CONCERNS have been raised about the future of public forests in rural Northumberland following plans to sell them off.
The Government has pledged to sell 15 per cent of the Forestry Commission land across the country by 2015, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a consultation on proposals to sell off the remaining 85 per cent, to alleviate the nation’s financial deficit.
But fears have been voiced about the effect it could have on wildlife, access to the countryside and local jobs within Forestry Commission land.
While the Government has released selection criteria on the forests it will sell in 2011/12, no decision has yet been made.
However, thousands of acres of land in north Northumberland have been listed as potential targets for sale in the Defra consultation.
This has divided woodland into four categories – large commercial, heritage and community, small commercial and multi-purpose.
Kielder, the biggest forest in England, is in the large commercial category and provides 25 per cent of England’s domestic timber, as well as being home to a wealth of wildlife including 70 per cent of the remaining English red squirrel population.
It is likely to be handed to a commercial operator on a long lease, which the consultation states will ‘make sure that these forests continue to deliver public benefits through lease conditions’.
Coquetdale is surrounded by some 12 smaller but still significant forests covering nearly 20,000 acres.
These have all been listed by the government as potential targets for sale. Seven are in the Northumberland National Park and are covered by various levels of protection.
The largest of these is Harwood, with more than 7,500 acres and a designated red squirrel reserve.
Parts are also classified as a site of special scientific interest.
This has been classified as a small commercial forest in the consultation, alongside Thrunton others near Wooler.
Kidland Forest, Harbottle Forest and Holystone Forest, as well as Swarland Woods, have been given heritage status by the government.
The consultation is inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management of the heritage forests to secure their public benefits for the long-term future.
And it adds that it wants to create opportunities for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests that they wish to own or manage – but that could mean having to find hundreds of thousands of pounds to do so.
Rothbury and Coquetdale county councillor Steven Bridgett said: “We have been very well-served by the Forestry Commission over the decades.
“They have done an excellent job as stewards of our forests, mainly because many of them are local people who are employed at the commission’s office in Rothbury.
“The consultation we have had thrown at us is nothing more than a mere distraction.
“What we should really concentrate on is the Public Bodies Bill and the clauses within it that would allow the forests to be sold not just now, but anytime in the future.
“These forests are ours, they belong to us, the people. How can they be for sale?”
And he warned: “If the Government continues to railroad these proposals through, despite the growing anger from the public, we must consider our options and talk with organisations like the National Trust or even Northumberland Estates to see if we can preserve our forests and potentially some of the jobs relating to them.”
Wildlife trusts have also commented on the application and say the transfer of ownership from the Forestry Commission presents a real risk to the future of our natural heritage.
And while the consultation recognises that safeguards need to be put in place for Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the wildlife trusts want this to be extended to all local wildlife sites.
Mike Pratt, Northumberland Wildlife Trust chief executive said: “Northumberland Wildlife Trust is keen to explore opportunities to take on the management of forest areas, especially those which have a high conservation value, such as parts of Kielder.
“Our first concern is to ensure any selling off or change in management does not undermine the decades of good work the Forestry Commission, we and others have put into these important sites.
“These areas are very large and need reasonable resources to manage them.
“A sell-off would not be appropriate and charities like ours would not be in a position to compete for them on an open market, which means they could end up being managed by people and organisations whose first thought is not for their wildlife and conservation value.
“These forests and the open spaces in them are part of our national treasury of natural assets and they need to be treated with respect and care.”