OF the 23 listed topics at the Eastern Docks inquiry, nearly all made some reference to the ecological effect of building a 24/7 six-berth container terminal on a quiet mudflat at the edge of the New Forest.

Dibden Bay was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2001 and is included in the draft boundary for the proposed New Forest National Park.

Conservationists - like Friends of the Earth and English Nature - warned the new port would displace thousands of wetland birds, threaten salmon on their way to the Test and Itchen rivers and devastate ancient woodland.

ABP answered these claims by promising nearly one acre of environmental improvements for every acre taken over by the port.

The impact on humans of the port's potential noise, light and dust pollution was also aired. A pressure group of Southampton residents - whose city councillors have given the scheme their blessing - protested that vibration from Dibden Bay's vast container-carrying trains would make life a misery for people living alongside the tracks. A city council spokesman said they had carried out "wide reaching consultation" before making their response to the Bay plans.

Some of the New Forest's most senior citizens - such as 100-year-old Harry Banks from Hythe - gave evidence in defence of footpaths they have enjoyed for the best part of a century, but which could be swallowed up by the march of progress.

ABP said new high-quality footpaths would be laid.

Extra traffic generated by the scheme was also feared for its impact on the environment. The threat of an extra 4,700 vehicles a day on the country lanes of Marchwood and Dibden led to emotional exchanges at the inquiry.

ABP said employees would be encouraged to travel by water or bus, and other measures were in hand to reduce traffic.

There was also the broader matter of landscape - the look of the planned port with its skyscraper cranes right next to some of the nation's most treasured acres.

A spokesman for the Council for National Parks, fired up in defence of her prospective new baby, the New Forest National Park - likely to be created this year - asked: "How could the Secretary of State grant permission for such a massive and damaging development here?"