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The 12 New Forest Wildlife Days of Christmas

The 12 New Forest Wildlife Days of Christmas


12 nightjars churring

Bird lovers – or anyone who enjoys tracking down a creature of myth and mystery – will want to spot a nightjar. These highly-camouflaged, ground nesting birds appear at dusk to catch moths and other night-flying insects. They also sing at night, with an eerie but beautiful ‘churring’ sound.

In many European countries, the nightjar is known as a ‘goatsucker’ – its Latin name Caprimulgus is from capra, ‘nanny goat’, and mulgere, ‘to milk’. They were thought to feed from goats as they were often found close to livestock (in fact, it’s the invertebrates associated with livestock they’re attracted to).

The nightjar is one species that won’t be spending Christmas in the New Forest. As migratory birds they make an amazing journey to over-winter thousands of miles away in Africa. They return to the New Forest in late April and stay until mid-August.

This area is an important stronghold for nightjars, crucial to their survival in the UK. Habitats have been enhanced and restored to help safeguard these enigmatic birds which breed throughout the New Forest’s heathland, especially along woodland edges and where isolated trees provide song perches.

You can help too by keeping yourself and your dogs to the main tracks during the summer nesting season. If you’d like the chance to hear a nightjar, join us for one of our special evening walks in June next year.

Listen to the audio clip of a nightjar churring below:


11 goshawks swooping

This large hawk, nicknamed the Phantom of the Forest because of its elusive nature has a fierce facial expression, large talons and broad wings which allow it to swoop in and out of trees, hunting at high speed.

On the menu for goshawks are…..well, anything they outsize! They are powerful hunters and can scoop up a variety of prey while in flight. Pigeons, crows, squirrels and rabbits could all end up on their Christmas table!

They were once close to extinction, but the good news is goshawk numbers are no longer declining. They’ve now more than doubled in number since 2011. Eight years ago there were only 20 breeding pairs recorded in Hampshire: now there are 40 pairs living in the New Forest alone, according to Forestry England.

You’re most likely to see a goshawk in late winter or early spring, as they wheel around showing off to prospective mates. Or you can get a closer look at them at the New Forest Reptile Centre where you can peer right into the tree-top nests and watch their every move thanks to high-tech video cameras.


10 fawns a-leaping

You won’t see any red-nosed reindeer living wild in the New Forest, but there are five other species of deer to look out for.

The four most common are fallow, roe, sika and red, but you may also be lucky to spot the smaller muntjac deer.

It’s thanks to deer that the New Forest exists. It was William the Conqueror’s first hunting forest in England, and fallow bucks continued to be hunted for over 900 years here. Deer still thrive in the New Forest because of the large area of undisturbed land, and they’re an essential part of the grazing management.

Some species will have mated in the last month, with the males using their antlers in fearsome trials of strength. At Christmas time they’ll spend much of their time in the woodlands rather than on the heaths as they rely on more woody browse in their winter diet.

If you want to catch a glimpse, a good place is Bolderwood deer sanctuary which has a purpose-built viewing platform.


9 ponies prancing

New Forest ponies have been called the ‘architects of the Forest’ because their browsing and grazing have shaped the Forest landscape over many generations.

They are crucial to the accessibility and eco-systems of the Forest, helping preserve its unique habitats. They create a ‘browse line’ by eating the lower foliage of a tree, allowing daylight to everything below. They provide dung for the rare beetles and bugs to recycle in the Forest soil; and make muddy patches which some of our rarest plants need to survive.

Every pony you see roaming freely in the New Forest belongs to a commoner. Commoners are ordinary people who use the local rights to turn out animals to graze. Their commitment is vital to the New Forest, and this traditional system of land management is a unique way of life.

Through the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, we’re helping to improve the breeding and save bloodlines of the New Forest Pony which is now a rare breed.

Please remember to keep your distance from the free-roaming animals of the Forest and don’t feed or pet them. Don’t forget to allow a bit more time when you are driving across the Forest; add three minutes to your journey, especially in the winter months when there’s a higher risk of animal accidents.

Video credit: The New Forest – a Year in the Wild Wood by Big Wave 

8 bats a-clicking

We’re lucky to have 16 out of the 17 UK species of bat living here in the New Forest. While we’re wrapping our Christmas presents, they’ll be wrapping their wings around themselves in hibernation.

The New Forest is a stronghold for one of the rarer species – the Barbastelle. It’s only five centimetres long and has a turned-up nose which gives it a pug-like appearance.

