HAMPSHIRE wildlife campaigners have this morning welcomed news that the Government will not sell off part of the publicly owned New Forest.

The announcement today, by environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, comes after an expert panel recommended it stay in public ownership.

Experts were asked to examine the future of England's woodlands, including parts of the New Forest, after the Government's failed sell-off bid and are today set to back publicly-owned forests.

The Independent Panel on Forestry was formed last year by the Government, after a huge public outcry forced ministers to abandon an attempt to dispose of the entire 258,000 hectare public forest estate to businesses and charities.

The panel's final report published today says there is still a role for publicly-owned forests, emphasising the wide benefits to people's health, the environment and economy they deliver for just £20 million a year.

The news has been met with approval by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

A spokesman said: “Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust welcomes the Panel’s recommendation that the public forest estate remains in public ownership. We look to government to accept this recommendation.

“The Wildlife Trust also welcomes the recognition by the Panel of the many opportunities that the management of the public forest estate offers to people and wildlife – from restoring ancient woodlands to providing ‘green lungs’ for our cities.

“The critical issue now is to ensure there is a new mandate and sufficient resources to deliver these benefits.”

The report also likely recommends changes to the Forestry Commission, which owns and manages the estate.

Early last year the Government published plans to privatise England's public forests, which make up just under a fifth of the country's total woodland area, by selling some woods to businesses and giving others to charities to run.

But the consultation over the plans, which even included proposals to sell woods to communities who enjoy them for free, had to be curtailed as public outrage forced a U-turn over the policy.

Separate plans to sell 15 per cent of the public forest estate, the maximum that can be disposed of under current legislation, were also put on hold while the forestry panel conducted its inquiry into the future of England's woodlands.

The panel chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool published an interim report last December which said public forests were a ``wonderful asset'' that should be managed for the long term, not according to electoral time-scales.

It also said the the public forest estate cost a ``very modest'' £20 million, a very small level of funding in government terms, and delivered benefits far in excess of what it cost, making it good value for money.

It warned that while land could and should be bought and sold for the benefit of the whole estate, it should not be sold to make up for a shortfall in income, as had happened in recent years.

Ahead of the publication of the final report, campaigners called for the Government to invest more money in looking after publicly-owned woodlands to reverse declines in birds, butterflies and plants.

Ministers were urged to recognise that the value of woods goes beyond timber or land prices, and to ensure the estate was managed in the future with a new focus on nature and benefits for people.

Benedict Southworth, Ramblers chief executive, said: "An Independent Panel, which included representatives from landowners and industry, has told us something that we all knew in our hearts to be true: all English people should have access to a walk in the woods.

"The aspiration of the report is one which not only sees the continuation of a strong Public Forest Estate but a future where every person has access to a local woodland - something which the Ramblers has campaigned passionately for.''

The panel was made up of heads of conservation and countryside charities and forestry and rural business interests.