Wildlife Lover’s Guide to the New Forest

New Forest wildlife guide

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Stretching across Hampshire and southeast Wiltshire, the New Forest stands as a living testament to history, encompassing approximately 219 square miles. It is one of the largest remaining expanses of unenclosed pastureland, heathland, and forest in the region. With roots dating back 12,000 years, this landscape served as a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror, evolved into a medieval preserve under the watchful governance of verderers, and was finally bestowed the official title of a national park in 2005.

Known for its biodiversity, the New Forest is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including ponies, deer, birds, reptiles, and insects, making it the perfect getaway for nature enthusiasts and curious wanderers.

Whether you’re seeking wildlife walks, deer-spotting adventures, or scenic drives, this guide will showcase the diverse experiences the New Forest has to offer for all.

New Forest Destination Overview

The New Forest is located in southern England and straddles two counties; Hampshire and Wiltshire. This is the largest piece of enclosed woodland in the whole country and is thought to have had its beginnings as many as 12,000 years ago. That said, the area wasn’t established as the New Forest until William the Conqueror dubbed it his new hunting forest back in 1079.

Since then, the forest was used by royals for hunting and there were several laws in place that prevented commoners from using the area. In fact, at one time, the New Forest was used exclusively by the monarch. Sadly, there was a tragedy involved in the 1100s when King William II was shot and killed by an arrow intended for a deer, during a hunting trip. Today, you’ll find the Rufus Stone in the spot of this historical event.

In medieval times, the New Forest was overseen by royal forest officers known as verderers, who were appointed the land and came up with various laws for it. Even today, some of the residents that live here are still able to live by these laws. For example, the commoner’s law which allows residents of the New Forest to graze their animals in the national park. While this is great for the residents, it’s also a wonderful way to maintain the forest landscape.

Speaking of being a national park, while this is an ancient area, the New Forest wasn’t actually officially named as a national park until 2005.

Thousands of years ago, it was a largely undisturbed deciduous forest until the Bronze Age, when some parts of the New Forest were cleared.

However, the soil quality here was not good for farming, so was left to become heathland, and the area soon became grazing land for horses. Today, the area is still famed for its equine life, and many people come here to see the New Forest ponies. While many people believe that these are wild ponies, they are actually cared for by humans despite being allowed to roam freely. 

The area is also home to a variety of other free roaming animals, including cattle and pigs. It’s no wonder that the New Forest is considered to be one of the most biodiverse regions in the UK. If you’re a bird lover, then this is a great spot to observe raptors like the buzzard as well as other species like nightjars and woodlarks.

Perhaps one of the most famous plant species here are the ancient trees, of which around 1000 have been recorded. Amazingly some of these trees exceed a thousand years old, and some of particular note are the Blackwater Tall Trees and the Knightwood Oak. 

Home to a range of rare species, the New Forest certainly is a wildlife lover’s paradise, but there’s so much more to it. For architecture lovers, ancient buildings like churches are scattered across the landscape. Plus, there are some beautiful historical villages to see such as Fawley and Hyde. You can meander around the New Forest using the many hiking and cycling trails, and spending a day here if you’re staying in London is super easy as it’s just a 2 hour car ride. What’s more, there’s something to do for all the family.

Being listed as a national park, the New Forest is afforded special protection and is recognized as being of international conservational importance. Not only are there many programs in place designed to preserve this beautiful habitat, but the area promotes sustainable tourism. Not only does this add to the respect and protection of the area, but it also serves as a wonderful way of educating visitors.

Types of Wildlife to See

The New Forest is home to an incredible array of creatures, including as many as 44 mammals and 15,000 insects! The moth and butterfly populations here are thriving with several interesting species like the gatekeeper and holly blue, among others. 

Among the many species of wildflowers, you’ll find lots of pollinators like bees as well as insects like the dung and stag beetles. But perhaps one of the most impressive insect species here are the damselflies and dragonflies. There are some species found here that are very scarce in other parts of the UK, like the red damselfly and the blue tailed damselfly.

These damselflies are often found around water sources like ponds, lakes, and rivers, where you’ll also find an abundance of amphibian life, including newts and frogs. Head to the New Forest in spring when they’re most active. Around the wetlands, you can also expect to see many avian species, like the herons and kingfishers as well as lapwings. While these birds are often found on farmlands, they also love a wet grassland habitat.

