Forestry Commission workers launched a campaign to save their jobs and homes with a peaceful protest outside their New Forest HQ at Queen’s House, Lyndhurst, yesterday.

“There are loads of people who haven’t been able to sleep this last week, said George Whitcher, shop steward for the trade union Unite. “They have been waking up with worry.”

The 30-odd flag-waving Unite members were protesting against the government’s plans to sell off forests and woodlands across the UK as part of its cost-cutting drive. The New Forest has been designated as a “heritage” forest by Defra, and as such will pass into the hands of a charitable organisation, such as the National Trust or Woodland Trust.

But there are concerns among the Forestry Commission staff, especially those who live in commission cottages, about their futures.

Mr Whitcher, a commission tree cutter living in the tiny village of Fritham, said questions had been asked about the staff’s future, but no answers had yet been forthcoming.

“My family has been here for generations,’’ he said. “We’re the eyes and the ears of the forest. We’re the last working people in some of these isolated villages.

“All the rest are business people.

“We’re like the last of the Mohicans really.”

He claimed Defra’s plans cut “too deep and too quick”.

Keeper Howard Taylor claimed there was no other organisation capable of running the New Forest, and if the government thought it could transfer the work to contractors “it is living in a dreamworld”.

“There have been forest keepers here for 1,000 years, since William the Conqueror,’’ he said. “It’s one of the oldest jobs in the country, older than the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. The guys here are the heartbeat of the New Forest.”

Unite regional organiser Ian Woodland said: “Our members are angry and want a local campaign to help reverse the coalition’s proposals.”

Yesterday’s protest will be followed up by a public rally at Lyndhurst next Saturday.

A spokesman for Forestry Commission England said the staff consultation began on February 2 and would not finish until March 4.

• The RSPB has said the New Forest could not be run by a charity and such a move was “undesirable”.

Its conservation director Mark Avery said the forest was a ‘very complicated place’ with complex administration and protection.