Fifty million people visit Forestry Commission woodlands every year. But if they go down to the woods today, they've a fairly good chance of a big surprise: because, over the past 15 years, nearly half of those woodlands have been stealthily privatised and, as a result, closed to the public. This report, drawing on figures specially compiled by the Ramblers' Association, reveals the full extent of the sell-off for the first time
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Old wood stands at Pretty Corner, above the haunting north Norfolk coast. The names are simple, but suitable. The wood, full of oaks, beech and silver birch, is one of the last fragments of the ancient forest that once blanketed the British Isles. Ablaze with rhododendrons at this time of year, it is a famous viewpoint, perched on an old glacial moraine - which, since it rises to 300ft, is known locally as the flat county's "mountain range" - and looking out on the sands, shingle and salt-marshes of this bird-rich shore.

Every weekend, hundreds of people come to the 50-acre Old Wood, near the little town of Sheringham, in an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. They wander through it at will and picnic in it in summer. They can do so because the wood belongs to the Forestry Commission, the Government agency that owns and manages roughly half of Britain's two million remaining hectares of forest. (One hectare is approximately 2.5 acres.) The Commission operates a policy of "freedom to roam" in almost all its woodland and actively encourages people to take advantage of this. It has long taken pride in making the public welcome, and attracts 50 million visitors each year.

But the future of Old Wood, and many hundreds like it, is now at risk, not from urban development, or some new arboreal disease, but from a more insidious process: stealthy privatisation. All over Britain, once-open woodlands are disappearing behind padlocks and barbed wire. Their trees, glades and leafy paths may still be there - but just for a privileged few. Everyone else has no more chance of enjoying them than if they'd all been chopped down. We are unlikely ever to roam in them again.

This is not blind market forces at work: it is deliberate policy. Since 1981, the Forestry Commission has been required by the Government to raise revenue for the Treasury by selling off its property. The Commission's main statutory responsibilities are framing and implementing national forestry policy, ensuring good practice in public and private forestry, providing timber for industry, and achieving a balance between the needs of forestry and conservation. But the pressure to sell off its land has been steadily increasing, and it is expected to raise pounds 20m a year from sales, with any shortfall being made up from its own departmental budget. The worst of this surreptitious privatisation is almost certainly yet to come. Old Wood is on the current disposal list.

In all, more than 2,600 woods - 46 per cent of the total number once publicly owned - have already been quietly sold off in the past 15 years. Ministers have repeatedly promised that access will be protected; in practice, private owners almost invariably keep the public out. People who have tried to walk in the privatised woods have had to contend with barbed wire and guard dogs, and may even risk being shot.

Two years ago, the Government formally announced that the Commission would not be privatised. "Our conclusion," Ian Lang, then Scottish Secretary, told the House of Commons, "is that the Forestry Commission woodlands should remain in the public sector at this stage."

Never the less, the sell-off has continued, and actually increased in pace. Soon more than half of the Commission's woodlands will have been privatised. Lang's apparent promise to safeguard them has, in fact, turned out to be a typical piece of doublespeak. The Forestry Commission has remained a Government body, and thus the woods it owns at any one time are also in the "public sector". But it no longer owns those that it sells off, and so the minister's assurance no longer applies. QED.

It has even become hard to identify woods still owned by the Forestry Commission in which people can still legally roam. Once, Ordnance Survey maps used to identify them with the letters F C, effectively giving walkers an open invitation, but in the 1980s the signs disappeared. This, too, is down to privatisation. The Commission feared that because the maps could not keep up with the pace of privatisation people might be misled into thinking they could walk freely in woods that had, in fact, been sold. So the inviting marks were removed from all Forestry Commission maps.

The facts and figures are shocking, but - though there have been a few local protests over specific woods - they have not produced a national outcry so far, because the full details have never been published. The charts and map overleaf give unprecedentedly precise information on the numbers of woods sold in every county in England and Wales, and in every Scottish region (the Forestry Commission does not operate in Northern Ireland). Compiled with the help of the Ramblers' Association, they are the first-ever detailed tally of Britain's vanishing woods.

