New Forest Verderers, Agisters, Commoners and Rangers
The New Forest is a natural masterpiece but there is much work that needs to be done behind the scenes. All in the name of conservation, everything must be monitored and amended. From clearing weeds to controlling vegetation, the verderers, agisters, rangers and commoners really are all important when it comes to keeping the land alive - they are the true heroes of the forest!
The New Forest ‘System’
Verderers are appointed by authoritative organisations and elected by the commoners. Agisters are appointed by the verderers to carry out instructions provided by the Court of Verderers. Commoners occupy land that is free for stock to graze upon.
New Forest rangers are something else. Not part of the historical 'system', rangers are appointed by the National Park to help to preserve and restore the forest.
Recreation is vital in the New Forest and with a vast proportion of the forest being Crown land, access to the greater part is open and free to all. Conservation, preservation and protection are key to managing and maintaining the forest. Through a number of organisations working together, including the verderers, who protect the forest from development and safeguard the rights of commoners and the Forestry Commission, this is achieved. Read on to find out in greater depths about the roles that these people play in perpetuating the countryside.
The Verderers Court is a statutory body set up under the New Forest act of 1877. It is the last remnant of the old form of Forest Government which was at one time found in many parts of the Country. The Verderers regulate commoning (the exercise of common rights such as grazing ponies) in the Forest. They also have wide responsibilities in respect of development control and conservation. The present Court consists of 10 Verderers. 5 are elected by the Commoners (people with common rights) and the other 5 are appointed, one each by DEFRA, the Forestry Commission, the National Park Authority and the Countryside Agency. The Official Verderer is chairman of the Court and is appointed by the Queen.
The role undertaken by verderers in the New Forest is to:
- Conserve and execute the New Forest's exclusive arboricultural commoning practices;
- Maintain the New Forest’s natural landscape, including it’s character and wildlife, flora and fauna, tranquility, natural allure and cultural heritage
- Ensure a positive future for commoning
To help them with their work, the Verderers employ a Clerk (administrator), a part-time Assistant to the Clerk and 5 Agisters.
The word 'agister’ is derived from the word agist, which means to take in graze for payment. Agisters are responsible for supervising the day-to-day welfare of the ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and sheep which graze the Forest and are owned by the commoners. Should there be any ruptures to the laws that the Verderers set, it is the agister’s job to report it. They are often also commoners themselves, meaning that they have an outstanding knowledge of the workings and the systems of the forest.
On standby 24/7, agisters are there to help with any dilemmas concerning livestock in the forest. When the autumnal ‘drifts’ occur, the agisters are called upon to care for any first aid needs that the livestock may have. Perhaps their most important job is to keep track of the numbers of stock on the open forest.
The job of an agister originates from Medieval times, when the role consisted of collecting grazing fees (a charge for grazing a specific type of livestock on a monthly/annual basis) from people who let their livestock graze without permission. However, the commoners did not have to pay a fee because they owned the land. Nowadays, they collect an annual fee in the spring- a payment that each commoner has to make for every one of their animals. This is how the agisters are paid.
Commoning consists of occupying acreage to which the right to graze stock on the open forest is attached. This is also known as the ‘rights of common’. What are they? First of all, the right to gather wood for fuel, the quantity that each commoner takes is organised into ‘cords’ (stacks of wood) that are left at the side of the forest paths. The second right is the right to turn sheep out on the forest. Presently, no commoners practice this right as it is only applicable to very few properties. Thirdly, the right to pannage in the autumn (to enrol pigs into the forest). This is good for the pigs because they can feed on the fallen acorns and also good for the ponies and cattle because some acorns can be poisonous to them. The last right, and possibly the most important, is the right to pasture, to put donkeys, cattle and ponies out to graze in the forest.
Since the Medieval times, Commoning has been a way of life for many in the New Forest. Unfortunately, the role no longer is fit to provide a satisfactory income, so those who remain in the industry only do so as a subsidiary role. In this modern age, relations and descendants of commoners are finding it progressively arduous to maintain the institution due to lack of funding, a large portion of the lands that have communing rights attached have become too expensive or are being used for other purposes. It is mandatory that the traditional occupation is continued, as the land will develop into forest should the animals discontinue to graze there. This will negatively provoke the activities that many enjoy all over the forest everyday.
New Forest Rangers
Many rangers in the New Forest have been appointed by the New Forest National Park. There are other rangers and volunteer rangers in the New Forest National Park including from the Forestry Commission, National Trust and Hampshire County Council. They have three main jobs:
- To be a ‘visible presence’ in the forest as a point of contact
- To educate visitors and local people on what makes the National Park a unique place- from its wildlife and landscape to it’s culture
- To help to progress local community projects that safeguard and boost the exceptional qualities of the National Park and enhance access to it
Other jobs of theirs include:
- Collaborating with community groups to support the development of local projects such as accessibility improvements and habitat management
- Assisting with outreach projects aimed at under-represented groups such as people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, those from deprived areas and young people
- Supporting the National Park education team with school visits or working with informal education such as youth clubs, specialist interest groups and children’s centres
- Attending local events with the distinctive National Park Explorer mobile unit and mini-marquee. These include local shows and fairs, food festivals and farmers’ markets as well as partnership events and activities organised by the Forestry Commission and the New Forest Centre
- Assisting with campaigns to encourage people to help care for the New Forest, for example, reducing litter, preventing animal accidents and protecting ground nesting bird
- Developing and maintaining knowledge of individual areas including Local Information Points, facilities, key venues, libraries, parish councils, accommodation providers and retailers
- Distributing National Park publications to local outlets and helping to identify new ones
For more information about the New Forest rangers, visit the New Forest NPA website.
For more information about the New Forest verderers, visit the Verderers website.