In terms of what bird watchers can expect, you’re in for a treat as there are around 100 resident species as well as 20 over winter visitors to the area. This includes several birds of prey, such as falcons and buzzards as well as woodland birds, like woodpeckers and treecreepers. 

For night time bird spotters, the New Forest is home to a healthy nightjar population. While these are elusive birds, you can often hear their beautiful song on a summer’s evening.

Reptile species are not as abundant as other types of animals in the New Forest, but there are certainly a few worth mentioning. For example, the UK only has three species of snake, and only one of these, the adder, is venomous. However, all three species, including the grass and smooth snakes can be seen here. You might also spot a lizard or a slow worm, which contrary to popular belief, is not a species of snake. 

As I mentioned, there are around 44 mammal species in the New Forest, ranging from badgers and foxes to around 14 species of bat, including the greater horseshoe bat. But it’s the deer that catch the attention of most visitors and, during autumn, rutting season begins, allowing you a glimpse into the courtship rituals of the red deer. Males will engage in dominance displays and fights as well as making loud calls designed to attract a mate. What’s more, since the red deer is only found in certain parts of the UK, the New Forest is one of the best places to see it.

The New Forest Ponies

While there are so many animals to see in the New Forest, the one that attracts the most attention is the New Forest pony. This is actually a collection of different breeds, including the dartmoor, exmoor and Welsh ponies. Within this area, each of these species has adapted to life here, and it’s thought that they have lived here since the end of the last ice age!

It would appear that while the forest is important to the ponies in the sense of providing food and habitat, the ponies are just as important to the forest. Their presence and grazing habits help to keep vegetation in check in what would otherwise be a very overgrown area.

While there is some suggestion that the ponies are wild, they’re actually all owned by various commoners within the area. Over the years, these ponies have been bred with other breeds but today, only those with purebred parents can be considered an official New Forest pony. At the annual New Forest pony drift, individuals are counted and assessed to keep an eye on the population. However, it isn’t uncommon for several individuals to be sold at auction during this time.

Although, they are allowed to roam free so they’re easy to spot on a wildlife walk, and this applies no matter where you go owing to the fact that these ponies can be found in various habitat types.

The New Forest ponies are small breeds that typically only measure between 12 and 14 hands. They’re a docile breed that boast a thick mane and a sturdy body, and many say that there’s an intelligent look to their eyes. However, while they are gentle and unafraid of humans, visitors are encouraged to admire them from afar and allow them to remain peaceful in their natural habitat.

There are rules surrounding the ponies when you visit the New Forest, including not feeding the ponies and ensuring that you don’t make any actions or movements that may interfere with them or their environment.

Best Time to Visit

The New Forest has something to offer at any point in the year, but it’s a good idea to plan your visit around the types of flora and fauna you’d like to see.

Regardless of what time of year you visit, I would always encourage you to do so responsibly. Please follow local advice and always be sure to keep a safe and respectful distance from animals and avoid feeding them. Furthermore, you should always take any litter home with you and leave the area as you found it.


For anyone that wants to see the abundance of wildflowers in the New Forest, April and May are the perfect times to visit. You’ll see species like wild daffodils, and even orchids.

Alongside the blooming flowers, insects and pollinators like butterflies will start to emerge.

Bird watchers are also in for a treat in spring as many of the migratory birds will be returning to nest.


Moving into summer, between June and August, the New Forest comes alive with pony and deer activity. The butterflies that came out in spring are even more active, and cold-blooded reptiles are often spotted at this time of year. During late August, the New Forest lights up with beautiful purples and pinks as the heather comes into full bloom.

What’s more, with more reliable weather, this is a great time to explore with the family.


As I mentioned earlier, rutting season for the deer begins in autumn, so this is an amazing time to witness some wild action. However, these activities can get pretty intense, so it’s always best to watch from a distance and give these animals the respect they deserve.

Fall is also a wonderful time to observe the 2700 species of fungi in the New Forest. Among the woodlands and grasslands, you’ll spot several species of mushrooms and toadstool, and scientists are still discovering new ones as we speak. 

It’s at this time of the year that any migratory birds will be getting ready to move on so it’s an excellent opportunity for bird watchers to catch some action.


