AN impassioned plea to the public to do everything possible to protect the Hillier Arboretum against the threat of major housing and sports ground developments has been made by its top man.

The Test Valley Borough local plan proposals include allocating land for 500 houses at Abbotswood on the northern edge of Romsey and for major sports ground facilities nearby at Ganger Farm.

But Sir Richard Storey, who has been chairman of the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum management committee for the past 12 years, this week appealed to the public to get behind the gardens.

The preferred options, he said, would be for the developments not to go ahead. But if this was not the case, the gardens must be given the protection of dense tree screens to preserve their unique character, atmosphere and beauty.

He appealed to the public to write to the Borough Council, to their MPs and to newspapers to express their feelings.

He told visitors to the gardens on Sunday: "The gardens and arboretum are of immense importance for two principal reasons. Firstly, people come and relax and enjoy the beauty, tranquility and peacefulness of the gardens and that is what they treasure most in their plant refuge; and, secondly, these gardens are not only of importance in Hampshire and the

United Kingdom but also worldwide." He stressed that if the development went ahead and the Gardens were not properly protected, they would suffer.

"The threat," he said, "is there. There is the audible intrusion from Ganger Farm. We know we need playing fields, but experience shows that today's playing fields are tomorrow's housing estate and we do need protection from lights, from noise and from physical intrusion.

"The people of Romsey have grown up with the Hillier Gardens, but people coming into the new estates won't have the same appreciation of the gardens. If there is a large influx of people, there will be some elements who will not treat the gardens with the respect they deserve.

"There is a third aspect, too. These gardens are in the middle of rural Hampshire. You arrive in rural Hampshire and you see the gardens - and when you are in this lovely area, you also look out on to rural Hampshire. "

Sir Richard is calling for a substantial and dense tree plantation along the boundaries of Abbots Wood and Ganger Farm,

"The screen between the Gardens and Ganger Farm would need to be wider than the one between the Gardens and Abbots Wood. For Ganger Farm, we say we can get 100 yards and still get a shelter belt within that, which would be all we require," he said.

"For Abbots Wood, we are talking about 45 or 50 yards. But it is not only the size which is important. It has to be dense to be effective. What we would plant would be oak, cherry, field maple, holly, privet, yew, blackthorn and hawthorn - typical plants found in Hampshire.

Sir Richard was overjoyed by the supportive response from people at the Gardens on Sunday.

"It was a day of drizzle and there were some people who had never been there before, but they were speaking even more strongly about what should be done than I was." "And the support for our cause was unanimous. There was a great swirl of applause."