Much of the land is open in theory but typically for no more than a handful of days a year, or a few hours a week. In some places, the privilege is abused by the MoD, which grants exclusive leisure use to families of service personnel. Elsewhere, when a training session is booked but the forces fail to turn up, no effort is made to inform the public that the land has been re-opened. Other areas are permanently out of bounds.
Large signs warn people to keep away when the Army is firing; red flags flutter; barriers are placed almost permanently across the roads. It is rare to walk around Rydal Water, near Wordsworth's resting place at Grasmere in the Lake District, without the screech of RAF jets overhead.
Walkers depend, of course, on maps from the Ordnance Survey, originally carried out to help gunners shell accurately, if necessary, in every bit of Britain. A further paradox is that the military's presence has in many cases improved the quality of the land, shielding it from the ravages of intensive farming and mass forestry.
There are 265 Sites of Special Scientific Interest on military land: Salisbury Plain, used by the MoD for tank training 364 days a year, is ideal habitat for the stone curlew, the hobby (a magnificent bird of prey), four scarce butterflies and the fairy shrimp, a rare invertebrate that breeds in the puddles formed in tank tracks. Otterburn, in Northumbria, is home to the rare Jacob's ladder plant.
The MoD also owns the Stanford training area, a 12,000-acre site at Brecklands, straddling the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Recently described as classic 19th- century England, it is one of the largest undeveloped heathlands in Britain, having escaped the intensive farming of neighbouring countryside. You can look for miles and not see a man-made structure.
"Much of the land owned by the MoD is beautiful and untouched by the 20th century," said David Beskine, director of campaigns and policy for the Ramblers' Association. "In some ways that has been a blessing because it has protected it from development but it is a scandal that so much of it remains off limits for so much of the time."
Others believe it is wrong for the military to claim the credit for the preservation of these areas. "The military argue that nature has flourished because the public has been excluded but it's more the case that these lands have been kept out of the hands of gamekeepers and farmers," said David Doxford, development officer for Northumberland National Park. "Walkers or birdspotters are less likely to damage things than an army making a lot of noise and operating at night. We've had bird eggs stolen from nests even though the SAS were around, so having the Army in place doesn't make it more secure."
Elsewhere there have been stand-offs between walkers and the military. At the Castlemartin firing range, near Pembroke, in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, walkers must sign a "blood chit", waiving their rights to damages caused by scrap or unexploded ordnance before they can use the eight-mile stretch of MoD land. "Castlemartin is like a missing tooth in the coast path," said Beverley Penney, director of Ramblers in Wales. "If the MoD is worried about the dangers of unexploded ordnance then it should arrange for the area to be swept clean."
It is a similar story elsewhere. The large expanse of land at Lydd, near Romney Marsh in Kent, dear to Derek Jarman, the late film director, is open just a few days a year. Much of Dartmoor is closed for 140 days a year. At Mickle Fell, the highest point in County Durham, landowners cite the military use of the nearby Warcope training ground as reasons why the public is barred from the land.
The Otterburn training area in Northumberland National Park, 20 miles north of Hadrian's Wall, is off limits for up to 300 days a year. Next February the findings will be announced from a pounds 2.5m public inquiry into the Army's plans to develop the 35,000-acre range so it can train with its Multiple Launch Rocket System and Apache helicopters. The park authorities are campaigning to raise the number of open days from 70 to 90 a year.
There are signs that the MoD knows that it now has to listen. Two weeks ago, as part of the rapprochement, environmental groups including the RSPB, the Ramblers' Association, English Nature and the Council for National Parks, as well as the Country Landowners' Association, were invited to meet senior MoD officials to discuss how access to firing and training ranges could be improved.
Environmental groups have welcomed the new openness but now want action. "Times have changed," said a spokeswoman for English Nature, which advises the MoD on managing much of the flora and fauna on training ranges. "More land needs to be opened up and there's a general view that you don't need to shut all this countryside off from the public."
Despite the MoD's expression of a "presumption in favour" of greater access, it will be hard work to change ingrained attitudes. "I don't believe there is a single person in the MoD who knows exactly where all the firing ranges are," said Mr Beskine. "The ministers are showing the right approach but the difficulty lies within the Civil Service. There still seems to be the old-fashioned MoD approach of giving as little information to the public as possible."
However the ministry has recently launched a rural estates strategy, to be published next spring, which will review opening times and access. It says it will attempt to make opening times of ranges more accessible, possibly via the internet. "We're not saying everything in the past was terrible but we do accept we could improve things," said a spokeswoman for the MoD. "The presumption is in favour of access but the Army needs to be able to train at short notice, as we saw with Kosovo. We need to strike a balance. You can imagination the flak we'd get if someone got shot as they walked across the land."
Vicki Elcoate, director of the Council for National Parks, believes any strategic review of training should be carried out by an independent body. "It needs to look at the need for the training and its location," she said. "National parks and military training are incompatible."
LEADING ARTICLE, PAGE 26
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