A £16 million conservation programme will back traditional grazing practices in the New Forest as part of efforts to protect habitats and rare species in the National Park.

The government’s conservation agency, Natural England, said yesterday that the record-breaking agri-environment scheme – the biggest in Europe – will help fund the historic practice of “commoning”, in which ponies and cattle have been allowed to graze freely in the forest for centuries.

Their grazing keeps down the growth of scrub and maintains habitats such as grassland and wood pasture which many species depend on for their survival.

The area is home to New Forest ponies and other rare species including nightjars, Dartford warblers, bog orchids, Bechstein bats, stag beetles and tadpole shrimps.

It provides the perfect environment for species ranging from the smooth snake to the New Forest cicada, silver-washed fritillary and the southern damselfly.

The funding, which will channel £16 million to the area over the next 10 years, will also support efforts to restore some of its important habitats.

Remote sensing technology will map the archaeological features of the forest, which was a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror and later a source of timber for Navy battleships, as part of efforts to preserve its history.

Poul Christensen, chairman of Natural England, said: “By establishing a major source of funding for the forest’s traditional agricultural practices, this agreement will help to preserve its distinctive environment for many years to come.

“We appreciate the vital role that commoners have played in protecting the forest for a thousand years and we are delighted to be able to work with them to ensure they have the support they need to continue looking after this beautiful landscape.”

The programme involves Natural England, the Verderers of the New Forest – who protect and administer the agricultural commoning practices – the New Forest National Park Authority, the Commoners Defence Association and the Forestry Commission.

Official Verderer Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre said: “The thousands of ponies and cattle that roam free are essential for conserving the forest; in fact it is their grazing that has created the landscape over hundreds of years.

“But all these animals have owners, and therefore the direct financial support that this scheme will give them is invaluable.”