HAMPSHIRE TV wildlife expert Chris Packham has sparked a war of words by claiming the New Forest is being ruined by thousands of free-roaming animals.

The ponies, cows and donkeys which graze the Forest are owned by commoners - villagers who have the right to let their livestock wander at will.

Commoners say the animals prevent the area from becoming an overgrown wilderness by munching their way through huge amounts of vegetation every year.

But Chris, who lives in the Forest, says the area is being overgrazed and has demanded a cap on animal numbers.

His comments have angered pony owners and other campaigners who have dubbed him a “sideline commentator” who is using his celebrity status to undermine what is being achieved in the district.

New Forest Post:

The row follows comments the Winterwatch presenter made on the BBC Inside Out programme.

Referring to commoners’ stock the 57-year-old presenter, who was awarded a CBE in the New year’s Honours list, said: “They’re browsing animals and browsing is when you’re eating the bushes and the trees.

“When you run out of food because there are so many of you in a hard winter - a wet winter like we’ve had for the last few years - you turn to other things.

“Stripping the bark from ancient beech trees and holly trees has been happening all over the Forest.”

Describing the commoners as farmers he said: “Every other farmer in the UK gets subsidies, why shouldn’t they have subsidies?

READ MORE:

“But this bizarre system of payments has led to an enormous increase in the number of animals and this should have been regulated.”

However, commoners and their supporters have hit back.

Cllr Edward Heron, deputy leader of New Forest District Council, said: “It’s sad that Chris Packham sometimes appears unwilling to allow facts and the opinions of genuine experts get in the way of his own sensationalist self-promotion.

“There are many threats to the Forest but the commoners - and their stock - isn’t one of them.”

New Forest Post:

The Commoners’ Defence Association added: “There can be few things more demotivating than seeing daily vocational effort for a cause you love under attack from sideline commentators, whose opinions are based on personal prejudice unencumbered by the facts.

“It is deeply upsetting that anyone would use their celebrity status to undermine everything that is being achieved.”

A Natural England spokesman said: “The Forest wouldn’t be the incredibly important wildlife and culturally rich place it is today without its long tradition of commoning.”