The running of the New Forest cannot be done by charities, the RSPB has said in response to Government proposals to privatise the public forest estate.
The plans by ministers to dispose of England’s 258,000-hectare public forests, currently managed by the Forestry Commission, over the next 10 years, include the transfer of some of England’s best-loved woodlands into the hands of charities.
Mark Avery, conservation director at the RSPB, one of the charities potentially in line to take on the “heritage” forests, said the New Forest – a mix of ancient woodland and modern tree plantations, grasslands grazed by ponies and heathland – is a “very complicated place” with complex administration and protection.
In his blog on the charity’s website, Dr Avery said: “The RSPB manages over 140,000 hectares of land across the UK and a good chunk of that is heath, grassland and forests of various types, and we do have some expertise in inviting the public in to see the landscapes and wildlife that we protect.
“But let’s be clear, we don’t think running the New Forest can be done by charities. And we don’t think it’s desirable.”
He said the forest on the south coast has a series of designations including National Park status and being a site of special scientific interest, a special area of conservation and a special protection area for birds.
It also has complex administration, with an ancient Verderers’ Court and a modern National Park authority.
Under the rules governing protections such as the special areas of conservation, the Government is responsible for making sure it is looked after, whoever owns it, he said.
And he pointed to the “Osborne tests”, set out by the Chancellor about departmental spending last year, to highlight that it was not clear any change in the status quo would make running the forest more effective or reduce the costs.
But he suggested a Forest and Wildlife Service could manage heritage aspects of major forests in a more effective way than the current set-up, and said the idea of a merger between a heritage Forestry Commission and Government conservation agency Natural England “keeps popping back into my head”.