Fears over Norfolk forest sell-off plans

Hundreds of horse riders could face difficulty pursuing their passion in Norfolk if swathes of publicly-owned woodland is privatised under government proposals.

If the move goes ahead, Thetford Forest could no longer be the domain of family picnics, campers or cyclists, and riders could be forced out of the area completely due to a lack of alternative space.

Currently much of Britain's endurance riding programme is carried out in the region, and people from all over the country descend on the forest for its long and peaceful routes.

Nicki Gilbert has been breeding endurance horses in her spare time for the past five years. She is now in limbo waiting for a decision and could be forced to relocate if the forest is sold to private landowners.

Miss Gilbert, 39, who runs Akala Arabians at Ash Farm in Shipdham, said: 'A lot of it is about having access to somewhere you can ride safely and off road.

'I used to hack out in the lanes but just in the years I've been riding traffic has got so much faster and it's impossible now.

'There are a lot of farms you can't ride around either because there are ditches and people farm right to the edge of the land. Also, if you're female and you're on your own you want to go somewhere you can park your trailer and go out and feel safe.'

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A fundamental reform of the management of the country's forestry estate was announced by the coalition government last autumn.

It is not yet known when a public consultation will begin, but in the meantime the momentum to keep the issue in the pubic domain has been ratcheted up by worried users.

Miss Gilbert, who learnt to ride when she was a child, and works in customer services and PR for a shipping company, added: 'People of all ages use the forest from mothers with small children to older retired people and lots of happy hackers. We all go there because it's beautiful and you can go out for a long ride.

'I consider myself lucky to live in the heart of endurance country. It's such a wonderful sport because you can enjoy yourself and enjoy your horse with such a different mix of people who have got into it because anybody can do it.

'We're just all terrified waiting to hear if it will be sold.'

At the end of last year users of Thetford Forest, which reached 120,000 in 2009, called on fellow woodland walkers, cyclists, horse riders, bird watchers and conservationists to sign a petition to protect the lowland pine forest. To date more than 120,000 people have done so.

The Friends of Thetford Forest, which has 900 members, has also called on Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for the environment to ensure that the Forestry Commission is one of the options for future woodland ownership.

Chairman of the group, Anne Mason, added: 'Selling off the forest would narrow the use enormously because there will only be access to able-bodied walkers so all the other uses from horse riding to orienteering to husky racing just won't happen. It's a public forest estate and so it should stay in public ownership for the use of the public.'

Visit www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/save-our-forests or www.fotfp.org.uk to find out more and sign the petition.