Between December and February, the New Forest plays temporary host to many wintering birds that have come from the far north, such as fieldfares and thrushes.

While a lot of the mammal species, particularly the nocturnal ones like foxes and badgers, are hard to spot in summer, this becomes much easier as the foliage begins to thin out.

Other Times to Visit

A lot of the wildlife in the New Forest makes an appearance after the sun goes down. For example, the 14 species of bat that call this area home and the elusive nightjar.

But even if you don’t see any nocturnal animals, the clear skies here allow for an incredible view of the stars.

Whenever you visit the New Forest, you’ll be able to find several guided tours and events that run throughout the year. For families, there are lots of kid-friendly activities, such as pumpkin hunting at Halloween and the Walking and Cycling Festival earlier in October. There are also seasonal tours focusing on the various wildlife that’s active at that time.

A full list of events can be found on the New Forest website.

What to Explore?

  • Nature reserves: The New Forest has several nature reserves which provide a perfect opportunity to spot wildlife in these preserved habitats. Check out Lymington Keyhaven nature reserve which is a 6 mile coastal stretch with saltwater lagoons.
  • Rivers & wetlands: The Beaulieu River is a great spot to see water birds and is perfect for a walk. Wetlands at the Keyhaven marshes also provide an excellent chance to spot aquatic birds like plovers and gulls. Also check out Hatchet Pond, the largest freshwater body in the New Forest.
  • Ancient trees & arboretums: The New Forest Heritage Center in Lyndhurst is a great place to start exploring the woodlands, home to more than 1000 ancient trees as well as lots of wildlife. The Blackwater arboretum has several trees from around the world.
  • Wildlife walks: There are plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife in the New Forest. To see reptiles and insects, the heathlands, covering more than 10,000 hectares, are a great place to start. Furzey Gardens is also home to various insect and butterfly species as well as the New Forest Wildlife Park.
  • Deer spotting: If you’re keen to spot deer then the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary should be at the top of your list. Both fallow and red deer can be seen here and there’s a viewing platform that overlooks the meadow.
  • Walking & cycling: Hawkhill Trail and the Old Railway are excellent walking trails, or you could start at Wilverley Plain and check out some of the diverse wildlife on your way.
  • Scenic drives: If you prefer to spot wildlife from the comfort of your vehicle, then why not try the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, starting at Whitefield Moor and ending in Bolderwood. It’s just a short 1.5 mile drive, but the scenery is well worth it.
  • Camping: The Setthorns campsite in New Milton is a great place to stay among nature. There are lots of walking trails and being in such a secluded location, you’re guaranteed peace and tranquility.

How to Get There?

The New Forest is very accessible no matter where you are in the country. I’d recommend downloading an app with maps as this is a large area, so these apps are great for driving but also for when you head off on a walking or cycling trail.

Public Transport

  • Southampton Central is the nearest train station to the New Forest and can be reached from most major cities, including London.
  • If you’re coming from Waterloo, you can get off at Brockenhurst for even easier access to the New Forest, and it’s within walking distance.
  • There are coaches running from all over the country to the New Forest, including a National express from London. However, keep in mind that there are no direct bus or coach routes from Scotland. Instead, you’ll have to get a coach from Glasgow Buchanan Bus Station to Swindon, where you can then get a train to Brockenhurst.
  • There are several bus services running in and around the New Forest thanks to the New Forest Tour service.


  • Arriving at the New Forest from London via the M27, takes around 2 to 3 hours.
  • Using the M5, you can access the New Forest from Birmingham and other midlands cities.
  • From most places in the UK, you can use the motorways for a direct route.
  • When parking, be sure to check the policies and fees involved. You’ll find 51 council-owned car parks and 130 Forestry England car parks, but each comes with its own set of rules.

Walking & Cycling

  • When traveling around the New Forest, cycling is often a good option as it allows you to explore between the villages. If you don’t own a bike, there are plenty of cycle hire sites, such as CycleExperience in Brockenhurst.
  • Filled with walking trails, the New Forest is ideally explored on foot.
  • Take a local guided wildlife tour to make the most of your visit.

Where to Stay

On booking.com, there are more than 100 accommodation options in the New Forest and many more besides. Some of the best towns and villages for easy access include:

  • Brockenhurst
  • Lymington
  • Lyndhurst

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