‘Don’t push tourism over what’s best for the New Forest and its ponies’ *H&H Plus*

  • Concerns have been raised over an impression that the New Forest is being pushed as a tourism destination at the possible expense of the environment, locals and ponies. H&H speaks to those who live and work there, and the authorities

    THE priority for the New Forest should be protecting the animals, environment and people over tourism, it has been suggested, by those who believe the opposite is true.

    New Forest resident and parish councillor Brice Stratford told H&H issues that have been “simmering” for years have come to a head as a result of lockdown. 

    “The authorities essentially shut up shop,” he said. “There was very little in the way of support and help, and certainly no enforcement.”

    Mr Stratford feels the authorities push the forest, an area of outstanding natural beauty and site of special scientific interest, as a destination for tourism, and that increased numbers of people cause issues to the ponies and environment.

    “Before the National Parks Authority [NPA] took over in 2005, there was a well-established infrastructure of councils, verderers, commoners and so on; everyone had a long history of involvement and understood the forest,” he said.

    Mr Stratford said the past year had been “binge tourism”, with people petting ponies, feeding them and so attracting them towards roads, and even putting toddlers on board for pictures.

    “The people who cause the problems seem to have a lovely notion of ‘going back to nature’, then they go home and don’t see the consequences,” he said. “Because the ponies are free-roaming, there seems to be this entitlement. Locals try desperately to educate people but the response is often hostile.

    “Last year the authorities came up with a New Forest code but without enforcement or actively pushing it as important, it’s not helpful. They sell it as helping people enjoy the forest, with interesting facts, but it should be about protecting the forest and the animals.

    “The forest is pushed as a tourism destination and the ponies are such a symbol of the forest, people who don’t know any better feel entitled to feed them and pet them. It’s not that no one should come here but priorities need to change.”

    Sue Westwood, clerk to the verderers of the New Forest, told H&H she agrees with much of this.

    “I won’t say the NPA actively promotes recreation over the forest, as it has a number of priorities and its first one is conservation,” she said. “Shall we say the verderers remind them of that from time to time, and have done so recently.”

    “I don’t disagree with Mr Stratford at all, the question is: what do we do about it?”

    She added that the verderers are in constant talks with the authority and Forestry England on how best to educate people, but this is “not an easy thing to achieve”.

    “Obviously people want to come and enjoy the forest, but they’re in danger of destroying the very thing they’re coming to enjoy,” she said.

    Nigel Matthews, head of recreation management and learning at the New Forest NPA told H&H more people than usual had visited the forest in the past year.

    “While the majority respect the national park, we have experienced some anti-social behaviours,” he said. “As a result, we now have a joint action plan with other New Forest organisations to ensure people don’t inadvertently harm the place they have come to enjoy.

    “The New Forest NPA is not, and never has been, the official tourism body of the national park. We are working with tourism promoter Go New Forest to ensure key information is given to visitors.

    “Core to this is the New Forest code – a clear set of nine actions and guidance on how everyone can care for the forest, its protected wildlife and the free-roaming livestock.”

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