IT WAS wonderful to welcome the Friends of the New Forest to our smallholding this weekend.

It is always with a little trepidation that we open the farm gate and invite people in to learn about commoning and our traditional way of life, but as ever it was a really pleasurable experience.

People really do care about the New Forest and are passionate about learning more about it.

For this week’s column I thought I would answer a few of the questions that we were asked on our farm walk.

How do you recognise your ponies? Handily one of grandad’s mares – Solo came wandering by and we were able to show the group her brand.

Whilst commoners can usually recognise their own ponies by sight – just as you would recognise your friends, it is important that ponies can be easily identified by others. New Forest ponies are all branded, usually in the saddle but occasionally in the shoulder or the hip with a unique brand, mine is LO. The brand is always on the left hand side. This allows the Agister to identify a sick or injured pony and alert the owner immediately. I am always inspired by the knowledge of some commoners when identifying ponies, not only can they name the pony but they can name the pony’s dam (mother) and its sire (father) and very often several other generations of the same family. When you look at ponies on the Forest you can often see likenesses between ponies as they often run in family groups.

Is there any limit to the number of animals you can turn out? In simple terms our rights are unquantified unlike those in Cumbria or Dartmoor. Commoners have the right to turn out any number of animals. But, responsible commoners will keep their animal numbers at a level that their holding can maintain. There are always times when animals need to come in to the holding for additional feed, be that during a hard winter, summer drought or during the outbreak of disease.

Do you set aside any of your ground for nature conservation? With grazing land reaching values of up to £60,000 per acre in the New Forest we have to make the most of the land we have. Whilst most of our ground is used to make hay and silage and for the cattle to graze, we do wherever possible consider nature conservation. With careful management over the past twenty years and with the support of a countryside stewardship scheme we have restored a large meadow which has a river and an Alder Carr running through it. Our grazed fields are not intensively farmed and as a result we have many species of wildflowers within them, the Early Purple orchids are the highlight this week. With the hedges and field margins home to many nesting birds at this time of year.

Do you ever see a Merlin in the Forest? We are very lucky to live in a place which supports so many raptors and yes we love to see the Merlin. Its speed and small stature mean that usually it is only a fleeting glimpse. We also regularly see Buzzards, Goshawks, Sparrowhawks and this week the Hobby has returned, where once we saw lots of Kestrals and sparrowhawks in the Forest, now the Goshawk and Buzzard are the most common.

If you are part of a group which would like to know more about commoning in the New Forest, do please get in touch.

Lyndsey Stride

Following on Twitter: @Cuffnells