IT IS difficult to overestimate the impact of this process on what has become a traditional part of British life. The Forestry Commission may be only 77 years old, but these have been critical years in the history of our woods: during its lifetime - until recently - more were opened up for public access than ever before.

The Commission owes its creation to the First World War, when a shortage of pit-props for the mines threatened the war effort. Begun in 1919, it was charged with building up "a strategic reserve of timber", a raison d'etre that continued long into the nuclear age and was only fully abandoned two years ago. It took over such ancient Royal forests as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean from the Crown and bought vast tracts of bare, uncultivated land in the Scottish, Welsh and English uplands for planting with conifers. In the heavily farmed lowlands there was no such bare land available, so it bought up existing woodlands instead.

People could already go into Royal forests, but most of the woods the Commission bought had been in private hands, and often had no public access. The publicly owned Commission allowed the public on to its land from the start. This freedom to roam is particularly precious in what remains of our ancient broad-leaf woodland. Once it covered four-fifths of England, but more than 98 per cent of it has been cut down over the centuries and nearly half of what little remained at the end of the Second World War has been either felled or severely damaged (often as the result of the Commission itself replanting old broad-leaf woodland with conifers). So remnants like Old Wood are precious - increasingly so as the pressures of overcrowded urban and suburban life build up.

"Old Wood really is a beautiful place," says George le Surf, who has just retired after 40 years as Norfolk area secretary of the Ramblers' Association. "If it is sold to a private owner, it will go the same way as all the other woods offered for sale by the Forestry Commission in Norfolk. It will be fenced off, and everyone will have their access withdrawn." People will still be able to walk down the one public right of way that runs through the wood, but they will be unable to wander off this track.

At Birch Wood in Surrey, not even that much remains. The wood, outside Caterham, on the edge of another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, stands at almost exactly the spot where the London conurbation finally breaks out into open country. It, too, is a beautiful place, another fragment of ancient woodland. Topping off sloping buttercupped fields, it dominates the crest of a hill overlooking the green Halliloo and Marden valleys. Like many woods that used to be available to the public, it was, paradoxically, in many ways a private place. Local people used to come regularly: to walk the dog, to listen to the birds, for peace and quiet, for company, for solitude. Most used to walk along Caterham's suburban Greenhill Avenue on to a track at the end of the road, through a secluded valley and into the wood. Not any more. It has been sold off by the Forestry Commission and a huge slab of white-painted wood, 5ft high and 12ft long, has been firmly nailed across the entrance to the track, blocking it off. The only other easy access to the area is stopped by a padlocked 10ft high steel- mesh gate, backed, for good measure, by a stout steel bar, heavily weighted with stones.

This is an important place in British natural history. The great naturalist Richard Keating did some of his first work in the valley leading to the wood. You would never know it now. Rubbish has been thrown over the barrier, and further up the valley the land is scarred by earthworks. "It used to be a most pleasant wood to walk in," says John Bailey-Smith, president of the Caterham Residents' Society. Local people used to walk in it long before the Forestry Commission took it over, and public ownership actually made access easier. No longer. When Bailey-Smith recently attempted to walk there he was met by a Doberman, "which made it quite clear we were not welcome".

The dog was right. Mrs Joanna Crux of Birchwood Farm, one of the current owners of the privatised Birch Wood, says: "I just don't want people in there. People take advantage. Let one in, and they camp out and light fires and come over fences and in the end it becomes stupid. So I would rather not have them at all."

In Cotgrave Wood, Nottinghamshire - in Robin Hood country - there have been concerns about the possible danger posed to walkers since it was bought by a shooting syndicate. (Such syndicates are among the most enthusiastic purchasers of Commission woodland.) Cotgrave Town Council wrote to the local MP, Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, about their worries. The forest, originally planted and then owned by the Forestry Commission, was sold in 1983. Public rights of way run through it, but the owners do not allow "freedom to wander through the property" because this would disturb pheasants that are being "intensively reared" for the guns of "a shooting tenant".

