MORE than 1,000 people protested against Government plans to sell off public forests yesterday, as experts warned the scheme could threaten red squirrels.

Around 1,200 people gathered at Chopwell Wood, near Gateshead, many wearing a yellow ribbon symbolising their opposition to coalition plans to sell 250,000 hectares of Forestry Commission-run woodland.

Afterwards, Liz Searle, from Friends of Chopwell Wood, said: "This sends the message to the Government that these protests will go on. We won't give up until they listen. We don't just want 15 per cent of the sales put on hold. We want the whole lot cancelled."

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On Friday, ministers announced a delay to selling off 40,000 hectares.

But campaigners branded it a PR exercise, as the decision was only put on hold pending the conclusion of a consultation to sell off the remaining 218,000 hectares.

At Chopwell, hundreds of ribbons were tied to trees, doors, lapels and pushchairs as a sign of protest and hundreds more names were added to a petition against the sell-off.

Speaker after speaker voiced their anger and there was a message of support from former SAS soldier-turned-author Chris Ryan, who grew up nearby and visited the wood as a child.

David Anderson, Labour MP for Blaydon, said: "The way we're going to stop this is people power and it's so important that so many hundreds if not thousands of people have been here."

Meanwhile, Wildlife Trusts say the Government's plans could threaten rare wildlife including red squirrels and nightjars.

Kielder Forest, in Northumberland, supports 70 per cent of England's red squirrels and Northumberland Wildlife Trust said the sell-off was 'misguided'.

However, Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, in Northumberland, said: "This is a consultation and that's the key thing. We are listening and unlike the previous Government we will listen. If there are half a million people who are against it, then I think the answer will be fairly clear."

Further protests will be held in Whinlatter Forest, Cumbria, on Saturday, February 19, at 1pm and Hamsterley Forest, County Durham, on Saturday, February 26, at 10am.

• MARK Tallentire is now tweeting on Durham and local government news. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/echomarkt

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