Paul Vallely: Stealing the common off the goose?

The proposed sale of woodlands is making rebels of us all. Forests are part of our folk memory

No one knows where the Green Man came from. His origins are lost in the undergrowth of history. But examples of a bark-gnarled, leaf-bearded face – with shoots and branches sprouting from his hair or mouth – are to be found carved in the stone of the oldest buildings standing on these isles. What we do know is that he was not called the Green Man until he was so dubbed by an aristocratic folklorist in 1939. We have to guard against romanticism when it comes to the countryside and our heritage.

It would be easy to mock. Many did when a host of celebrities – from Tracey Emin and Annie Lennox to Julian Barnes and the Archbishop of Canterbury – wrote an open letter decrying the Government's plan to sell off woodland owned by the Forestry Commission, in the largest change of land ownership since the Second World War. "We have relied on them since time immemorial, yet we are only a heartbeat in their history," they wrote with poetic flourish.

But if there is something romantic in the way we may speak of Britain's ancient woodlands there is something deep about our attachment. The Green Man tells us that. Our bond with our greenwoods goes back to sacred druidic groves and beyond. It is rooted in yew trees which have stood 2,000 years or more, longer than the ancient churches beside which they stand. It survives through the myth of Robin Hood and in the history which followed. And one of the constituent qualities about the sacral soil on which these trees stand has been the persistent issue of ownership. "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" asked that prototype of the turbulent priest, John Ball, during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. He was hanged, drawn and quartered for his railing against "the unjust oppression of naughty men".

The inheritance of the many being seized for the profit of the few has been a recurring theme of English history from the time when nine out of 10 peasants were ejected from their land on some Tudor estates to make room for the grazing of the sheep of the rich. The phenomenon accelerated through the English Civil War, the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries and the clearances of the lowlands and highlands in Scotland as people were ousted to make way for the landlord's beasts.

But if land grabs have been a thread through our nation's history so has resistance to the robbing of the birthright of what another great English protester, Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the 17th-century Levellers, called "the common people of England". Ordinary folk lost not just the right to graze their cow, sheep or geese on common land but also the right to glean, go berrying or gather firewood. "True freedom," Winstanley said, "lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth."

Or as the balladeers of the time had it:

"The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose."

But has all this any purchase against the hard-nosed arguments of our Tory-led government which wants to sell off £250m-worth of forest to ensure the Environment Department can meet its target of saving 30 per cent on its annual budget by 2015?

Certainly it is true that the purpose of the Forestry Commission is very different now from when it was set up after the First World War to supply pit props and create a strategic resource of timber for the UK. There's no reason for Government to be in the business of timber production nowadays, said the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, and it is hard to disagree that the private sector would manage that better.

But there is more to the management of the Forestry Commission's 200,000 hectares of England's woodland than that. (Control of the Commission in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been devolved to the assemblies.) Our forests are no longer timber factories so much as places for public recreation and the conservation of wildlife. The commission is now Britain's single biggest provider of outdoor leisure. Ramblers, mountain-bikers and horse-riders enjoy the 15,000 miles of track it maintains and its well-developed Music in the Forest concert programme.

Changes in ownership will not affect wildlife protection or the public's rights of access, the Government maintains. Most people do not believe that. Polls show three-quarters of the population opposes the sell-off. History has led us to expect to be lied to and coerced when it comes to the ownership of the land.

Already the loopholes are evident. Around a fifth of the land to be sold is leased rather than freehold, so the Countryside Act's protection may not apply. And while ramblers are guaranteed access on foot in freehold woodlands there are no rights for cyclists or horse-riders. Nor will new owners be obliged to maintain car parks, paths, gates and stiles. And the precedent of private ownership is revealing: only 38 per cent of private woodland in England is open to the public.

The Government has made great play of the idea that community groups and charities could take over forests – and could replace their boring conifer monocultures with traditional broad-leaved English species. But internal Forestry Commission documents reveal that the vast majority of English woodland will be offered for sale to commercial businesses, with just 1 per cent being acquired by communities and 2 per cent by charities.

Moreover it is hard to see how charities, which are to be offered "heritage" woodlands such as the New Forest, will finance such deciduous forests without cross-subsidy from the profitable conifer estates that cover much of the north and Scotland. That could mean charities charging the public to enter the ancient native woods – or ending up forced to sell them. The slippery slope of privatisation could lead to gradual changes of use with a rise in Center Parcs-style holiday villages, adventure sites, golf courses, windfarms and even – some analysts predict – clearances for biofuel crops.

When John Major tried a less ambitious privatisation in the Nineties he had to abandon it in the face of public outrage. The townie Tories in the current government hope that public recognition of the need for public spending cuts will lessen that. They had best not count on it.

The financial facts do not weigh heavily in their favour. Thanks to the £60m profit the Forestry Commission generates each year its annual grant is only around £10m – around 30p a year for every taxpayer. But it is the weight of history which will count most against them. The sturdy yeomen and women of England are voters who know, deep in their bones:

The geese will still a common lack

Until they go and steal it back.