The term ‘blind as a bat’ is incorrect as bats aren’t actually blind, though their hearing is better than their sight. As they fly, they make clicking noises to find their prey, with the returning echoes giving them information on what’s ahead (a system called echolocation). The Pipistrelle bat can consume 3,000 midges in one night!

Through our Land Advice Service, we’ve been looking at ‘better boundaries’, including creating and enhancing wildlife corridors which are used by these nocturnal creatures. We have evidence that bats use hedgerows as ‘super highways’!

Bats need your help too as many species are in decline. Why not put up a bat box, join Hampshire Bat Group, join one of our summer bat walks, or add insect-loving plants to your garden to attract bats?

They’re also sensitive to light, so reduce lighting at your property if possible. If you’re making any changes in your property, please seek guidance from our ecology and planning teams to make sure that roosts aren’t disturbed during any building works.



7 lizards lounging

All of the UK’s reptiles can be found here in the New Forest. These are the common lizard, adder, grass snake, smooth snake, slow worm and the rare sand lizard.

Sand lizards became extinct in the New Forest in the 1970s, but thanks to a re-introduction programme, they’ve been lounging around since the 1990s.

They aren’t lazy… They have to ‘warm up’ in the environment to become active. That’s why they’re sometimes seen basking in the sunshine.

Open areas with sandy soils that heat up quickly are the best habitats for lizards, and this makes the New Forest with its large proportion of heathlands an ideal place for them.

Heathland destruction elsewhere means that the New Forest has become an important haven for reptiles, and we’re helping to preserve their open habitats through vegetation management, including scrub and tree removal. We’re supporting Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust projects, which involve reptile monitoring.

In Victorian times, the New Forest had a resident snake catcher – Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills, a hermit who would remove snakes from properties and sell their parts as curios.

Nowadays, we’re asking people to help protect reptiles by sticking to the main New Forest paths, and perhaps volunteer some of their time for species monitoring or to help heathland restoration.

At Christmas time, lizards are hibernating in burrows as deep as one metre, but will emerge in the spring.

If you want to catch a glimpse of one of our lounging natives, it can be tricky because they’re well camouflaged, and are quick to flee when they hear people coming!

Try looking on south-facing slopes, on logs, along the edge of scrub and in areas with mature heather.

All of the native reptile species can be viewed over the spring and summer months at Forestry England’s New Forest Reptile Centre, near Lyndhurst.

Video credit: The New Forest – a Year in the Wild Wood by Big Wave 

6 curlews calling

The New Forest is now one of the few areas of southern England where the curlew still breeds. Here they are widespread but uncommon, with about 40 pairs in recent years.

They need the peace and quiet of the larger expanses of open heathland and mire to nest and raise their young.

The name ‘curlew’ reflects their far-carrying call of ‘cur-lee, cur-lee’. They also have a wonderful bubbly-sounding song which they make during display flights in spring.

Curlews head for coasts after they have finished breeding. They like large areas of mudflats and saltmarsh, and the New Forest offers 26 miles of superb coastal ‘restaurants and runways’.

They’ll catch their Christmas dinner of invertebrates from soggy mud using their distinctive curved beaks. Festive dining companions will include an assemblage of other coastal wintering waders including lapwings and godwits.

We can help curlews by giving them space during the breeding season. In the inland open areas, between March and July please stay on the main tracks and avoid using the narrow pony tracks. Keep dogs on the tracks too; otherwise you’re more likely to scare the birds off than see them.

Listen to an audio clip of a curlew calling below:


5 fairy rings

A fairy ring is the folk term for a naturally-occurring ring of fungi, which was thought to be connected with luck.

The New Forest is one of the most important sites for fungi in Britain. Some are so rare and vulnerable they’re included in the protected species list, and it’s illegal to pick them – even for scientific reasons.

There are more than 2,700 species of fungi in the National Park alone. They’re essential to the Forest’s ecosystem, including the health of soil and trees which is why the New Forest National Park Authority, together with partners such as Forestry England, ask people to look, but please don’t pick.

As well as being essential rotters and recyclers, fungi provide food for some animals and are vital to many invertebrates to enable them to complete their life cycles. They’re also great to simply admire and are marvellously photogenic too.

Their weird and wonderful names include ‘chicken of the woods’, ‘death cap’, ‘stinkhorn’, ‘devil’s fingers’, ‘sulphur tuft’ and ‘amethyst deceiver’.’

Please respect the natural environment and leave fungi in the ground so everyone can admire their display.


4 damsel flies

The New Forest is home to more than 40 different dragonflies and damselflies, but the southern damselfly is one of the UK’s rarest.

