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Woodland hacking enjoyed by thousands of riders is in peril as the government prepares to sell off at least 15% of Forestry Commission land.

Ministers are finalising a fund-raising plan to sell parts of the 635,000 acres of publicly owned woodland in England to private companies and to put other areas into charitable trusts.

And although rights of way for walkers will be safeguarded, the new landowners will be under no obligation to allow riders on their land.

Mark Weston, British Horse Society (BHS) director of access, told H&H: “It is imperative that informal equestrian access is formalised before land is sold off. Thousands of miles of riding are at stake.”

A consultation paper showing the extent of the sell-off was published by Defra on Thursday (27 January).

A Defra spokesman said: “There are currently no plans to designate the public forest estate with higher rights of access to include provision for cyclists and equestrians.

“It would be up to the new owner to decide if they wish to continue permissive access arrangements.”

The BHS fears banning horses will make economic sense to companies managing the woodland for profit.

“This could be disastrous for equestrians,” said a BHS spokesman.

Nationally, nearly 300,000 people have signed an online petition against the sell-off at www.38degrees.org.uk/forests

And a group of high-profile public figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, has called on the government to change its mind.

This is an extract from a news story, first published in the current issue of Horse & Hound (27 January, 2011)