Walkers find plan to fence Pooh's patch hard to bear: Oliver Gillie reports on a row over moves to enclose part of Ashdown Forest for grazing

ASHDOWN FOREST, where Winnie the Pooh once roamed at will, is to be fenced for the first time, if eleventh-hour appeals are unsuccessful. Since time immemorial the forest was open for all to enter freely and A A Milne's characters - Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore - made it their home.

A new management plan will reintroduce cows and sheep and requires a large area to be fenced. Similar plans have led, or soon will, to the fencing of more than a dozen commons all over England.

In recent years commoners who have ancient rights to keep stock in Ashdown Forest have not done so because too many animals have been killed in road traffic accidents. In addition, many with rights commute to London and are not interested in keeping a few sheep, cows or a mill horse, nor do they want to collect estovers - firewood and animal bedding. So the forest is reverting to its wild state.

Mike Constantine, forest superintendent, said: 'Birch scrub is growing up in many places changing the character of the forest, and it is impossible to control this growth without introducing grazing animals. . . the birch scrub has grown to 15ft high and has obscured a lot of the sight lines, particularly in the Misbourne valley.'

Altogether 1,352 acres of forest will be fenced, leaving some 5,000 acres with free access from outside the forest. The enclosed part will be accessible by 45 gates and 10 cattle grids. But Pooh's old territory of Galleon's Leap, properly called Gill's Lap, will remain outside the fenced area. Mr Constantine said: 'The feeling is still of open space. Our aim is only to restore the common to the state it was in 1985 when grazing stopped. Grazing created this type of lowland heath and if want to have the heath we must find a way to continue grazing.'

The forest is owned by East Sussex County Council but two- thirds of the expense of the fencing, about pounds 29,000, will come from the Countryside Commission. The plan has been approved by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, English Nature and the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Nevertheless, walkers and horse riders are convinced that a fence is unnecessary and that it will destroy the feeling of freedom they have when entering the forest from any point and when moving from the fenced to the unfenced parts. They argue that speed limits and traffic-calming measures could reduce the danger to grazing animals.

The Open Spaces Society, which campaigns for rights of way and for preserving commons for public use, is concerned that the same arguments are leading to the fencing of ancient commons all over the country. Kate Ashbrook, its director, said: 'Traffic-calming measures are a better long-term solution but the Department of Transport is not flexible enough in allowing these measures. Fencing of commons is going ahead because funds are available for doing it from the Countryside Commission while funds are not available for traffic- calming measures.'

The society is presently objecting to a plan by the National Trust to fence a common in the Quantocks, Somerset, and to plans by the trust to fence three other commons: Dumpdon Hill, near Honiton, Devon; Danbury Common, Essex; and Hindhead Common, Surrey. It is also objecting to a plan by Gloucestershire County Council to fence a common at Cold Slad Hill, near Crockley Hill, and to a plan to fence Blawith Common at the south end of Coniston water in the Lake District.

Plans to fence Black Down Common, Dartmoor; Silchester Common, Hampshire; Hollesley Common, Suffolk; and Farthing Down, Surrey, have already been agreed. (Photograph omitted)

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