The term forest now denotes a large expanse of woodland far larger than a small wood, but in older times it signified an area kept as a hunting preserve by the king, who fed his court on venison and entertained his courtiers by leading them on the hunt. To preserve the deer for his own use he needed to defend it against men such as Robin Hood, who was said to have a taste for royal venison. So the king's foresters were appointed to defend the forest. Some of them took a liking to royal deer as well, so there were a few prosecutions.The kings also liked to hunt wild boar, a foe more dangerous than deer,and the prevalence of boar hunting contributed to the extinction of the species in Britain [it has been reintroduced.]
In Norman times forest laws were brutal, but their severity was reduced by Henry the Third, who banned the blinding of miscreants. But severity was always the last resort. More often there were fines, as kings were in perpetual need of money. Moreover, a skilled poacher made an effective fighting man, so some convicted deer poachers finished up doing stint in the army, which was a better choice than a couple of years in a stinking dungeon. But it was not just poor people who robbed the king's deer. Knights,monks and at least on one occasion an abbot were fined for breaking the law.
But forest was not unremitting woodland. The area of a forest would be a mixture of woodland, possibly ancient, coppice[ copse] farmland, parkland and in some cases moorland. Areas of forest might be assigned to farmers in arrangements known as assarts. If they were used for cattle they would be called vaccaries.
Savernake Forest, in the southern county of Wiltshire is unique. It was known as a woodland in Anglo-Saxon times, but after the Norman Conquest it passed into the hands of a Norman, who became warden of the forest, and in the nigh on a thousand years since has never been sold, passing from father to son and in four cases daughter. The title warden of the forest still exists, and it is the only royal forest in private hands. The wardens have for a thousand years managed it well.To legally preserve it as a private forest it is closed to the public one day a year.
The New Forest is unique in that it was created by William the Conqueror. It is composed of areas of trees with expanses of grazing land. Commoners, certain ancient families of ordinary folk who have dwelt there since the afforestation, enjoy commoners' rights to graze their animals in the forest, and they guard these rights jealously. The forest has its own breed of ponies, New Forest ponies, which wander at will through the ancient woodland. In recent years there has been a need to manage invasive plant species, but the forest authorities have introduced carefully controlled ginger Tamworth pigs, whose exceptional snouts can clear ground of invasive roots very quickly. Wild boar have been reintroduced to the forest. They are great at clearing patches of ground, but not everyone loves them, for they can be dangerous and invade vegetable gardens.