WILDLIFE havens along the banks of the Beaulieu River could be ruined if Natural England progresses plans to open up miles of the New Forest coastline to walkers and cyclists, local landowner Lord Montagu has claimed.
The stark warning was issued by Lord Montagu as he reflected in his annual estate report on the “extraordinary pressures” placed on sensitive habitats and rare birds by thousands of visitors.
Natural England aims to unlock a 2,700-mile England Coastal Path right of way around the country’s seashore.
Locally the £270,000 project to improve access along the 35-mile stretch between Highcliffe and Calshot will focus on opening up routes along private land between Lymington and Thorns Beach, and woodland to the east of Beaulieu River.
Lord Montagu said: “If the proposals for the coastal path are put into effect, our ability to manage sensitive sites close to the river will be so curtailed that the land may never return to favourable condition.”
He pointed to the ongoing closure of a riverside board walk between Beaulieu and Buckler’s Hard, and revealed that years of walking and cycling had compacted the ground within the woodland, which is in a Special Area of Conservation.
“A recent survey has revealed that while there are some signs of improvement, the condition of this area remains far from satisfactory,” said Lord Montagu.
Issuing an appeal for visitors to allow it time to recover, he continued: “Unfortunately, some people are set on ignoring the signs and continue to walk in this wood; their actions simply compounding the damage already done.”
Following the summer easing of lockdown restrictions, Lord Montagu said there were also many people misusing the riverside and coastline.
He said: “This included fishing without a permit, the launching of paddle craft from unauthorised locations, and vandalism.”
Although not intended to form part of the coastal path, Lord Montagu pointed to an incident when the bodies of two very rare chicks were found on Gull Island at the mouth of Beaulieu River, after it was believed the parents were disturbed by trespassing paddle boarders.
He warned: “It only takes the actions of a few ill-informed or irresponsible people to do huge damage to sensitive sites and endangered species.
“Moreover, as overall numbers of people walking, cycling and driving in the countryside increase, so the health of the ecosystem will be eroded.”
Currently the environment secretary’s determination regarding the coastal access proposals for Highcliffe to Calshot, which includes Beaulieu, is on hold as a result of a European Court ruling.
It means Natural England must review the previously undertaken assessments of the impact of proposals on European protected sites.
A spokesperson for Natural England said it had written to landowners requesting any new evidence linked to the potential impact of the coastal path.
She added: “Once the assessments has been reviewed and updated, which we expect to be complete by spring 2021, the secretary of state can continue the determination of the proposals, which will take into account any advice from the Planning Inspectorate’s consideration of objections.”