Meeting the extraordinary young New Forest residents who tell us why they are dedicating their lives to defending their home woodlands and keeping its ancient traditions alive.

Great British Life: Arun was awarded the Young Environmental Champion Award from the New Forest National Park Awards in 2022Arun was awarded the Young Environmental Champion Award from the New Forest National Park Awards in 2022 (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

Arun Curson

‘More people get killed by vending machines than by sharks.’

That’s one pearl of wisdom from 14-year-old Arun Curson, as he splashes heavy wellies through the shallows at Keyhaven nature reserve. Arun knows a lot about sharks. In fact, he knows a lot about a plethora of sea creatures, which is why he’s lifting rocks in this coastal part of the New Forest, to see what’s on the shore.

‘This is an invasive species,’ he shakes his head, picking up a curly knot of ribbons. Japanese wireweed. To anyone else, it might just look like any piece of seaweed. But Arun has spent hours of his childhood in this very spot, meticulously plotting inhabitants and visitors to the shore during low tide, and he knows what he’s looking at. Today, he’s showing me what he’d normally do on an intertidal survey every couple of months with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. His mum, Mandy, is just as keenly (and carefully) turning over rocks.

‘Broad-clawed porcelain crabs!’ Arun shouts, every exciting find sending him spiralling towards the conflicting priorities of taking a photo, getting a closer look, and being careful with the rock so that the creatures don’t get hurt. Arun’s excitement is contagious. Every lifted rock creates the potential for a new discovery. What’s even more incredible, is that most of the creatures are tiny — and beige. Without getting up close and personal with the seashore, you would never see what’s there. But once you notice the life in miniature, it is exhilarating.

‘We go to a shore, most likely Keyhaven or Calshot, and we start at the high tide mark and then we move down to low tide. And we just list every species we can see,’ Arun explains of the surveys. Every find is entered into a database, so that they can keep track of what’s in the water and locate endangered species. Technically, Arun was never meant to be at these surveys, as he didn’t meet the 16-year age limit. But that wasn’t going to stop him.

‘He’s here now, can’t he join us?’ his mum and dad, who had signed up as volunteers, asked the team running the survey. They let him stay. Ten-year-old Arun had already learnt so much from books, that he pinged between rocks identifying all sorts of creatures and crustaceans. By the end of the day, the volunteer lead said: ‘He can come any time.’ But Arun wasn’t satisfied with that.

‘Why can’t I sign up to be a volunteer?’ he asked… and asked… and asked. Luckily, the survey team had his back.

The weekend before Covid-19 sent the UK into its first lockdown, Arun completed his intertidal shore search survey training and became the youngest person ever to volunteer on the survey, at 11 years-old. He had got his wish — although he’d have to wait for restrictions to lift before volunteering at another survey.

‘It’s an opportunity to see creatures, and it’s just a way that I can help,’ he says.

Arun’s even been featured on Countryfile to encourage other young people to get involved in doing surveys.

Great British Life: Arun was one of the youngest volunteers to work on a Wildlife Trust surveyArun was one of the youngest volunteers to work on a Wildlife Trust survey (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

Arun’s got a nickname at school: Squid. It was all sparked by watching the children’s CBeebies cartoon Octonauts, where a team of animal deep sea explorers travel the world and protect the oceans, learning about interesting creatures along the way. Soon his bedroom was covered in squid posters. Birthday presents were often seakeeper experiences at local aquariums, and he managed to get himself an invitation to go behind the scenes of the Natural History Museum to see an array of preserved creatures, including a colossal squid, a giant squid and a goblin shark.

Arun soon became a walking encyclopaedia of his two specialist subjects — sharks and squids. And while these species might not spring to mind when most people think of Hampshire waters, they are very much present. In his home in Bransgore, Arun leafs through reference books, pointing out the sharks and rays in our waters. The common squid calls the South Coast sea home, as do basking sharks, cat sharks and rays. Short-snouted seahorses are rarer, but they’re around. Also, to be found in the local sea, are common octopus, white spotted octopus and curled octopus.

