The Hunting Forests And Chases

In Medieval times, royal hunting “Forests” were declared for the king to hunt deer, wild boar and other prey.

Although we expect a “forest” nowadays to be an extensive, wooded area, in Norman and Medieval times, “forest” was a legal term meaning land where the King or other nobles had the right to keep deer and to impose strict forest laws to protect them. Places like the New Forest in Hampshire, Ashdown Forest in Sussex, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, Epping in Essex or Sherwood in Nottingham were Royal hunting grounds where the prime interest was deer and not just the trees.

Old New Forest beech
© J. Jackson

“Chases” were private hunting areas but were sometimes called Forests too. Examples were Cannock Chase in the West Midlands or Salcey Forest in Northamptonshire.

The 12th and early 13th centuries saw the zenith of these hunting preserves with some 66 Royal Forests and 70 private ones or chases.

Hunting forests were subject to the harsh Forest Law which at one stage applied to a third of Britain. But from the 1200s, the role of these tracts of land waned although the remnants give a fascinating insight into their past management.

In a modern sense, these Forests were not always well populated with trees – often they were more open areas such as wood pasture and heath-land.

The New Forest is probably our finest example of multi-purpose forest management, catering for such diverse interests as the growing of trees for timber, the pasturing of commoners’ stock, the safeguarding of a biologically diverse ecosystem and the provision of facilities for recreation and education.