Walkers told to stay out of the woods

Forestry land sales: Ministers accused of failing to protect ramblers' rights
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The Independent Online

Walkers have lost a freedom to roam over 136 square miles of woodland since 1991 despite repeated ministerial pronouncements on safeguarding public access to land sold by the Forestry Commission.

Piecemeal privatisation of Britain's forests has been underway since 1981, but some sales have led to "Private, Keep Out" notices replacing the informal open access practised by the commission.

Government figures show that of the 35,233 hectares of woodland sold since agreements were introduced in October 1991 - an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight - only 506 hectares (1.4 per cent) has been safeguarded.

Access agreements cover just 23 of the 658 individual woods sold - six out of 185 in England, 16 out of 253 in Wales and only one out of 220 in Scotland.

The loss has been felt most acutely in lowland England. Highlighting the figures in a speech in Hamilton last night, Kate Ashbrook, chairman of the Ramblers' Association, said that the public had been badly let down by the Government: "Its policy of protecting access is a complete shambles."

She called for a complete halt on sales and urged the forestry minister and Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, to "get out of his office and into the woods to see for himself the disastrous arrangements his predecessors have made".

The absence of an agreement does not necessarily mean that new owners put up the keep-out notices. And a good many of the lots sold are uninspiring plantations which attract few, if any, walkers.

Institutional owners, such as pension funds, are generally more content to leave access unchanged than local owners or shooting syndicates. Public rights of way through woodland should be unaffected.

Successive ministers have acknowledged the case for further safeguards. Malcolm Rifkind, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, told the Commons in July 1994 that "millions" of people enjoyed access to Britain's forests and there was a widespread desire for access to be protected. Mr Forsyth will soon endorse revised guidelines including a presumption against sale of woodland unless access can be guaranteed.

Civil servants warned in a review last year that without primary legislation it would "remain at best a bureaucratic system" providing only site by site protection. Councils are often reluctant to take on the administrative burden of agreements.

The commission is under pressure to meet a government-set target of pounds 20m from land sales this year or 15,000 acres of woodland. However, its last annual report admits that controversy over access has curtailed the sales programme.

Currently 108 publicly-owned woods are up for sale but only 12 carry any guarantee of continued public access. In England an agreement is attached to just one of the 52 woods on offer - the 41-hectares of Old Park wood in South Yorkshire. Significantly it has been stuck on the market for two years.

Cotgrave wood, south-east of Nottingham, is a classic example of where a traditional freedom has been lost.

Since its sale by the Forestry Commission in 1983, the 150 acres of mature woodland, mainly conifers, has passed through two institutional owners and is now in the hands of a family trust.

Local walkers, who are now confined to public rights of way, complain of a hostile attitude from a shooting syndicate, a tenant of the Loveday Trust.

Paddy Tipping, Labour MP for nearby Sherwood, who discovered the figures in a Commons written answer, was ordered off woodland by a gamekeeper while out walking with his family last winter.