last week the Ecosystems Lab spent a wonderful day in the New Forest, hosted by two expert guides Jonathan Spencer (Forest Enterprise Head of Environment, England and former Senior Ecologist in the New Forest) and Jane Smith (Head of Planning and Environment in FE South District).
The New Forest is neither New (it was established by the Norman William the Conqueror as a royal hunting forest in around 1079), nor a forest in the modern sense (it has many areas of open, treeless heath). In the Norman sense a forest was an area for hunting by the elite declared to be outside (Latin foris) the common law of the land, i.e. local people were restricted from farming it or hunting.
What has emerged over the centuries is a fascinating and suprising stable social-ecological system. 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. But the inhabitants of the area (commoners) had pre-existing rights of common: to turn horses and cattle) out into the Forest to graze (common pasture), to gather fuel wood to cut peat for fuel, to dig clay, and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts (pannage or mast).
We learned a huge amount about how histories, wars and individual shaped the nature of the land and forest. This probably true in most socio-ecological landscapes; what is astonishing and fascinating about the New Forest is that the events and histories are recorded in a thousand years of documentation and detailed research – in most places in the world, and especially in the tropics, we are almost blind to the social histories and events that have shaped a landscape.
There is a related post by Ben Blonder on this visit here.
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Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University