13 April 2001
Legal threat as New Forest re-opens
by Alistair Driver
THE government could face legal action over a decision to re-open the New Forest despite farmers fears that doing so could spread foot-and-mouth disease.
Nine car parks in the Hampshire forest opened on Good Friday allowing visitors to walk on defined paths and nearby fenced woodland.
Plans to open larger areas were abandoned following the threat of legal action from commoners who fear for their livelihoods because of foot-and-mouth.
The south-east branch of the National Farmers Union had threatened to seek a judicial review of any decision to re-open areas and the open forest remains closed.
The government has also agreed to pay about 50,000 for newly-fenced off enclosures to enable livestock to return to there without a risk of infection.
But this has not satisfied livestock producers known as verderers who have legal rights dating back over 1000 years to graze animals on the common.
Some are still considering legal action over the decision, said an NFU spokeswoman who said farmers felt exposed to an unacceptable risk of infection.
Rick Manley, chairman of the Commoners Defence Association, accused ministers of trying to appease the wider public at the expense of farmers.
“The New Forest Commoners have acted with total responsibility by bringing their animals off the Forest and are now pawns in a political game,” he said.
The New Forest Commoners returned their livestock to their farms from the forest because of foot-and-mouth six weeks ago.
But with fodder supplies now exhausted and pastures waterlogged they are now nearing starvation point and commoners want livestock back in to the forest.
Junior agriculture minister Elliot Morley acknowledged the serious welfare problems affecting the animals. “This is a problem I wish to address,” he said.
Mr Morley, who announced the partial re-opening of the forest last Wednesday (11 April), said doing so was good for Easter visitors and local traders.
But he insisted he was aware of the commoners concerns.
> “The Forestry Commission and Ministry of Agriculture veterinary staff are satisfied that the risks of spreading foot and mouth are minimal,” he said.