The plans are outlined in a Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs consultation document.

The proposals include inviting new or existing charities, community groups to buy or lease forests. ‘Commercially valuable’ forests will be leased to commercial operators.

The government insists that the woodlands will not just be sold off to the highest bidder. It says a mixed approach to ownership will deliver benefits for users and taxpayers and says that public access and biodiversity will be protected.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: “The government is absolutely committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate, and the consultation shows how we intend to achieve this”.

But environmental groups are not convinced that the forests will continue to be protected.

The Woodland Trust says that selling sites without a radical overhaul of current safeguards would spell disaster for England’s oldest and most iconic forests.

They want to see ancient woods treated as special cases and public access and wildlife guaranteed for the future.

The Woodland Trust has launched a campaign to get the public to support their case.

Greenpeace also want right of access, restoration and protection of forest is to be guaranteed by the government.

Greenpeace UK executive director, John Sauven, said: “Britain’s woodlands are precious for millions of people, a source not only of great curiosity but also great fulfilment.

“The government must now guarantee not only the complete right of access to all our forests but also the budget for their protection and restoration.”

The consultation will run until 21 April 2011.

Alison Brown

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