‘If there weren’t any sharks, the numbers [of fish] would just go out of control and everything would fall apart,’ Arun says, explaining why these apex predators are so important in local waters. He’s even developing a website for children about the different species of shark, the threats they face and how to help.

Arun’s interest in marine life might have stayed as just that — an interest. But he started taking action as soon as he learned about the damage being done to ocean life.

‘Especially the sharks,’ he says, explaining that 100 million die globally every year. ‘When I heard about that, I definitely wanted to do something.’

He explains about trawlers causing damage when they trawl for fish, sweeping up unnecessary by-catch. That knowledge is what led Arun and his mum, on behalf of Greenpeace, to supplement their weekly grocery shop with activism.

Great British Life: Arun has always been happiest along the shoreline, seeing what he can discoverArun has always been happiest along the shoreline, seeing what he can discover (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

‘We had these little cardboard slips of paper, which we used to put over John West tuna in the supermarket saying, “Don't buy these, they're unsustainable.”’

He got involved with other organisations, adopting animals through the WWF and signing up to the Marine Conservation Society, while rock pooling in his free time. At around eight-years-old, he was signing petitions, remembering one particular campaign from the Shark Trust to stop overfishing of the world’s fastest sharks, the mako shark. He was putting all the pieces together — what he was seeing in his local area, what was happening in the wider oceans and how it was all connected. The intertidal surveys were perhaps a natural progression, and he’s now moving onto something else. Seagrass.

‘We’re packing the seeds and then other people will plant in mudflats,’ he explains. ‘It absorbs CO2, like any other plant, but it is an amazing habitat for underwater creatures.’

And there’s another secret power that seagrass possesses.

‘One of the most amazing things about seagrass is that when it dies, it clumps together and it rolls around the seafloor picking up plastic, and then it’ll wash up on the shore filled with all this plastic,’ Arun says.

In the blisteringly hot summer of 2022 — a scorching reminder of the climate crisis — Arun was awarded the Young Environmental Champion Award from the New Forest National Park Awards, for his dedication to being a marine champion.

He may only be 14, but the world at Arun’s feet is seeding ideas for his future.

‘I’d love to go to Antarctica and study the marine biology there, because that’s where the colossal squid live,’ he says.

But for now, the Forest around him creates wonder enough. And he wants other young people to get involved in caring for the natural world.

‘We have the most time to change it. We have all the opportunities and resources, then we know how to use the technology. So, we have the best opportunity to change the environment for the better.’

Great British Life: Dominik was awarded the Daily Mirror RSPCA Animal Hero Awards in 2014Dominik was awarded the Daily Mirror RSPCA Animal Hero Awards in 2014 (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

Dominik Reynolds

While Arun’s marine fascination was sparked by Octonauts, 22-year-old Dominik Reynolds had his wildlife interest piqued by Sir David Attenborough.

‘I want to be doing that,’ a six-year-old Dominik would tell his mum, when they watched the BBC documentaries.

‘I was more interested in the outdoors than the indoors,’ Dominik says. And people encouraged him — particularly his mum, who’s been taking wildlife photos for as long as Dominik can remember.

A young Dominik found an unusual hobby. His favourite outing was not the play park or the toy shop, but a trip to the New Forest Reptile Centre, an outdoor centre that’s home to all the native snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads found in the UK. He toddled around as soon as he could walk, graduating into pointing out the different reptile species to visitors. The resident RSPB hut gave him his first chance to watch birds of prey, including a video feed of a goshawk in the Forest.

The Reptile Centre volunteers watched on as Dominik gave impromptu information sessions. Then, they asked if Dominik would like to become a volunteer himself. He was nine years old. He put on a navy waistcoat brandishing the RSPB and Forestry Commission logos, and turned up at weekends — right up until his pre-university gap year. He soaked up knowledge about both reptiles and birds, as the youngest ever RSPB volunteer.

‘They said that they weren't likely to ever again have a volunteer that reached a five-year service badge, but also had to be guided by an adult,’ Dominik remembers. He had his 10-year-service badge pinned on before he hit 20.

