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Riders are jubilant after Defra halted plans that could have robbed equestrians of their right to ride in some English woodlands.

In a victory for people power, environment minister Caroline Spelman scrapped the public consultation into the future of 637,000 acres of Forestry Commission land, on 17 February.

Riders’ groups around the country held rallies and more than 500,000 people signed a petition against the policy.

Groups including the British Horse Society (BHS) and TROT (Toll Rides Off-Road Trust) were concerned because riders’ access would not automatically be carried over if land were sold on (news, 27 January).

“I am sorry, we got this one wrong, but we have listened to people’s concerns,” were Mrs Spelman’s now famous words to the House of Commons, announcing an independent committee to consider the “future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England”.

But equestrian groups have warned that the fight is not over. “The halting of the consultation is a significant lobbying victory for equestrians and other interested parties,” said Mark Weston of the BHS.

“Equestrians should continue to lobby so our permissive forest access is not put in danger.
“The Forestry Commission should now dedicate rights of access for equestrians and cyclists in our forests,” he added.

He vowed the BHS will keep up pressure on the government.

As H&H went to press, the line-up of the committee was not known, although Defra said it would include “representatives of key environmental and access organisations and representatives of the forestry industry”.

A Defra spokesman said that although the decision could not be second-guessed, any changes would have to be put before parliament and Defra would be likely to launch another public consultation before a second draft forestry plan was formulated.

Jan Harber, speaking for long-distance riding groups in East Anglia, said: “We are delighted. Our members played a considerable role in pestering their MPs.”

This news story was first published in the current issue of Horse & Hound (24 February, 2011)