As Town Clerk Ann Ellis wrote to the Chancellor: "What used to be a very popular and safe attraction ... has now become an eyesore of 'Keep Off' and 'Private' hoardings." "I do not have any control over the management of this particular forest," replied the Chancellor. "I am not quite sure that I can help." ("The attitude," says Mrs Ellis, "seems to be that if you roam in the forest and get shot as a result, then it's your fault.")

It is much the same story far away in Yorkshire coal-mining country. Local people say that they used to be able to walk in the woods at Stapleton Park, near Pontefract, as far back as anyone can remember, but that access has been barred since these were sold off. Hilda Gibson, who lives nearby, says: "I have lived in this area since the beginning of 1929. There was always access to the woods. You could wander wherever you liked and nobody minded." Once the Forestry Commission took over the land in the Fifties, she had thought that the right to walk in the woods "would be preserved in perpetuity". Instead, the Commission has sold them off and the "keep out" signs have gone up.

Three years ago the Ramblers' Association wrote to ask the then owners to explain why public access was being denied. Joanna Ibbotson, of Stapleton House, replied: "I purchased these woodlands to safeguard the privacy of my home and the safety of my children, who, outside the shooting season, have full access to their home and land, and in the present climate I do not want to have people unknown to me wandering in my woods."

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for such views and with the Chancellor, who, in his reply to Ann Ellis over Cotgrave Wood, wrote: "I am not sure that there is anything very unreasonable about the owner of a forest asking the public to keep to the footpaths when they visit it." But this begs the question of why the forest should have a private owner in the first place.

Paddy Tipping, MP for neighbouring Sher-wood, and a champion of public access, was ordered out of Cotgrave Wood with his children last year after they had strayed unwittingly from the right of way. "We lost the pathway because the waymarks had been moved. A gamekeeper came up and threw us out and was quite abrupt and nasty about it."

Tilhill Forestry, which manages Cotgrave Wood for its private owners, says they are "sympathetic" to public access and have cleared paths to make it easier. It said that walkers were "free to use the established routes". We approached the shooting syndicate for their views, but they declined to comment.

STORIES like these can be repeated from all over Britain. In all, according to the Ramblers' Association, 2,680 woods and forests in England, Wales and Scotland have been sold off since 1981, when the Government first made the Commission put land on the market. In those 15 years, 46 per cent of the woodlands the Commission once owned have been sold.

In Norfolk, where Old Wood stands, 49 per cent of the woods have been privatised. In Surrey, home to Birch Wood, the figure is 56 per cent. Stapleton Park is on the border of North Yorkshire, where 57 per cent of the Commission's woods have been sold off, and West Yorkshire, where the proportion is no less than 91 per cent. Nottinghamshire, home to Cotgrave Wood, is relatively unscathed by comparison, 21 per cent having been sold.

These are just the figures to date; the selling off is still going on. In 1989, the Government set itself a target of 250,000 acres of Forestry Commission land to be sold by the end of the century - about 115,000 remain. Last year ministers stepped up the pressure by insisting that the Commission raise pounds 20m from sales every year. No one can say precisely how many more woodlands will be sold in years to come, but a Parliamentary Question on 18 January produced a list of 104 currently on the market in 34 counties and Scottish regions. Alan Mattingly, director of the Ramblers' Association, says: "We fear that when the Forestry Commission has reached the current target, the Government will just set another one, and then another, and so on until the whole lot has been sold. And if the Conservatives win the next election, we would expect them to try to privatise the whole Commission in three, four or five years' time."

NOBODY knows exactly how many of the owners of the privatised woodlands still allow walkers the freedom to roam in them - but it seems that few do. The Forestry Commission says: "This is not something for which we have kept figures." Nor is it easy to find out; the Commission does not disclose who has bought its once-public land, unless it has the purchasers' permission to do so.

