A LIFELONG New Forest commoner has died at the age of 83 after suffering a stroke at his home earlier this month.

Beaulieu-born Ralph Hayward, pictured, had been involved in New Forest issues since his boyhood and rode in its point to point races, including the recent Boxing Day one, for more than 60 years.

As chairman of Denny Lodge Parish Council, which covers a bigger area than any other parish in the Forest, he had fought anything he felt was a threat to the Forest and was among the leading campaigners in numerous battles to preserve its character.

The one-time threat of oil drilling at Denny Wood, plans for a Lyndhurst by-pass and the present moves for a huge new port at Dibden Bay all came under fire from Ralph.

Long-serving New Forest verderer and commoner Jeff Kitcher, who had known Mr Hayward all his life, said: "He gave up a lot of time doing what he thought was right for the Forest and you'd need a lot of hands and an awful lot of fingers to count the number of people he helped. You might not always have agreed with him, but if he had something to say, he would get on and say it."

Mr Hayward was also a prominent member of the Commoners' Defence Association, which represents the owners of the Forest's grazing animals. Its chairman, Richard Manley, said: "He was one of the great Forest characters and he will be sadly missed."

Mr Hayward was born into the family butchers' business at Beaulieu and grew up in the Beaulieu area. He had planned to go into farming, but when the Second World War broke out, he volunteered before receiving any call-up and served with the Army in North Africa.

He and his wife Alice were married 59 years ago and settled at Roughdown, Blackfield. He is survived by his daughter Sonia, who is parish clerk to Denny Lodge Parish Council, two grandchildren and a great grandson.