The New Forest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England, covering southwest Hampshire and southeast Wiltshire. It was proclaimed a royal forest by William the Conqueror, featuring in the Domesday Book.
It is the home of the New Forest Commoners, whose ancient rights of common pasture are still recognised and exercised, enforced by official verderers and agisters. In the 18th century, the New Forest became a source of timber for the Royal Navy. It remains a habitat for many rare birds and mammals.
The boundaries of the forest have varied over time and depend on the purpose of delimiting them. It is a 220 square mile biological and geological Site of Special Scientific Interest. Several areas are Geological Conservation Review sites, including Mark Ash Wood, Shepherd’s Gutter, Cranes Moor, Studley Wood, and Wood Green. There are also a number of Nature Conservation Review sites.
Following the Norman Conquest, the New Forest was proclaimed a royal forest, in about 1079, by William the Conqueror. It was used for royal hunts, mainly of deer. As of 2005, roughly 90% of the New Forest is still owned by the Crown. The Crown lands have been managed by Forestry England since 1923 and most of the Crown lands now fall inside the new National Park.
Felling of broadleaved trees, and their replacement by conifers, began during the First World War to meet the wartime demand for wood. Further encroachments were made during the Second World War. This process is today being reversed in places, with some plantations being returned to heathland or broadleaved woodland.
During the Second World War, an area of the forest, Ashley Range, was used as a bombing range. During 1941–1945, the Beaulieu, Hampshire Estate of Lord Montagu in the New Forest was the site of group B finishing schools for agents operated by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) between 1941 and 1945. (One of the trainers was Kim Philby who was later found to be part of a spy ring passing information to the Soviets.)
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 became a National Park on 1 March 2005, transferring a wide variety of planning and control decisions to the New Forest National Park Authority, who work alongside the local authorities, land owners and crown estates in managing the New Forest.
The ecological value of the New Forest is enhanced by the relatively large areas of lowland habitats, lost elsewhere, which have survived. There are several kinds of important lowland habitat including valley bogs, alder carr, wet heaths, dry heaths and deciduous woodland. The area contains a profusion of rare wildlife, including the New Forest cicada, the only cicada native to Great Britain, although the last unconfirmed sighting was in 2000. The wet heaths are important for rare plants, such as marsh gentian and marsh clubmoss and other important species include the wild gladiolus.
Several species of sundew are found, as well as many unusual insect species, including the southern damselfly, large marsh grasshopper and the mole cricket, all rare in Britain. The Forest is an important stronghold for a rich variety of fungi, and although these have been heavily gathered in the past, there are control measures now in place to manage this.
Specialist heathland birds are widespread, including Dartford warbler, woodlark, northern lapwing, Eurasian curlew, European nightjar, Eurasian hobby, European stonechat, common redstart and tree pipit. As in much of Britain common snipe and meadow pipit are common as wintering birds, but in the Forest they still also breed in many of the bogs and heaths respectively.
Woodland birds include wood warbler, stock dove, European honey buzzard and northern goshawk. Common buzzard is very common and common raven is spreading. Birds seen more rarely include red kite wintering great grey shrike and hen harrier and migrating ring ouzel and northern wheatear.
Commoners' cattle, ponies and donkeys roam throughout the open heath and much of the woodland, and it is largely their grazing that maintains the open character of the Forest. They are also frequently seen in the Forest villages, where home and shop owners must take care to keep them out of gardens and shops. The New Forest pony is one of the indigenous horse breeds of the British Isles, and is one of the New Forest's most famous attractions – most of the Forest ponies are of this breed, but there are also some Shetlands and their crossbreeds.
Cattle are of various breeds, most commonly Galloways and their crossbreeds, but also various other hardy types such as Highlands, Herefords, Dexters, Kerries and British whites. The pigs used for pannage, during the autumn months, are now of various breeds, but the New Forest was the original home of the Wessex Saddleback, now extinct in Britain.
Numerous deer live in the Forest; they 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 the introduced sika deer and muntjac.