Even a trawl of Land Registry records by the Ramblers' Association only turned up three-fifths of the names and addresses of the new owners. (Most appear to have been bought by neighbouring landowners, though shooting syndicates have also often purchased either the woods themselves or the right to pursue their sport in them.) When the association contacted those it could identify, fewer than a quarter of them said they were prepared to continue the "freedom to roam" policy that had operated when the Commission owned their land.

By contrast, in Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, public access to forests is safeguarded by law. The German association of private forest- owners recently gave evidence at the House of Commons select committee on the environment, saying it "fully supports the policy of free public access to German forests".

For the first 10 years of the Commission's sales - from 1981 to 1991 - no effort was made to ensure a continuing right to wander. When the Government stepped up the pressure for privatisation in 1989, the then Scottish Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, implicitly promised to maintain public access. He spoke of "the Government's concern that the general public should continue to enjoy access to those forests to be disposed of by the Commission". But the provisions brought in to fulfil this undertaking have been unimpressive, to say the least.

They empowered the Commission to make "access agreements" with local councils, guaranteeing a continuing freedom to roam, before woods were put on the market. Unfortunately, councils have been reluctant to take these up, partly because they believe they would be costly to enforce and administer (and no extra resources have been given for the purpose). In addition, woods with access agreements have proved harder to sell, because would-be private owners have not wanted to let people into their prospective property.

So far, therefore, according to the Forestry Commission's own figures, only 48 of its woods have been sold with these agreements. Another 48 agreements have been completed on land that is either on the market or being prepared for sale. Some of the other new owners may allow the public on to their land, without a formal agreement, but for the vast majority of the thousands of woods that have been or are due to be privatised, selling off means sealing off.

In early 1994, an interdepartmental committee of top civil servants delivered a devastating indictment of the current system to ministers. Its report confirmed that "invaluable access" had been lost in former Commission woods, most of them close to towns and villages. Many, it commented, had "medium or high levels of public access" before being sold.

The report called the arrangements for making access agreements "bureaucratic and time-consuming". And, in what passes for strong language in Whitehall, it spoke of "the fundamental inability of the present system to provide consistently for continued public access", saying that "no amount of modification" could achieve this. The report went on: "It would remain, at best, a bureaucratic system providing only piecemeal, site by site protection, dependent on whether the relevant local authority was willing and able to become involved." It concluded that "in the absence of public ownership" the best way of securing continued public access would be through a new Act of Parliament.

Ministers admitted it was "clearly necessary to improve these arrangements". For good measure, the Welsh Affairs Committee recommended, shortly afterwards, that "the Govern-ment urgently resolve the issues relating to public access before continuing with the disposals programme". No new Act has transpired, however. Instead, the Government has sought to solve the crisis by tinkering with the system, even though its own top officials had explicitly warned that this would not work.

Leaked Forestry Commission documents show that its officials are to be asked to visit woodlands and record whether they are "important" or "unimportant" for access. Local authorities are to be "encouraged" to make access agreements. If no agreement is reached, "unimportant" woodlands will be sold with no provision for public access, but "important" ones can only be privatised with express ministerial permission.

It sounds good on paper, but there is a significant catch. The system of classification is a crude one, and it will depend entirely on the judgement of Forestry Commission staff. The Commission is a Government department, even though sales are now handled by a subsidiary, the Forest Enterprise. Environmental-ists fear that safeguards may not be stringently observed by staff who are themselves under threat of redundancy - the Government is pressing not only for annual sales of pounds 20m but for "downsizing" at the Commission.

Furthermore, the Commission's new director-general, David Bills - a controversial Aus-tralian who outraged environmentalists in his own country by felling virgin forest and pleading for understanding of violent attacks on protesters - announced on his appointment last autumn that his priority was to "ensure commercial outcomes in line with the Government's expectations".

