The British Army has taken control of a large area of common land in Cumbria in the first enclosure in more than a century.
Despite fierce national opposition, Cumbria county council voted 11-1 to deregister the military training area at Warcop after an application by the Ministry of Defence.
The MoD said it needed to deregister the common land to safeguard its right to train there. A planning inspector last month determined that it could do so since it had occupied it for many years.
The Foundation for Common Land said it was “dismayed” at the decision. Julia Aglionby, executive director, said councillors had little choice but to accept the inspector’s advice. But she added: “Our complaint is there was no public interest test required as part of the process, which seems extraordinary given common land is considered of immense value to our nation for recreation, natural and cultural heritage.”
Thousands of people signed a petition opposing deregistration. Parish councils and the commoners’ association also objected.
The MoD bought out the rights of graziers in 2003 but sells some licences to local farmers to graze sheep and permits irregular access to the public. The Pennine Way passes around the edge of the land.
The council did preserve 970 hectares of the common — about 30 per cent — because the MoD had never used it and had allowed public access. Before the deregistration the Warcop area comprised 1 per cent of the common land left in England.
About a third of England was common land until the 16th century when farmers and landlords started to enclose fields with walls and fences.
Since the mid-1800s common land has been protected and in 1965 the government created a register to ensure it remained open to all.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, which tries to preserve common land, said it was the largest enclosure since the 19th century.
“It is a vast area of fine upland landscape, and we are suspicious as to what the Ministry of Defence might try to do next on this land.”
They could build wind turbines, roads for tanks or plant forests for logging, she said.
The MoD has said it will maintain public access on the land and has no plans for development.
The Society and the Foundation for Common Land said they would examine whether there were grounds for a legal challenge.