Pressure groups plead: Leave our forests alone

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ACCESS and conservation groups are deeply worried about the Government’s plans to sell off England’s nationally owned forests.

Many say the Forestry Commission (FC) remains their best guardian.

The Government wants to off-load 15 per cent of the FC estate – 40,000 hectares. It promises to protect heritage forests, which give high public benefits, by inviting new or existing charities to take on management. The Environment Department says it will ensure environmental protection and public access, including permissive use, like horse and bicycle riding.

Areas listed as heritage include Mildenhall Woods, King’s Forest, Harling, Roudham Heath and Great Hockham, but most of Thetford Forest’s 19,000 hectares is on consultative maps as “mixed” commercial and heritage woodland.

Friends of Thetford Forest Park wants to keep it in FC hands. Chairman Anne Mason said: “We’ve seen first hand the expert management of the Forestry Commission and see no reason for that to change.”

She praised FC’s balancing of commercial with other demands. She added: “The FC gives the same protection to all archeological sites regardless of whether they are scheduled as ancient monuments.”

Mrs Mason added. “The Government is saying it will protect access on foot, but there’s no onus on a private owner to maintain a car park or access to a woodland ride.”

The British Horse Society’s East of England officer Janet Pamment called for riders’ access to get the same legal protection as walkers’ rights. The BHS says there are ex-FC sites which were taken on by bodies who ended rider access.

A National Trust East Anglian spokesman said: “We’re concerned about public access in the heritage woodlands. We want to ensure there are really tough safeguards in place.”

He said the trust would ask the public what they want it to do.

Norfolk and Suffolk Wildlife Trusts fear FC’s good conservation policies might die in private hands. Norfolk’s spokesman said Thetford Forest’s sites of special scientific interest have legal protection but local wildlife sites do not. “They’re important for diversity but are the sort of things that might not be covered,” he warned.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust chief executive Julian Roughton said: “You can’t just look after SSSIs in isolation. They are linked by local wildlife sites.”

He welcomed the way the proposed chance for conservation bodies to take over woodland management but questioned the wisdom of launching forestry consultation ahead of the Natural Environment White Paper due in June. “It is a bit cart before the horse,” he argued.