The Modern Forests

Of all the forests established in England by the Norman kings, some remnants of the ancient forest system still survive in three. In the Forest of Dean alone the four verderers are still elected as they were in medieval times-by the freeholders of the county called together in County Court by the sheriff. In the New forest their appointment in now regulated by the New Forest Act of 1949, which provides that there shall be ten verderers in that forest: the Official Verderer appointed by the Queen, and four others by the Forestry Commissioners, the Minister of Agriculture and others, together with five elected by the Commoners. The New Forest verderers appoint three agisters to supervise the commonable animals. In Epping Forest also verderers are still appointed: their appointment and functions have been reconstituted by the Epping Forest Act of 1878.

The purpose and administration of these ancient forests have changed. The Forestry (Transfer of Woods) Act of 1923 transferred the property in them to the Forestry Commissioners, who were made responsible for their care and management. Since 1923 they have been not royal forests, but state forests. The office of Surveyor-General of Woods and Forests, created in the eighteenth century, has been discontinued, but ‘Deputy Surveyors’ manage the New Forest and the Forest of Dean for the Forestry Commissioners. The foresters are mainly responsible for felling, thinning, preparation and sale of timber, and the establishment of new plantations. They are also concerned with recreational facilities and amenities, and the conservation of the forest flora and fauna. The deer have returned despite attempts to kill them off in the middle of the nineteenth century. There are fallow deer in the Forest of Dean and Highmeadow, and in the New Forest there four species- red deer, fallow and roe deer, and the Japanese Sika deer, probably introduced in 1904. In each of the two Ranges of the New Forest there is a Head Keeper, with six beat keepers under him, who take censuses of the deer, cull them in due season, guard against poachers and check pests. They also patrol camp sites and parking and picnic areas.

Rights of common are still exercised in both forests. In the New Forest the most important is common of pasture, which enables about 350 commoners to depasture about 3,000 ponies, 2,000 cattle and a few sheep on about 4,500 acres of open forest throughout the year. Common of mast carries the right to turn pigs on to the forest. The ‘pannage season’ was fixed by medieval custom, but since the New Forest Act of 1964 the Forestry Commissioners, after consultation with the verderers, may fix any suitable term of no less than sixty days. Common of firewood, or estovers, is enjoyed by about eighty commoners. Common of Turbary – the right to cut turf for fuel – and Common of Marl – to dig marl for fertilizer – are now virtually obsolete. Verderers continue to hold their courts in the New Forest and in the Forest of Dean. In the New Forest the duties of the Verderers Court are now mainly administrative, and are concerned with the supervision and administration of rights of common on the open forest. They have statutory powers to make by-laws concerning the number, health and welfare of commoners animals, and payments for marking such animals, and for pigs turned out in pannage time. They can take measures for the burning of the heaths, the clearing of drains, and the repair and maintenance of the forest pounds: these measures they carry out through the agency or with the permission of the Forestry Commissioners. The verderers appoint three agisters whose duty it is to supervise the animals on the forest commons, brand and mark them, collect the grazing fees for the verderers, and attend the Verderers Court. The verderers also have powers for the preservation of the natural beauty and the flora and fauna of the forest. Since they are primarily concerned with the rights of commoners, and the Forestry Commission with timber production, there has naturally in the past been a divergence of interest and policy in the New Forest between these two authorities.

The Official Verderer and four other verderers nominated by the Lord Chancellor retain judicial powers in the New Forest. They sit every two months in the Verderers Hall in the Queen’s House at Lyndhurst, and deal with cases concerning common rights, unlawful enclosures, purprestures and encroachments. Any member of the public can make a ‘presentment’ there, so continuing the medieval accusatorial procedure. The ‘Speech Court’ in the Forest of Dean is still scheduled to be held every forty days, but the verderers sittings are formal, and their court is usually adjourned until there is sufficient business. Such matters as are dealt with are administrative questions, such as those concerning common rights. It has been found more convenient to leave jurisdiction in cases concerning offences against the vert and venison to the ordinary petty sessions.

The New Forest National Park was created in March 2005 and the New Forest National Park Authority took up its full powers in April 2006. The National Park lies mainly in south-west Hampshire – from east of the Avon Valley to Southampton Water and from the Solent coast to the edge of the Wiltshire chalk downs. The Verderer’s Court still meets in public, mostly on a monthly basis, at the Verderers Hall, Queen’s House, Lyndhurst. In the Forest of Dean, the Verderers Court is still held at Speech House, one of the area’s most famous landmarks. The elected office of the verderer survives.

These two forests have therefore survived into the twenty-first century by an amazing process of transformation. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the forest law, courts and officers constituted a mighty system which paralleled the common law itself, and operated over a third of England. It was created for the pleasure of tyrannical Norman kings by arbitrary decrees. The forests were then exploited by their Stuart successors to support their personal government. Then in the eighteenth century there was conflict between Crown programmes of economic development and the interests of the commoners. The end of the old forest system was finally written in the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act of 1971, which abolished the sovereign’s prerogative right to wild creatures (except royal fish and swans), and abrogated the forest law, except in so far as it relates to the appointment of functions of verderers. The forests are a memorial to a system of law that began almost 1000 years ago, a unique remnant of Norman England.