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The New Forest is one of the largest remaining areas 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. Pre-existing rights of common pasture are still recognised today and are still officially being enforced.
In the 18th century, The New Forest became the main source of timber for the Royal Navy, who are still based in Portsmouth. A seemingly never ending supply of quality timber was readily available for ship building, making the Hampshire forest the perfect source for the military ship building effort.
The ecological importance of the New Forest is enhanced further by the large areas of lowland habitats 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 good deal of rare wildlife, including the New Forest cicada Cicadetta montana, the only cicada native to Great Britain, although the last unconfirmed sighting was in 2000. Cicadas are the most efficient and loudest sound producing insects in the world. Conversely, some small species have songs so high in pitch that the noise is inaudible to humans.
Several species of unusual insect species are found here, including the southern damselfly, large marsh grasshopper and the mole cricket, all are very rare in Britain. In 2009, 500 adult southern damselflies were captured and released in the Venn Ottery nature reserve in Devon. The Hampshire 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.
The Hampshire New Forest is a biological and geological Site of Special Scientific Interest. Several areas are Geological Conservation Review and Nature Conservation Review sites. It is a Special Area of Conservation, a Ramsar site and a Special Protection Area. Copythorne Common is managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Kingston Great Common is a National Nature Reserve and New Forest Northern Commons is managed by the National Trust.
Like much of England, the site of the New Forest was once mainly deciduous woodland, recolonised by birch and eventually beech and oak after the withdrawal of the ice sheets that started around 12,000 years ago. Some areas were cleared for cultivation from the Bronze Age onwards; the poor quality of the soil in the New Forest meant that the cleared areas turned into heathland waste, which may have been used even then as grazing land for horses.
There was still quite a good deal of woodland in this part of Hampshire, but this was gradually reduced, particularly towards the end of the Middle Iron Age around 250 to 100 BC, and most importantly the 12th and 13th centuries, and of this essentially all that remains today is the New Forest.
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