The New Forest is one of its two main strongholds in the UK (the other is the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire). Southern damselflies are also found in smaller colonies in Devon, Dorset, Anglesey, Gower, Oxfordshire and on the flood plains of the Test and Itchen rivers in Hampshire.

They need the bogs, ponds and the little shimmering streams that we have here for their lifecycle. They love living in the areas where cattle have poached (trodden) the edges with their hooves.

You won’t see these little wonders at Christmas time, but their larvae are now in the ponds, ready to emerge in the warmer weather.

We’re helping them by removing non-native plants from ponds, and ensuring the water quality in New Forest ponds remains pristine. We have some of the best ponds in the UK thanks to the surrounding heathlands and grassland which are maintained by traditional and extensive grazing.

Wetland restoration is improving damselfly habitats, while the Verderers of the New Forest Higher Level Stewardship scheme also helps fund specialist surveys of these and other rare species.

You can help by keeping the ecologically-important fresh waters of the New Forest natural. Please ensure nothing goes in them (this includes food, dogs and yourselves!)


3 sundews

At around 1cm tall, sundews are some of the most fascinating plants in the New Forest as they are carnivorous.

Found in our unique lowland mires, they add a bit of Christmas sparkle to the area with their dewy blobs and scarlet hairs (sundews get their name from their glistening appearance). These form sticky traps which are ideal for snaring small insects. The insects are digested to get extra nutrients, such as nitrogen. This allows sundews to live where other plants can’t – in nutrient-depleted soils or peat bogs.

While rare across southern England, they can be found in almost any wet area of the New Forest, especially in muddy-edged pools or track sides. There are three species: the one you’ll see most often is the round-leaved sundew, though look closely and you’ll also see oblong-leaved sundews and the rarer great sundew.

Their leaves are visible at any time of year, while small spikes of delicate white flowers bloom from late June to August.

We need to preserve the precious wet habitats of the New Forest. Wetland restoration is helping, including putting rivers back to their natural meanders after some were artificially straightened and deepened during Victorian times. These slower and shallower rivers now allow the surrounding areas to retain more water….and many species of wildlife like the sundew are thriving here.


2 pannage pigs

For a few weeks every autumn, New Forest commoners use their ‘rights of mast’ to turn pigs out onto the Forest.

For the pigs, it’s like Christmas, because they sniff out and eat the fallen acorns, beech mast and crab apples which to them are as sweet as chocolate. It’s also doing a good deed for other grazing animals because acorns are poisonous to ponies, cattle and donkeys.

Pannage season is held annually for around 60 days between September and November and is one of the distinctive features of the New Forest. The resulting pannage pork has a beautiful rich and nutty flavour, and is available through producers sporting the New Forest Marque logo – the Sign of True Local Produce

You’ll know that anything with the distinctive logo is grown, reared, brewed, produced or processed here in the New Forest. Marque producers also preserve traditional farming practices, rural skills and traditions which for centuries have shaped the distinctive Forest landscape and ecosystem.

The growing number of people choosing New Forest Marque produce reflects the many benefits of buying local, seasonal and sustainable produce.

Choosing New Forest Marque goods for Christmas helps reduce waste, supports communities and boosts the local economy. And as the time from field to fork is shorter, our plates are filled with tastier, fresher, more nutritious food.

Video credit: The New Forest – a Year in the Wild Wood by Big Wave 

And a robin in a holly tree

No British bird says Christmas quite like the much-loved robin. The sight and sound of one can lift the heart and the soul. Despite being associated with the festive season, it’s one of the few birds that sings all year round.

At this time of year, robins would thank you for a Christmas feast of fruit, nut, seeds, suet or mealworms put out in your garden.


As the traditional Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy goes: ‘…of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.’

Holly has been used to decorate homes and public buildings at Christmas since the 15th Century, and some of the ancient holly trees in the New Forest are even thought to go back to this time.

New Forest holly trees have a unique shape as their lower branches are enjoyed by ponies whose sturdy mouths are unhurt by the prickly leaves. This grazing leaves a definite ‘browse line’.

Anything above the reach of commoners’ stock is cut (pollarded), which lets the tree grow back healthily, and can significantly increase its lifespan. Pollarding also lets light reach the woodland floor, while the cut boughs are left on the Forest floor as browse for the ponies.

If you’re out and about in the Forest, you’ll notice that it’s a particularly good year for berries. According to folklore, an abundance of berries is the sign of a harsh winter ahead.

This isn’t stopping the feathered visitors such as fieldfare and redwing who find the berries delicious, and have flown all the way from Siberia to spend Christmas with us in the New Forest.

Listen to an audio clip of a robin singing below:



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