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The Forest of Dean by H. G. Nicholls

Administered by a Swainmote Court

style="text-align: justify;"> CHAPTER XIII.

The deer of the Forest, and its timber, plants, birds, ferns, and early allusions to the Forest deer--The Court of Swainmote, by which they were preserved--Act of 1668 regarding them--Reports of the Chief Forester in Fee and Bowbearer, and Verderers, in 1788, respecting the deer--Mr. Machen's memoranda on the same subject--Their removal in 1849--The birds of the Forest--Unforestlike aspect of the Forest, now, compared with its former condition--Successive reductions of its timber--Its oldest existing trees described--Present appearance of the young woods--Table of the Timber Stock, from time to time, during the last 200 years--An account of the rarer plants and ferns.

The earliest allusion to deer in the Forest is, as might be expected, coeval with its being constituted a royal domain. William the Conqueror is said to have been hunting here when he first heard of the taking of York by the Danes in August, 1069. In Henry I.'s reign the deer were so numerous as to make the tithes of them worthy of being given as a royal present by that king to the Abbey of Gloucester, which city, says Geraldus, was supplied with venison from the Forest of Dean; and the frequent visits of King John to Flaxley Abbey and to the Castle of St. Briavel's during the latter years of his reign, arose probably from the abundant sport the neighbourhood afforded him.

justify;">The deer of the King's forests were preserved in ancient times with the greatest care by the execution of certain laws, administered by a Swainmote Court, which was regulated by officers called Verderers, Foresters, and Agisters, who disposed of all cases in which deer were killed without warrant: not that any man was to lose either life or limb, as formerly, for so doing; but he was to be heavily fined if he had property, or, if not, to be imprisoned a year and a day, and be then released, if he could find sufficient securities, or be abjured the realm. A curious exception existed, however, in the case of any archbishop, bishop, earl, or baron summoned to the King, and by the way passing through a royal forest, when it was lawful for him to "take and kill one or two deer, by the view of the Forester, if he be present, or else shall cause one to blow an horne for him that he seem not to steal the deer." At the fawning season, or "fence-month," as it was called, commencing fifteen days before and ending fifteen days after Midsummer-day, the Forest officers attended within their own walks, and required all manner of dogs to be kept in at the peril of the owner, bringing before the verderers any persons found hunting or out of the highway with a bow or gun, or gathering rushes or bents, or driving swine or cattle, to the hurt or disquiet of the deer. They were also charged at all times with the preservation of the vert or underwood, on account of the shelter and food it afforded the deer.

[Picture: The Tomb of John de Yrall, Forester in Fee, in Newland Churchyard. Round the sides of the Tomb is this inscription, in old characters--"Here : lythe : Ion : Wyrall : Forster : of : Fee : the : whych : dysesyd : on : the : VIII : day : of : September : in : ye : yeare of oure Lorde : m.cccc.lviii. on : hys : Soule : God : have : Mercy : Amen."]

By the Act of 1668 it is provided, that, "should His Majesty think fit to restore the game of deer within the said Forrest, the same shall not exceed the number of 800 deer of all sorts at any one time;" intimating that during the Civil War, and the period of the Commonwealth, that kingly pastime had been discontinued. The same Act directs that "the owners, tenants, &c., of any of the several lands lying within the bounds of the Forest may keep any sort of dogs inexpediated to hunt and kill any beast of chase or other game," except during "the fence month," and "the time of the winter heyning, viz. from the 11th of November to the 23rd of April," when all rights of common were to be in abeyance.

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