EXPERTS advising the Government on the New Forest and other woodland sites have been urged to make public access their top priority.

Nine groups representing millions of walkers, cyclists and horse-riders want the newly formed panel to find ways of protecting people’s ability to visit forests across the UK.

The call comes as the Bishop of Liverpool, chairman of the panel, kick-starts a public consultation on the future of Britain’s woodland.

Earlier this year the Government’s short-lived plan to dispose of sites owned by the Forestry Commission, including the New Forest, sparked fears that public access would be restricted.

The National Trust expressed an interest in leasing the New Forest.

However, campaigners warned that the organisation could be forced to sell parts of the ancient landscape to help plug its annual deficit of almost £3m.

Similar protests in other parts of the country resulted in ministers backing down.

Instead they formed an independent panel, comprising members of the forestry industry and representatives of conservation and countryside groups, to advise them on the best way forward.

The panel is being lobbied by the Forest Access User Group, which comprises The Ramblers and eight other countryside organisations.

Justin Cooke of The Ramblers said: “We call on the panel to find ways to protect, maintain and increase access to our nation’s woodlands.”