Author and environmentalist Peter Owen-Jones spends an enchanting year across all four seasons in the New Forest exploring its wildlife, landscapes and an ancient way of life.
‘The New Forest is a timeless place - there are no fences and the animals roam free. I’ve always wondered how the forest and the communing way of life have survived in the middle of southern England for so long. It’s been an incredible experience finding out.’ - Peter Owen-Jones.
Over the year, with its dramatic seasonal changes, Owen-Jones ventures out into the forest and immerses himself in the lives of the Commoners, a group of around 700 people who have retained grazing rights for their animals, which date back to medieval times. From the first foals born in spring to the release of the stallions and the annual herding of the ponies, he discovers a hardy people who, despite the urban development around them, and the pressures on the landscape of 13 million visitors a year, retain a deep love of the land and a determination to see their way of life survive.
The New Forest National Park covers an area of 566 square kilometres. It extends from the edge of Salisbury Plain through ancient forest, wild heathland and acid bog, down to the open sea. Here, Owen-Jones discovers hidden wildlife treasures. The rolling heathland is home to dazzling lizards, our largest dragonfly and carnivorous plants. And deep in the ancient woods, he finds goshawks that stalk their prey between the trees and an explosion of rare fungi. To his surprise, he discovers that many of the trees were planted by man to build battleships for the British Empire.
Owen-Jones delves into the history of the Commoners. He discovers how their pastoral way of life evolved from the practices of Neolithic herders and he reveals how the brutal Forest Laws imposed by William the Conqueror were used to crush them in order to preserve the forest as a royal hunting ground. Yet it was these same laws that inadvertently helped protect the New Forest that exists today. The Commoners now face perhaps their greatest threat. As the cost of property spirals and rents increase, their way of life, is under threat.
‘This has been an incredible year… I’ve met people who, against all odds, have retained this ancient way of life and a deep connection to and love of the land. It's what shapes and defines this extraordinary place.’ - Peter Owen-Jones
Peter Owen-Jones is a passionate author and environmentalist. He started life as a farm labourer, became an advertising executive, and then gave it all up to become an Anglican priest. Peter has presented a number of BBC programs, including Extreme Pilgrim and Around the World in 80 Faiths. South Downs: England’s Mountains Green’ was one of BBC4’s most watched films. Recent books include ‘Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain and Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul. Peter is deeply committed to and knowledgeable about the British countryside and its traditions.
The New Forest became a National Park in 2005. It is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in southern England.