As a result, the pace of the stealthy privatisation is bound to increase and even more woods are likely to be put on the market. And as the report of the interdepartmental committee noted, the sales programme will in future "inevitably involve selling a higher proportion of woods with significant levels of public access". It is hard to believe that ministers will tolerate any more hindrance from access considerations than they can help.

Ironically, access was one of the issues that made ministers pull back from privatising the Forestry Commission altogether two years ago, despite strong pressure for the sell-off from the then Welsh Secretary, John Redwood. Ministers feared that they would be forced by public outcry to legislate for access to the privatised woodlands. They were told that this would cost them pounds 170m in compensation to the new owners - more, by some estimates, than they would raise from the sale. And landowners feared that a law guaranteeing a "freedom to roam" in woods would create a precedent for other land. Labour has repeatedly promised to provide a legal right of access to common land, open country, mountain and moorland. So ministers backed away from privatisation and, it turns out, in doing so they have got the best of both worlds. They have avoided the public outcry; and they are selling off the woods anyway.

The Forestry Commission, meanwhile, is caught in an invidious position. Spokesmen may play down the problem ("It's an emotional issue," says one. "There may be a wood with very little access, but as soon as we say we are going to sell it people feel they are going to lose something, whether they have used it or not"); but most staff seem distinctly uncomfortable with a sales policy which they have to implement whether they like it or not.

In many places, the Commission has tried to ameliorate the effects of the Government's policies. It has bought the freehold to 2,000 acres that it previously only leased, so as to guarantee access. It has demanded a public right to roam in return for giving landowners grants to plant 800 new "community woodlands" throughout the country. It is talking to the Ordnance Survey about reinstating its markers on particular popular forests that it hopes not to sell, although the map-makers say this will depend on the Commission being able to keep them properly up to date with disposals. And it has tried to hold back woods that are much walked in from the sales catalogue, while offering particularly popular ones first to local authorities or charities like the Woodland Trust, which safeguards them for the public.

With any luck, Old Wood at Pretty Corner may be saved by just such a ploy. The Woodland Trust has been given a year to buy it, and hopes to be able to raise the pounds 90,000 price from the public and local authorities. But the charity's funds are limited: since the sales started in 1981 it has been able to purchase only 38 Forestry Commission woods, at a total cost of nearly pounds l.7m. It is unlikely to be able to rescue many from the ever-increasing pressure for sales which, officials accept, is likely to force more and more woods that are particularly enjoyed by the public on to the market.

Increasingly, therefore, names like Old Wood will not just remind us of the ancient origins of Britain's woodlands. They will also remind people of the cherished, vanished right they once enjoyed to roam freely among their country's trees before they were barred behind padlocks and barbed wire. ! FORESTRY DECOMMISSION: THE LOSS OF PUBLIC WOODS, COUNTY BY COUNTY

The map below shows how much of Britain's publicly owned woodland has been sold off in the past 15 years, and where the damage has been worst. In all, 18 counties and regions have seen more than half their Forestry Commission woods and forests privatised since 1981, from Kent (67 per cent) to West Glamorgan (63 per cent), from Dyfed (55 per cent) to Durham (72 per cent), from Suffolk (60 per cant) to Lothian (65 per cent).

The actual proportion of wood and forest land sold, as opposed to the proportion of individual woods, is much smaller - some 10 per cent of the publicly owned woodland in the country as a whole. In only three, northern counties has more than half the area been privatised: Cleveland (52 per cent), Humberside (53 per cent), and West Yorkshire (by far the highest at 91 per cent).

The reason for the discrepancy is that the Commission has concentrated on keeping its core, big forests and has mainly sold off smaller woods. But, generally speaking, it is precisely these that are most precious to the public. Most people want to walk in old deciduous woodlands near their homes rather than among the vast, serried plantations of conifers in the remote Forestry Commission "core" forests. Surveys show that nearly half of all visits to woods and forests in this country are on foot, and that people largely walk in ones near where they live.