BRITAIN’S oldest conservation body has warned government plans to sell off the New Forest to charity could lead to people being charged to use it.

William Ziegler, chairman of the New Forest Association, claimed the plans “show a complete lack of understanding of how the forest works”.

In the consultation document published yesterday there is “no reference to the commoning system”, he said.

“This new threat is the most serious attack on the New Forest for 160 years.

“Any charity that takes on owning and managing the New Forest will be required to find its own funding after initial government help to offset the £2.9m annual deficit.

“This could mean charging the public for access to the New Forest and will almost certainly involve selling off parts of the estate which currently provide the cornerstone of commoning.”

What's all this about? Read our background links

His concerns include the potential for car park charges and licensing cycling and horse riding.

He urged everyone to make their views known to Defra.

Official Verderer Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre also believes car parking charges are a possibility and said the forest is “a national asset that should be run for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.

New Forest East Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis promised to consult widely and “won’t hesitate to stand up against those proposals if that is what the consensus wants”.

But New Forest West Tory colleague Desmond Swayne said: “Additional revenues might be used to extend our excellent team of Keepers and to enforce the bylaws, which are currently being flouted.”

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said transferring heritage forests like the New Forest to charitable trusts “will mean walkers, riders and cyclists will still be able to enjoy them as they do at the moment”.

The government is committed to selling 15 per cent of Forestry Commission land during the current parliament to generate £100m.