Plans to sell 40,000 hectares of public forest has been put on hold to allow for a review of woodland protection.

The government has taken the vast swathe of England’s forest off the market in a shock twist.

Around 15 per cent of the forests were going to be sold in a bid to raise £100 million for the government, but the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) delayed the sale.

The sale is being postponed because of concerns over access rights.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman blamed the last Labour government for the delay.

She said: “In light of the government commitment to increase protection for access and public benefit in our woodlands, the criteria for these sales will be reviewed so that protections are significantly strengthened following the inadequate measures that were applied to sales under the previous administration. Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market.”

Mark Avery, conservation director at the RSPB is delighted at the move.

“This is a good thing. Lots of forests were going to be sold off without enough protection [for public access rights and wildlife],” he said.