The New Forest lies in the South of England across the counties of Hampshire and Dorset, and consists of 150 square miles of open heathland and woods of birch, beech and oak, in which semi-wild ponies, deer and cattle roam freely. It was created in 1079 by William I (William the Conqueror) as a hunting area for deer, and placed under royal protection, enforced by keepers known as Verderers and Agisters. The small local population, under an edict known as the Forest Laws, were forbidden to hunt or even scare the deer, and were not allowed to farm, or to tamper with the forest in any way. William's son William II (William Rufus) introduced even harsher measures when he succeeded to the throne, decreeing mutilation for anyone caught flouting the Forest Laws. Understandably this caused much local resentment and the king was eventually found shot by an arrow (supposedly accidentally) in the Forest, at a spot now commemorated by the Rufus Stone. After this the rights of the commoners were formalised, and they were allowed to gather firewood and to graze their animals in the forest.

The Forest Laws were only formally ended a few years ago but animals still roam freely here, and if you are lunching outside a pub in one of the local villages it's not unusual to look up and find yourself surrounded by horses, or to see shaggy longhorned cattle grazing on roundabouts in the middle of the road. Driving across the Forest at night is a slow and strange business, crawling at 30 mph in darkness across the unlit heath keeping an eye out for the ponies which calmly wander across your path. They live here without restraint and breed here, but they're not strictly wild: as dictated by the 900-year-old Verderer's Council (which is still held six times a year), each pony is owned by a commoner, branded or marked, and set free to wander the forest. The heath, a place of short springy turf, heather, gorse, bracken, quiet pools and small trickling streams, provides perfect grazing land, and the thick green beechwoods provide shelter. It's a paradise for all sorts of wildlife, and a national beauty spot.

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