War games ahead for a land barely touched by the hand of man

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Conservationists and ramblers are skirmishing with the Army in an attempt to preserve the character of a stretch of the northern Pennines described by the naturalist David Bellamy as "England's last wilderness".

With pressure on home training areas increasing following the withdrawal of troops from Germany, the Ministry of Defence is preparing its 25,000- acre range at Warcop in Cumbria for more intensive war games.

Walkers on the Pennine Way, which skirts the north-west edge of the range, regard this stretch of open moorland as one of the finest landscapes on the long distance path. The range is denoted on maps in the usual "danger area" way but for the wayfarer there is little but wild weather to limit the view.

That may not be the case for long. The Army is working on plans to mark its boundary alongside the Pennine Way, close other rights of way and purchase shepherds' grazing rights on common land within the range. Warcop is used primarily for small arms and infantry field firing and there is limited firing for armoured vehicles. A single stranded wire fence with warning notices every 50 metres was proposed initially for the 10km boundary with the Pennine Way. Following objections from the Countryside Commission, the fence has been dropped, but the signs remain a sensitive issue.

Tony Jackson, national trails officer for Cumbria, is particularly concerned to preserve the wildness of a stretch of the Way above High Cup Nick - where the moor suddenly drops from beneath the walker's boots into a vast rock-rimmed cirque, the Eden valley below and the Lakeland fells in the distance.

"The hand of man is barely visible here," he said. The line of the Pennine Way, and its crossing of Maize Beck, is marked not by wooden posts but by small stones. But the Army is insistent on its white and red "Danger" signs.

The Army says it needs to mark the range to comply with health and safety rules but Mr Jackson will want the signs moved to where they are least visible. The retreat over fencing pleased the Friends of the Lake District, who represent the Council for the Protection of Rural England in Cumbria, but the general secretary Ian Brodie said the signs would still be "a discordant urban intrusion in the wonderful openness of the moors".

Plans for closing three rights of way which cross the live-firing "impact" area remain unchanged. A circular walk would be lost, including the steep- sided valley of Scordale Beck, and also unofficial access to two hills topping 2,000ft. The MoD is offering alternative paths outside the danger zone, but according to the FLD there is already informal access in these areas. Cumbria council and the Countryside Commission have told the Army they would resist legal moves to extinguish the rights of way - they are "closed" for all but 90 days a year already for live firing.

An MoD spokesman confirmed the retreat over the notice boards and the wish to extinguish the rights of way. "We need to maximise the use of our training areas in the UK because we can't do so much training abroad as we used to do," he said."At the same time, we are anxious about safety.''

He was unable to comment on the purchase of Commoners' grazing rights - a move which would allow firing seven days a week and a consequent loss of public access. However, according to minutes leaked to the Ramblers' Association, an MoD-Warcop committee was told that 90 training days are lost each year to allow commoners to tend their flocks.

Sheep would continue to graze the Warcop fells but the Army would have control over the shepherding.