For many years the New Forest has been regarded as an area of special interest for nature lovers due to the rare mix of habitats that support a diverse array of wildlife. Providing prime areas of open heathland, woodland and wetlands, the New Forest has been used by both animals and humans for centuries. In 1079, King William I declared the forest a royal hunting ground, earning it special protection, which was of great value in an area so unique. Now the New Forest is recognised as a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Protected Area in an attempt to preserve the brilliant biodiversity of the landscape – one of the most important in the whole of Britain.
Many species that can otherwise be found in the New Forest, such as snakes and lizards, go into hibernation during the winter months. However, there is still plenty to see. Here are some of the top wildlife watch picks in the New Forest from some of the UK’s top experts.
New Forest Ponies
Ponies are synonymous with the New Forest, and many visitors actually visit the forest specifically to see these creatures. The New Forest pony is an iconic part of the area’s heritage and symbolism, and, although they are not technically wild animals, they do roam freely throughout the forest. Descendants of a centuries-long line of wild British ponies, these animals are owned by people known as ‘Commoners’, who have had the right to their ownership and Open Forest grazing passed down since the time of King William I. Families with young foals can often be spotted, interacting together around the forest.
New Forest Wildlife Park
Visit the New Forest Wildlife Park in the heart of the New Forest National Park, where friendly and knowledgeable keepers will introduce you to amazing animals and to fascinating facts about their lives. Hear about their conservation work with endangered species, and about how they rehabilitate animals rescued from the wild. Walk the natural woodland trails to meet playful brothers Simuni and Akuri, the first giant otters to be born and bred in the UK, or get up close to the inquisitive fallow and roe deer in the deer encounter enclosure. With European bison, Scottish wildcats, wolves, lynx, red deer, wallabies, ferrets, hedgehogs, foxes, badgers, polecats, pine martens, mouflon, souslik, harvest mice, tropical butterflies and more, as well as several species of otters and owls, there’s plenty to explore. Their fabulous 'Go Wild' adventure playgrounds, newly refurbished restaurant and tempting gift shop add to a wonderful family day out.
British wildlife is now protected from hunting across the UK but back in 1079, the deer population of the New Forest was what earned it the status of royal hunting ground – conserving its wildlife, albeit for human benefit. Now, the deer are supported in their own right, and have proliferated throughout the forest. Five species of deer live within the forest: the Red deer, the Roe deer, the Fallow deer, the Sika deer and the Muntjac deer.
The Red deer is the largest of all British deer species, yet they are relatively elusive. Only around 100 of them live in the forest, but they can occasionally be spotted in the open heathland around the Burley area and Ober Heath. For the best chance of spotting them, go out at dawn and dusk and listen for their distinctive bark. Fallow deer are more common, and their classic spots along with black stripes around the tail can mean they are easier to find. Look out for the male deer’s iconic antlers during a quiet forest walk and you will probably be in for a pleasant deer encounter! Roe deer are also common in the New Forest, but are harder to find due to their smaller size. Sika and Muntjac deer are the rarest in the New Forest - a sighting of these unique animals is at the top of many a wildlife lover’s wish list.
Birdwatching in the New Forest
Winter is the prime time to see interesting bird species in the New Forest. As Matthew Merritt of Birdwatching website says: “Birdwatching in the New Forest in winter can be simpler than in spring and summer, with the lack of foliage making small birds easier to find."
“Of these, the Dartford Warbler is perhaps the most exciting. Difficult to find in much of the UK, it is common here. Small, with a long tail often held cocked, it is dark blue-grey above, and dull wine red underneath, plus white spotting on the throat and a peaked crown. Look for males perched on gorse and broom – as the winter goes on, they become bolder and more open."
“Good places to find them are around Beaulieu Road Station, Ashley Walk, Hampton Ridge and Blackgutter Bottom. Blackgutter Bottom is also a regular wintering site for Great Grey Shrikes, small predatory birds that arrive from Scandinavia – look for them on prominent open perches, where their sharp grey, black and white plumage, including a black eye stripe, is distinctive.”
Hampshire Cultural Trust inform us that birds to look out for in the New Forest are Redwings which start to arrive from late September. These small members of the thrush family can easily be identified by the red/orange patches just below their wings. They are often seen in flocks with their larger relative the Fieldfare, feeding on hawthorn berries.
Exploring the plant life of the New Forest
Although the winter is traditionally the month of bare branches, the New Forest remains very much alive during the cold season. It is the largest area of mature, semi-natural beech woodland in Britain, and the largest remaining area of lowland heath in the whole of Europe. Walking through the forest, you will be able to take in the sights of ancient and ornamental woodland, clusters of pine trees, grassy areas and open heathland.
The New Forest is also a thriving location for fungi, which come out in full force in the autumn and winter. Of all 12,000 species of British fungus, approximately 2,700 can be found in the New Forest, making it one of the most fertile fungus habitats in Western Europe. In the woods you will be able to spot interesting fungi, such as chicken-of-the-woods, birch bracket, cep, puffballs, beefsteak, staghorn, sulphur tuft, fly agaric and stinkhorn – to name just a few!
The surrounding area: from squirrels to snowdrops
Much of the wildlife that resides in the New Forest can also be found in the surrounding area. Wildlife Watch’s Leanne Manchester says, “Winter is a great time to spot waxwings, which migrate here in search of berries to fuel them through the colder weather. Squirrels can also be spotted scurrying around in search of their food hoards, as they don’t hibernate. In January great-spotted woodpeckers begin their courtship displays – listen out for drumming! Of course, winter wouldn’t be complete without the sight of snowdrops springing up in woodlands.”
If you are looking for a handy guide to spotting wildlife around the UK during the winter months, their Winter Wildlife Watch provides a brilliant overview of the top highlights of nature you’ll only catch at this time of year.
Other species that you will see during a day out or on a New Forest holiday are pigs and cattle, badgers, rabbits and foxes. Wandering through the woods and grasslands, you might encounter pigs foraging for acorns or one of around 100 donkeys going about their business.
Tips for spotting wildlife in the New Forest
If you want to experience the dynamic nature of the New Forest, here are a few tips that will help make your experience one to remember:
• Bring binoculars – these will help you to see beautiful bird species in flight or perched on branches, as well as spotting deer and other mammals from a distance without surprising them.
• Go quietly – many animals are scared away by noise, so stepping lightly and keeping down the volume will help you to see as many species as possible.
• Pack a few nuts – it is not advised to make a habit of giving human food to wild animals, but if you really want to see a certain animal and have just one day to do so, bringing a few natural nuts to sprinkle may increase your chances.
• Respect the environment – the New Forest is an ancient and cherished landscape, so ensure you have as little impact on the area as possible to leave it ready for others to enjoy.
• Keep a distance – avoid scaring animals off by keeping a safe distance from creatures you encounter, particularly animals with young or pigs looking for food, who may get a little defensive if approached!
• Research locations first – if you’re looking to see specific species, read up about where they reside before you visit to increase your chances of seeing animals in action.
• Bring a camera – with so many amazing animals to see, you’ll want to make the most of these fantastic photographic opportunities!