THE Ministry of Defence believes it has fully justified its case to compulsorily acquire commoners' rights on a training area in Cumbria.

A five-week public inquiry was set up to examine the MoD case to acquire the rights over Warcop, Hilton and Murton Commons to fulfil vital training needs.

The ministry says existing agreements with commoners have seriously compromised training at the infantry training centre at Catterick which uses Warcop for live-firing exercises.

In particular, night firing for its annual intake of 5,000 recruits has proven far too limited. The rights were also felt to compromise training for the region's TA and 19 Mechanised Brigade.

The MoD says a positive aspect of the process has been the continuing dialogue between itself and all interested parties since the Under Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Lewis Moonie, proposed last autumn that the inquiry be held.

Agreement already achieved concerned 98pc of the identified rights, used mainly for grazing sheep. In his closing submission on behalf of the ministry, Mr Nigel McLeod QC said this was the most strong support for a decision to end existing rights.

The MoD agreed that sufficient safeguards would have to be made in respect of the consequences of such an extinction.

Objectors had expressed concerns over access, nature conservation and possible additional noise resulting from an increased training regime.

"All material matters that arise from extinction are beneficial, or proportionately acceptable or are acceptably safeguarded," Mr McLeod added.

Having listened to all those involved, the ministry has listed a number of undertakings it has made if the rights are compulsorily acquired. Material changes to the firing programme may only be overridden by urgent pre-operational training requirements or approval from the Secretary of State. They include:

l Extinguishing rights will not result in any change in the type of weapons used at Warcop training area

l During the winter, no small arms live-firing will start before 7.30am. No night-time live firing will take place after 2am

l During the summer, no small arms live-firing will take place before 8am or after 6pm, except for night firing

l On ranges A1 and A2, which are closer to the villages of Hilton and Murton, there will be no night time firing after midnight

l Battle simulation charges will be restricted to certain ranges and will not be used on more than three nights a week and not after 11pm

l The live-firing of 30mm weapons at Warcop will not exceed 12 weeks live-firing per year. Night-firing will have the same time constraints as small arms, but will not take place on more than three nights a week. It will not exceed three hours a night and not extend beyond 00.45. The night-firing will be restricted to certain ranges and notice will be published 30 days in advance

l The live-firing of 120mm weapons will essentially remain unchanged, at not more than 14 days a year. There will be no live-firing before 9am or after 5pm or on Mondays and dates will be published 30 days in advance

l Access to the danger area: There will be access every Sunday after 1pm; 12 weekends throughout the year, published at least 12 months in advance; Christmas Eve to New Year's Day; and at least 15 short-notice access days a year

l A number of new access routes will be created that will be open at all times. The MoD will produce leaflets to publicise the new times and routes. It will also provide an answerphone service to publicise up-to-date access opportunities

The ministry's specialist in public access, Mr Peter Smith, concluded that the combination of more weekend access to the danger area and the proposed new paths would result in more interesting parts of the training area being open to a wider range of people.

Training officer Maj Graham Evans said, "The only solution to the shortfall in training is to make full use of the facilities at Warcop. Without this the infantry training centre cannot deliver the required number of fully-trained soldiers into the army."

The MoD's noise consultant, Dr Andrew Bullmore, said it was a military training range where live weapons had been fired since the Second World War. The firing of live weapons would inevitably produce noise and any change in a firing regime would result in a change in the noise environment.

For this reason the MoD had expended a great effort in managing that change. This had been achieved by various measures it would put in place, both upon his recommendation and after considering the views of those likely to be affected.

Dr Keith Jones, a nature conservation specialist, said, "In terms of nature conservation, extinguishing the rights would give the MoD control over stocking rates, which would be reduced. This would be beneficial to the vegetation of the internationally important moorland habitat and to upland bird species.

"Also, an integrated land management plan will be prepared for Warcop training area. Provided the rights of way were extinguished, this will take full account of the European nature conservation importance of the training area."