February 2016

Jonathan Gerrelli – Head Agister ‘The work and History of the New Forest Agisters’
February 2016

The Society welcomed Jonathan Gerrelli as their speaker at the February 2016 meeting. As Head Agister of the New Forest, he was able to speak with authority and knowledge on his subject of ‘The work and history of the New Forest Agister’.

During a brief history of the forest the audience was reminded of its creation by William I, in about 1079, as a ‘New’ royal hunting forest. The land consisted mainly of relatively infertile areas of woodland and furzy waste together with a number of villages and sparsely scattered farms and homesteads. Initially, draconian Forest law was enforced over this area and although times are now much changed the New Forest is Crown Land, administered and managed by the Forestry Commission in co-operation with the Court of Verderers and other statuary organizations under the authority of various New Forest Acts.

The Court of Verderers was reconstituted by the New Forest Act 1877 (often known unofficially as ‘The Commoners’ Charter’) and now consists of 10 Verderers the Official Verderer, appointed by the Queen, and four who are elected by registered commoners and five who are appointed by nominated public bodies. Currently the Court is served by a clerk and the five employed Agisters. These days the Verderers work closely with the Forestry Commission and Natural England in the regulation and development of the forest. The Court also has a major input in its commercialisation.

It is recognised that the New Forest is a very special place and accommodating the needs of all users presents the Agisters often with conflicts of interest which they are required to address. Each Agister, who is usually a commoner with years of practical experience, is responsible for a specific area of the forest. The work of the Agisters, described by the speaker, includes the management and welfare of the commoners’ animals which in total, comprises approximately 5000 ponies, 4000 cattle and 250 donkeys together with a number of sheep and pigs. Between August and November, the Agisters organise the annual ‘drifts’ and the resulting ‘marking’ of the animals. The knowledge and professionalism can be amply understood when it is realised the efforts and initiatives taken not only to maintain the quality of the bloodstock of the animals, but also improve it by careful control of the stallions which are allowed to be turned out on the forest.

The Agisters also deal with all road traffic accidents where animals are involved. Currently there are something like 150 accidents each year which may be considered alarming but it has reduced from the high levels in the 300s of the 1960s largely due to the fencing of major forest roads in 1964, the introduction of an overall 40 mph speed limit and such devices as reflective collars. The demands on the forest ‘facilities’ has grown in modern times, with the advent of the car, e.g. camping and a myriad of formal events all placing additional pressures on the very fabric of the forest. Adverse effects from illegal public activities such as the feeding of the animals, fly-tipping and general litter— all of which place additional burdens on the work of the Agisters.

Currently there are some 700 commoners all with certain specified Rights, of which there are six, though only four are current. These Rights legally attach to the commoner’s properties and not to the individual and can be one or a permutation of the four. The most important Right is that of Pasture enabling the commoners to turn out (depasture) ponies, cattle and donkeys to graze the open forest. The common of pasture for sheep and that for mast or pannage (turning out pigs to eat acorns and beech mast) remains important. The right of estovers (fuel wood) has, in recent years, again become important but it is limited in scope. It is controlled by the Forestry Commission, who cut the wood to suitable lengths for the fire and make it available for collection. Many commoners are ‘forest people’ who can trace their roots back for generations. But nowadays they often work on a full or part-time basis to supplement their ‘Forest income’.

The Agisters work closely with them on all matters relating to their Forest activities.

This was an extremely interesting talk giving a fascinating insight into the work of today’s Agister and was much appreciated by the audience. The next meeting of the Society will be held on Friday, 18 March when the Speaker will be Dr. Andy Russel whose talk will be ‘Southampton: Sugar and Slaves.’ Visitors are very welcome.