When the Forestry Commission was created in the aftermath of the First World War its primary mission was to restock the supplies of timber that had come perilously close to running out because of the war effort, and particularly the demand for wood for trenches.

At first, the Commission concentrated on planting conifers: evergreen trees, tolerant of many soil types, generally easier to harvest than many native trees and a good source of the long, straight, lengths of timber required for post-war reconstruction.

But as the size and shape of the public plantations grew so too did the realisation that woodlands don’t just have commercial worth; they are also unrivalled places for wildlife to thrive and provide unforgettable opportunities for people to get close to nature and enjoy its peace.

So, from the late 1920s on, it became more common for the Commission to plant a greater mix of trees in a less regimented way, thereby beginning the step-by-step changes that now mean the nation’s forests rank among our greatest economic, environmental and recreational assets.

For wildlife, woodlands play such an important role in conservation that ten woodland types have protected status under the EU Habitats and Species Directive, and six are defined as priority habitats in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

In addition, nearly 70,000 hectares at 200 different locations within England’s public forest estate are recognised as Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of their flora, fauna, fungi and/or habitat value. Included in the number are many of the nation’s most ancient woodlands, such as the New Forest…which hasn’t really been ‘new’ since the mid 11th century. It’s England’s biggest ancient forest and also the most wildlife-rich area in lowland Britain. Its wild inhabitants include five species of deer, several types of bats and nesting goshawks and hobbies.

One reason why forests are so important to wildlife is that they are among England’s last, vast, free-to-roam, natural spaces. Yet they are also surprisingly accessible for wildlife enthusiasts. The geographic spread means that the majority of people in England live within easy reach of a major area of public forest, each containing a variety of well-kept and sign-posted footpaths and trails and with many also offering other ways for visitors to enjoy the local wildlife, such as viewing platforms, hides, information boards or walks and talks programmes.

While successes with iconic wildlife, like the osprey, red squirrel, red kite and otter, tend to dominate the news headlines, many smaller rarities are given equal regard – for example, through projects to return Britain’s most endangered amphibian, the northern pool frog, to the wild and to safeguard the dormouse, water vole, dragonflies and many species of woodland birds and butterflies.

At the same time, Forestry Commission England also keeps a watch on what will be needed in the future to protect woodland wildlife, biodiversity, eco-system services, human well-being and the economy.

Its Forest Research arm ranks as one of the world’s best-respected sources of woodlands expertise. It undertakes an impressively broad range of projects that touch on all our lives, including saving species, protecting biodiversity, making forests disease-resilient and tackling the challenges of climate change.

So with the sun shining during this glorious summer come and enjoy the New Forest…you never know what you might see!

  • For more information about the New Forest, visit forestry.gov.uk/newforest