There's nothing new about the New Forest. William the Conqueror chose it as his royal hunting ground in 1079 and named it Nova Foresta. The forest is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Only about half the New Forest National Park is actually forest. The rest is made up of lowland heath - the largest lowland heath area in Europe, pastureland, villages and shoreline. Nevertheless, the New Forest has the largest area of natural, deciduous woodland in Britain. And what forest there is is ancient. The Knightwood Oak near Bolderwood is thought to be 500 years old. Even older, a common yew tree near St. Nicholas Church in Brocklewood could be 1,000 years old. The Norman church, by the way, is the oldest in the New Forest. It was where kings prayed when they came to the forest to hunt.
The most unique aspect of the New Forest is the ancient system of commoning and the New Forest Commoners. The system gives Commoners the right to allow their ponies, cattle, sheep and pigs to graze and forage freely in the forest. It was formalized by law in the 16th century but had been the normal practice for centuries before. It's not unusual to be sitting in a charming pub in the New Forest and watch a couple of pigs lumber by, snorting up acorns and beechnuts as they go.
Animals in the New Forest are owned by active Commoners, of whom there are currently between 500 and 600. Between 6,500 and 7,000 of their animals, wander freely in the forest. They are classed as wild animals and visitors should not approach them as if they were domestic animals.
New Forest ponies are a recognized breed, but unlike the ponies of Exmoor and Dartmoor, they are not ancient. They originate from Welsh ponies, crossbred with Exmoor, Dartmoor and Highland ponies. The ponies have right of way over vehicles on New Forest Roads. Five caretakers, known as agisters look after the animals in the forest. Mares in have distinctive patterns cut into their tails. This allows the agisters to tell if the mare's marking fees have been paid and where the owner lives. Once a year, New Forest ponies are rounded up in "drifts" for health checks, branding and sales.