Just like Arun, Dominik was the proud recipient of the Young Environmental Champion prize at the Best of New Forest National Park Awards in 2019. He also found himself at a glitzy event at Mayfair’s Grosvenor Hotel, the Daily Mirror RSPCA Animal Hero Awards in 2014. As Brian May hosted the awards, Dominik sat in the audience waiting to find out which of the three nominees would take home the Young Animal Enthusiast award. And of course, it was him.

His nomination sprung from both his RSPB volunteering work and his success at getting his own piece of research in front of decision-makers at Greenpeace and the RSPB, looking at young people’s reactions to conservation charity marketing videos.

‘I went up on stage in school assembly, and said I was doing this bit of research, showed the videos, and then handed out 1,000 questionnaires,’ Dominik remembers. He compiled all the data, and created a report that people still ask to read today.

And that wasn’t all. Dominik also set up his own wildlife fund, hosting barn dances and other events to raise hundreds of pounds for his chosen charities. He called it Dominik’s Wildlife Fund. At 10 years-old, he knocked on the door of 10 Downing Street to deliver the RSPB’s Letter to the Future campaign, containing over 360,000 signatures demanding that politicians consider the health of the planet as they make decisions around spending and cuts. Later that day, he spoke at the launch of the RSPB’s next campaign.

Since then, Dominik has immersed himself in the natural world on his doorstep. He spent a few years working in an education role at the New Forest Wildlife Park, where he stood in front of school groups, bringing to life the stories of foxes, badgers, and otters.

‘I think they enjoyed having someone younger telling them this,’ he says. He was a young person, talking to other young people about conservation.

His boyhood dreams might have shifted from being a wildlife presenter to working in education, but he stuck to the same path: zoology. And now, he’s got a degree from Bristol University, mostly studied during lockdown. Dominik wants to inspire other young people to get involved with the natural world, and that’s giving him the impetus to pursue a career in wildlife education.

Great British Life: The moment Dominik met a goshawk chick The moment Dominik met a goshawk chick (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

Young environmental champions have an incredible opportunity, Dominik believes. ‘We as a collective are in a more unique position of getting my generation and the new generations more inspired, as we are more directly able to connect to them.’

There is, he says, an easy ‘doom and gloom’ message that tells people why they should care about the natural world — if people don’t get involved, soon there won’t be much left to get involved with. But he has a more positive outlook. Having real experiences in nature has pulled him out of slumps and left him with unique memories. Conserving the natural world and contributing to the health of the planet is hugely important, but experiencing tiny moments in nature is just as rewarding.

Dominik’s experience of the natural world has taken him far beyond this Hampshire national park, too. With the research expedition organisation Operation Wallacea, he has travelled to both Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands.

‘The Galápagos was unlike anything that anyone will ever see, in any place on Earth,’ he says. ‘It did make me appreciate local things in a new light.’

The New Forest is an incredibly special place for Dominik, be its huge pine forests, healthlands, or wetlands where ospreys fly overhead. As a child he’d visit his grandparents’ house right in the heart of the forest, taking the dog out for walks or searching for ponies and donkeys.

‘It was special to me, but it's also special in general because it’s a fairly small area that’s now got an increasing number of species,’ he says. Goshawks have now returned, as have ospreys. Due to the south coast location, Mediterranean species sometimes blow towards the forest. ‘For a fairly smallish national park, it’s got a lot going on.’

Great British Life: Gemma bought her own pony aged 11Gemma bought her own pony aged 11 (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

Gemma Hobbs

Gemma Hobbs has been known to dress up as a shark. Specifically, when she’s representing her school house Solent, competing over who can collect the most discarded cans. She’s also an Eco Prefect, pushing for improvements at her school like paper bags for pastries instead of plastic pots, and pestering the Design and Technology department to make a can crusher to up the school’s recycling game.

But the environment plays a much bigger role in 16-year-old Gemma’s life than just this. She is what’s known as a Young Commoner. Common Rights in the New Forest are attached to specific property — to discover their commoning or non-commoning fate, people have to take themselves off to Lyndhurst and check their coordinates against an ancient map. Commoners are afforded particular rights, be it turning out ponies, donkeys, or cattle into the forest; setting pigs out for pannage (where they eat up the acorns that are poisonous to ponies and cattle) or cutting wood for fuel. It’s an ancient system still practised by a community of dedicated New Forest dwellers, and it is vital to the area’s ecology. Gemma is part of the next generation of commoners, and this commitment isn’t just a hobby — it’s a lifestyle.

