West Harting among forest sites people could be excluded from

Woodlands at West Harting and West Marden were among sites analysed in a new report which warns Sussex people could be excluded from other woodlands if they are sold off by the government.

Campaigners from Keep Our Forests Public (KOFP) surveyed the two areas and other former Forestry Commission sites across the county to see how they have fared in private hands.

And the findings of the volunteers’ survey, which have been submitted to the government-appointed panel looking into the issue, paint a depressing picture.

Six of the 31 woods were found to have physical barriers to public open access, five displayed excluding or inhibiting notices and six had a statutory right of access which was negated by blocked or non-existent entrances, and/or excluding or inhibiting notices.

In total, these three inaccessible categories added up to more than half of the former publicly-owned woods surveyed, warned KOFP.

It added some woods had become more or less incorporated into private grounds – sometimes as extensions of domestic space.

Nightingale Bottom Wood at West Harting is cited in the report as an example of no public access being indicated beyond the rights-of-way system, making visitors feel unwelcome.

At Markwells Wood, West Marden, the report notes that drilling for oil takes place on a prohibited site within the wood. KOFP was one of the forest campaign groups which helped force a government climbdown on the sell-off of Forestry Commission land earlier this year.

It says it is now determined to ensure ministers do not backtrack now public attention has switched away from the furore.

A spokesman said: “Our survey shows exactly what many would have expected – that our precious woodland heritage is not safe in private hands.

“It highlights the relevance of our campaign’s call for statutory public access to all England’s woodlands.

“Put simply, private owners can get away with whatever they want if nobody can see what they are doing, if the public are prevented or discouraged from walking through these woods.

“We hope the government will seize this opportunity not just to halt the damaging sell-off of our forest sites, but also to give the people of England the same access to, and thus stewardship of, their countryside that is already enjoyed by our Scottish neighbours.”