Cumbrian villagers have accused the Ministry of Defence of attempting a “land grab” after a proposal to turn common land into a firing range.
A public inquiry has been launched over plans to remove the common land status from an area of moorland near Appleby-in-Westmorland.
Villagers believe transferring ownership of the area to the British army will leave farmers unable to graze a major part of the Pennines.
The taking of common land into private ownership has long been controversial and led to the creation of 19th-century conservation movements including the National Trust.
This is the first time since 1914 that the MoD has attempted to take over a piece of land designated as an enclosure.
It has applied to “de-register” 4,500 hectares of common land near Warcop training area. A 1965 act of parliament states that all commons and village greens should be listed on a register. According to the Open Spaces Society, which opposes the plan, deregistration would transfer ownership of the land to the MoD.
During the inquiry in Kendal, MoD barristers lined up against the Open Spaces Society, the Foundation for Common Land, the Federation of Cumbria Commoners, the Friends of the Lake District and the Hilton Commoners.
Julia Aglionby, from the Foundation for Common Land, who presented a submission against the plans at the inquiry, said the law discussed during the two-day hearing was “unbelievably complex”.
She said: “The MoD have effectively said they don’t have to justify why they are doing it, they are just going to do it.
“Only 3% of England is common land and it goes back to the heart of people having access to countryside. It is a very emotional issue where effectively poor people have been thrown off the lands since the 16th century and now we are having a 21st-century version of this.”
She added: “By stopping the land being common land there is much less much protection for the wider public interest. If this happens people could build roads across it, there could be wind turbines, tank training areas, and that would not require consent from the secretary of state.”
The common land comprises three fells, Murton, Hilton and Warcop and amounts to 1% of all existing common land in England. The land lies within the North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty on the route of the Pennine Way.
Immediately to the south is the 10,000-hectare Warcop training area, where about 5,000 soldiers, mostly from Catterick garrison in North Yorkshire, conduct live-fire exercises with rifles and mortars.
In 2002 the army decided to expand its training area and took out compulsory purchase orders for the grazing rights of 70 farmers on the three fells. That gave the MoD control of when it could use the land for exercises.
The MoD sells farmers grazing licences at about £2.40 a head for both the three fells and the mock battlefields of its training area. The farmers have to wait for days when the red flags warning of live-fire training are not up – now 32 days a year, including a week at Christmas.
An MoD spokesman said: “We are not proposing to restrict public access in any way and have no plans to sell the land. We have applied to de-register land at Warcop training area to safeguard the MoD’s ability to train.”
The inquiry has been adjourned until 30 October and has been extended to another four days.