‘Everyone in my family is a Commoner,’ Gemma says. Her grandparents were the first in the family to start, and the tradition has stuck. ‘They’ve done it all their lives, more or less.’

They’re a pony-orientated family, and between them have around 20 semi-feral ponies living in Pilley and Brockenhurst, including a stallion who helps secure future bloodlines. They’re also part of a pony stud, for non-forest dwelling ponies, and Gemma competes at local breed shows — there’s often a friendly rivalry between Commoners.

Great British Life: Gemma is a young Commoner in the New ForestGemma is a young Commoner in the New Forest (Image: Katie Dancey-Downs)

‘Turning ponies and cattle out on the Forest is important to keep grass and living organisms running,’ Gemma explains. ‘They're eating the grass down, which is good because if we didn't have ponies out in the Forest, or cows or anything, the grass would be crazy. They eat the gorse flowers, they eat gorse back, and holly.’

It would be a wilderness without the ponies, Gemma’s mum adds as we talk in their Boldre home. ‘They’re known as architects of the New Forest.’

As a child, Gemma was desperate to have her own pony out in the forest. She saved up every penny of birthday money and at the age of 11 eventually bought a mare, sight unseen, from an advert online, her old-fashioned bloodlines pegging her out as a hardy pony. She arrived — a liver chestnut pony with a white star in the middle of her forehead. Her name is Gin.

After getting her own pony, Gemma officially joined the Young Commoners last year. She threw herself into the Colts Council — a club with a social side that brings Commoners together. And one benefit of a young cohort of Commoners, is that digital tools are now firmly embedded in the forest way of life, used to solve all sorts of problems, from quick communication to educating locals on how best to respect the Forest.

Gemma has a lot of Commoning memories, but one of her earliest is her first drift, where ponies are rounded up.

‘From August to November, they have different roundups from different parts of the forest,’ Gemma explains. ‘They come in, they get wormed, checked, then they get their tails cut.’

At age five, she perched on her Grandad’s shoulders. They stood in silence, before the radio crackled into life: ‘They’re coming, they’re coming!’

Gemma’s Grandad yelled up to her: ‘You’re going to have to hold on because I’m going to wave at the ponies.’

Gemma clung on, while her Grandad flung his arms around and shouted at the top of his voice at the 40 or so ponies. She was in awe of the creatures thundering past — excited and scared all at the same time.

‘You have to make yourself as big as you can,’ Gemma explains. If 100 ponies are running towards you and you aren’t in the right place, you’re in big trouble. ‘You have to try and turn them. If they're galloping towards you, you have to be shouting and hollering at them to get them to turn.’

Riders on horseback rounded up the ponies like sheep dogs, others shouted and waved sticks, making huge gestures to avoid being mown down. At the drift, everything is fast and furious.

As well as being a Young Commoner, Gemma is a Young Farmer — just like her grandad was. She learns everything from judging livestock and public speaking to digger driving, chainsaw maintenance, and how to handle guns, in a club under the umbrella of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, founded in 1921.

But there’s a problem, Gemma’s mum says — the land in the New Forest is unaffordable, meaning Young Commoners and Young Farmers are being priced out of the area they’ve been born into.

Young Commoners has only been around since 2007, born out of a meeting with Verderers Court, the guardians of the Commoners, their rights, and the Forest.

‘Young people in the Forest actually have a voice and need to be able to share their opinions on what they think of Commoning and how to improve it, because we are the building blocks for the next generation,’ Gemma says.

Gemma is building on an ancient tradition, but she’s also part of a digitally native age. She’s continuing important ecological practices whilst embracing technology.

‘Having those younger people interested, gives more hope for the Forest, for the future,’ Gemma says.

Gemma hopes she can find a job that will help secure the future of the Forest, but whatever the case, she says: ‘I’ll always do Commoning.’