Environmental campaigner David Bellamy says he is baffled and outraged by Government plans to sell the nation’s forests. Joe Willis reports.

"I’M a bit worked up,” admits botanist David Bellamy, from his home on the edge of Hamsterley Forest, in County Durham. Thanks in part to a sketch by comedian Lenny Henry, Mr Bellamy is famous for getting enthusiastic about nature. And his enthusiasm and passion spill out as he discusses the future of the nation’s woodland.

The author and television presenter says he simply cannot understand the Government’s plans to sell or lease the nation’s forests.

Mr Bellamy has spent a lifetime campaigning on behalf of the environment, and the Government’s proposal, which was unveiled yesterday, means he isn’t going to stop now.

Ministers have already told the Forestry Commission to sell about 15 per cent of its estate.

The proposal could see the remainder – including more than 200,000 acres of forest in the North-East and North Yorkshire – handed over to charitable trusts, community groups, councils or businesses.

Mr Bellamy, 78, says he can remember Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to sell the forests.

He hopes, like her bid, that the coalition Government’s plans will also be defeated.

“It is not theirs to sell because it’s our national forest,” he says. “How they can even consider selling it is beyond me.”

The botanist describes the forests as a jigsaw puzzle covering the nation; green spaces which give people a place to walk and get away from their troubles.

“I live on the corner of Hamsterley Forest and 30,000 people come here every year to walk and enjoy the bio-diversity,” he says. “It’s a site of special scientific interest because of its plants and its trees. Why would anybody want to sell it? Why should they? It has belonged to the people since 1918.”

According to Mr Bellamy, who is taking heart from the fact that more than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition against the proposals, the country has truly wonderful forests.

“We can say we’re proud to be British, or English, or Welsh, or whatever because of our forests,” he says. “People are incredulous that anyone can have anything to do with these plans.”

Describing the nation’s woodland as our children’s future, the campaigner says: “People can come to the forests for next to nothing. It’s a very, very cheap day out. They’re so important for people to come to and be able to touch nature and touch our history.

“We need the breathing space, the bio-diversity, the natural history and a place for people to walk in and be proud of our countryside.”

It is estimated that the leasehold sales of up to half the public estate could raise between £140m and £250m. However, Mr Bellamy questions who would take the forests on and manage them if public servants were stood down.

“Who’s going to buy them anyway? The Chinese?

The Arabs? And what are they going to use them for?”

He says: “I’m looking out now at Hamsterley Forest. It’s a big, big woodland and, because of the Forestry Commission, it’s become more and more bio-diverse in the past few years.

They’ve come and put the native trees back again. What’s going to happen if it’s sold off?

Who will do that work then?”

He also questions the need to bring private companies in to develop forests and make money from them. “Why can’t we develop them ourselves,” he asks.

Forests, he believes, are so vitally important both as a green lung for the majority of people who live in towns and cities and for the millions of tourists who visit the countryside each year, that the Government has to be told to back off.

“We need to say ‘we own these forests and they can’t be sold off, and they need to be managed properly’,” he says.

Mr Bellamy can probably take comfort that he is not the only person to be “a bit worked up” about the future of the nation’s forests.

High-profile figures such as Annie Lennox, Dame Judi Dench and rock band Blur have spoken out against the proposals this week and Labour has called for a parliamentary debate on the plans, labelling them “environmental vandalism”.

THE Woodland Trust has also voiced major concerns, while the National Trust has warned that unless the selloffs could be guaranteed to safeguard access and cultural and conservation values, important sites should stay in public care. Green groups and trade unions have pitched in, stressing that the plans would be bad for wildlife and the public.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman yesterday denied the Government was going to sell the forests to the highest bidder and said ministers would not endanger public access to forests.

“There is a consultation. We are going to have that consultation and listen to people’s views and then come to some conclusions,” he said.

With the likes of Mr Bellamy involved, there’s no doubt those views are going to come through loud and clear.