The New Forest, a national treasure for 1,000 years and now at last a national park

The New Forest is to become a national park, the first such designation in England and Wales for nearly half a century, the Government said yesterday. The often-suggested move means the 200sq-mile mixture of ancient woodlands, pasture and open heaths, southern England's last uncultivated wilderness, will gain the highest level of legal protection against inappropriate development.

The New Forest is to become a national park, the first such designation in England and Wales for nearly half a century, the Government said yesterday. The often-suggested move means the 200sq-mile mixture of ancient woodlands, pasture and open heaths, southern England's last uncultivated wilderness, will gain the highest level of legal protection against inappropriate development.

The forest, as rich in wildlife as it is breathtaking in visual beauty, was a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror and is in places almost unchanged since medieval times.

But squeezed between Southampton and its port and oil refineries on the one side, and the expanding conurbation of Bournemouth on the other, it is subject to increasing development and tourism pressures, with 22 million visitors a year. Although it has had protection designations, such as the New Forest Heritage Area, they have been largely cosmetic.

Yesterday's decision, means it will now formally become a member - the 12th, and smallest - of the national parks in England and Wales, from Northumberland on the Scottish border, to Dartmoor in Devon.

This brings real benefits: unmistakable formal recognition, national and international, of the New Forest's importance; a clearly defined legal boundary; its own planning authority and dedicated staff; and a management plan for the future.The level of development protection means any major road-building scheme has almost no chance of succeeding.

The decision was announced by Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, after a long designation process which culminated in a seven-month public inquiry. He said: "Today's decision will help protect the unique character of the New Forest - valued by so many people, and acknowledged as a national treasure for nearly 1,000 years - while recognising that it is a working, living place with social and economic needs."

The move was enthusiastically welcomed - in principle - by environmental groups. But critics say the final area of the national park will be considerably smaller than that initially proposed by the Countryside Agency two years ago. Areas excluded include the valley of the river Avon west of the forest, and Dibden Bay, the area of land on Southampton Water, where a proposal for giant container port caused a fierce row. The plan was eventually turned down by the Government

Mr Michael said the exclusions were based on the recommendations of the inquiry inspector, because they did not fit in with the landscape character of the rest of the forest.

Some green groups were not happy. "National park status for the New Forest is fantastic, but the Government seems to have based its boundary decision on the erroneous view that all the areas included in the national park have to be identical," said Emily Richmond, head of countryside protection at the Ramblers' Association. "The Avon Valley to the west and the coastal areas on Southampton Water are biologically rich, highly accessible to urban areas, provide wonderful views and offer a different kind of recreational experience. They fit the criteria for National Park status and would also help to relieve pressure on the honeypot areas of the New Forest. The Government has missed a trick."

Donna O'Brien, of the Council for National Parks (CNP), said yesterday was "a historic day" for the New Forest, for the many people and organisations who had supported the national park campaign, and was warmly welcomed. But the CNP was disappointed at the exclusions, she said.

There are three proposed additions to the park boundary, and these will be open for public consultation for 28 days, but after that the boundary will be regarded as fixed. The governing National Park Authority will probably be up and running by April 2006, Mr Michael said.

Julian Lewis, Tory MP for New Forest East, said many of his constituents feared the new authority would take the future of the area out of local hands.He said: "The view of many people is that, if the New Forest needed more protection, it should have been done by way of special legislation rather than by the straitjacket of the national park model. In the past, decisions about the future of the forest evolved from a consensus of interested bodies and individuals; now the National Park Authority will be able to force decisions through."

But the Government has made it clear that the new authority will continue to uphold the privileges of the 500 commoners, the local people who hold ancient grazing and forestry rights and still turn out their ponies, cattle, sheep and pigs to graze freely through the woodlands. The semi-wild ponies are among the New Forest's most popular and distinctive sights.

The commoners are represented by the ancient Court of Verderers, and this body too will remain and will be incorporated into the new administrative arrangements.

Apart from the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, an area given national park status in 1989 but not a national park as such, the New Forest will be the first national park to be created since the Brecon Beacons National Park in 1957. The others, and the dates when they were created are: Peak District (1951), Lake District (1951), Snowdonia (1951), Dartmoor (1951), Pembrokeshire Coast (1952), North York Moors (1952), Yorkshire Dales (1954), Exmoor (1954) and Northumberland (1956).

William the Conqueror's hunting preserve, established in 1079, has remained largely unchanged because the soil is poor and has never been tilled. Its diverse mixture of habitats is home to a stunning range of wildlife, from red and fallow deer to rare birds such as the honey buzzard and unusual flowers, such as the wild gladiolus.

The area was celebrated by the photographer and film maker Eric Ashby with his ground-breaking 1961 television documentary The Unknown Forest, and his book The Secret Life of The New Forest, published in 1989, both of them remarkable wildlife portraits, particularly of badgers and foxes.

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