Army to ban walkers and farmers from Pennine range

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The Independent Online

Farmers and walkers are to be banished from one of the wildest parts of the countryside so that an Army training area can be greatly extended.

Farmers and walkers are to be banished from one of the wildest parts of the countryside so that an Army training area can be greatly extended.

Under Ministry of Defence proposals, the Army's training area at Warcop, Cumbria, will effectively be closed to the public for much of the year and the grazing rights of local commoners revoked, ending a farming tradition that dates back to the mid-18th century.

Opponents say that the expansion will mean an increase in noise levels, with weapons of up to 120mm calibre being fired until 2am in summer, the closure of many miles of footpaths and bridleways, and a loss of visitors to the region.

The area forms part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Several nature reserves are within the area and the Pennine Way forms part of the boundary.

The centre of the dispute is the MoD's view that the 70 farmers must leave the commons of Warcop, Hilton and Murton, near Appleby, to allow the expansion of training. In the past the military, which owns the freehold on the common, has secured firing-licence agreements which compensate commoners for disruption. The MoD now plans to exercise compulsory purchase laws, ending the commoners' rights.

The MoD's stance has raised concern about public access to military training areas, the majority of which are places of great natural beauty. Earlier this year the Independent on Sunday ran a successful campaign for the MoD to increase access for walkers and other countryside users.

Warcop is one of the most intensively used Army training areas because of its proximity to the infantry training centre at Catterick. The public enjoys access only on Mondays and 40 other days a year. The rest of the week, and for 100 nights a year, the Army uses the range for artillery training, Territorial Army exercises and live firing.

A document published by the MoD, designed to justify its clearance of the three commons, outlines plans to expand Warcop for live firing exercises, particularly at night. It also indicates plans to increase the amount of ammunition available for training by 43 per cent. While the number of troops trained at Warcop will not rise from the present level of 5,000, they will be able to spend far more time there.

The MoD has decided to use a compulsory purchase order as it feels it "could not guarantee" securing individual agreements with all the farmers. It also insists that the use of Challenger II tanks will not increase. "We recognise the problems for the farmers and that local people are concerned about noise," a spokesman said. "The commoners will be compensated and we will look carefully at the issue of noise.

"Up to 30 per cent of those who train at Warcop go on missions immediately afterwards to places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. They're really not completing their training properly so we need to expand."

However, the Ramblers' Association, the Open Spaces Society, which lobbies on access to commons, and the Council for National Parks, have all lodged objections to the plans. The dispute will go to a public inquiry, which is expected to be held next spring.

Brian Moncaster, who has set up a local residents action group, said: "We're not trying to stop the Army. The Army was here before most of us so it isn't a question of 'not in our back yards'. I certainly believe in defence, but I'm also interested in the local environment and heritage."

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