Suffolk: Anger at forests sell-off plan

CAMPAIGNERS last night pledged to fight to safeguard the future of Suffolk’s forests after the Government announced plans that could see them sold off or handed to voluntary groups.

Fears over the future of Forestry Commission-owned land were heightened yesterday as ministers said the entire woodland estate was up for grabs in proposals that could raise up to �250million.

The Government said the public would still get access to woodlands and communities would get the chance to become more involved in the running of forests.

But critics of the plan said they feared much-loved woodland could be sold off and developed and that voluntary groups would lack the skills to run biodiverse forests. Horse riders, cyclists and mountain bikers said they feared they could lose access right to popular routes.

Thetford Forest – the largest area of Forestry Commission-owned land in the region – has been classifield as “multi-purpose” which could see some sections sold off to commercial operators.

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Both Rendlesham Forest and Dunwich Forest have been classified as “small commercial” woodlands while Tunstall Forest is regarded as an “heritage” site.

The Government said it would invite charitable groups – such as Suffolk Wildlife Trust – to take on ownership of “heritage” forests while sites considered to be “commercial” could be run by community or civil society groups, or possibly sold on long-term leases to commercial operators.

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Julian Roughton, chief executive of Suffolk Wildlife Trust, said he was pleased that Tunstall Forest had been classified as a “heritage” site but expressed concern at the status of Rendlesham and Dunwich forests.

He said he was also concerned at the amount of time given to respond to the Government’s appeal for new forest owners. The consultation ends in April.

“It does feel like everything is up for grabs,” he said. “We value the option for sympathetic groups to purchase sites but the reality is that the timescale is incredibly challenging for people or societies to raise enough money.”

Mr Roughton said the trust would be studying the details of the consultation and seeking assurances on the future of the forests, and of joint projects with the Forestry Commission at the three sites.

Terry Sweeting, who lives on Forestry Commission-owned land at Tangham, said: “I don’t think commercial operators should be allowed to take on the land as I can’t see them keeping to the conditions of sale. We need to protect our breathing spaces.”

Janet Harber, a member of Anglian Distance Riders who regularly uses the region’s forests for horse riding, said: “I don’t think people will be able to get together to buy forests and run them. I don’t see how it can be done. We are very disappointed with the plans and would urge people to write to their MPs to object.”

East of England MEP Richard Howitt, who has joined the Friends of Thetford Forest to fight the proposals, said: “I believe public access will be restricted, the ancient woodlands will be degraded, commercial loggers will come in and cherry pick the best of the woods and it will be extremely damaging to precious habitats, our species of bird life and other animals.”

But Dr Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal, said: “The consultation aims to encourage wildlife, voluntary and other charitable organisations like Suffolk Wildlife Trust to manage heritage and community forests”.

“What matters is that people will enjoy access to the forests as they do today and that the stewardship, biodiversity and sustainability of our forests is enhanced.”

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: “There’s no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management.

“It’s time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England’s woodlands to play a much greater role in their future.”

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