WALKERS in West Sussex could be excluded from woodlands if they are sold off by the Government, a new report has warned.
Featured in the document are woods in Lower Beeding, Plaistow, Pulborough and West Chiltington, which have already been been privatised.
Campaigners from Keep Our Forests Public (KOFP) have surveyed former Forestry Commission sites across the area 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, say campaigners.
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 or off-putting notices.
In total, these three inaccessible categories added up to more than half of the former publicly-owned woods surveyed, warned KOFP.
It added that that some woods had become more or less incorporated into private grounds – sometimes as extensions of domestic space.
Little Wood in Pulborough is cited in the report as an example of where there is no public access and part of the wooded area has been built on since privatisation.
At Lodgesale Wood, part of St Leonards Forest near Lower Beeding, signs warn walkers not to leave the footpath and to keep dogs on a lead – typical of the ways visitors are now made to feel unwelcome in these areas.
KOFP was one of the forest campaign groups which helped force a government climb-down on the sell-off of Forestry Commission land earlier this year.
It says it is now determined to ensure that ministers do not backtrack now public attention has switched away from the furore.
Said a spokesman: “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.”
The full report can be downloaded in pdf format at