Mountain bikers, ramblers and dog walkers fear their access to Ministry of Defence (MoD) land could be severely restricted as the armed forces step up training across the News & Mail area.
Military use of training land is set to increase as a number of units move from Germany to the Aldershot area over the next six years.
Around 150 people packed into the Memorial Hall in Sandy Lane, Church Crookham, on June 5 to listen to a presentation by Lt Col (Retd) Mark Ludlow, training safety officer for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, as to how the changes will affect the public.
He said changes to health and safety meant the individual officer conducting the exercise will now be personally liable for any injury to a solider or civilian.
Lt Col Ludlow added the MoD has a presumption in favour of public access when its land is not being used for military training. But he said the armed forces face a number of problems while training, including illegal activities such as motorsport, arson, fly-tipping and the making of mountain bike tracks and jumps.
Dog mess left on training areas is a big problem as are people who ignore the red flags on firing ranges such as Ash.
People were warned to expect more armoured vehicles using the land, including the huge Mastiff, whose young drivers could easily run over a dog ‘without even knowing’.
Lt Col Ludlow said the 1976 bye-laws were ‘not perfect’ and a review is currently taking place across the entire crown estate. One man asked if it meant the end of single track mountain biking, which has been enjoyed for the last 40 years.
Lt Col Ludlow replied: "Mountain biking is a popular sport within all three services and it’s something to be encouraged but as the bye-laws stand it is prohibited."
Fleet trader and keen cyclist Kevin Whibley asked if horse riding would be allowed to continue and Lt Col Ludlow again said it was not allowed except under permit.
Hart district councillor Steve Forster suggested the MoD should consider adopting a zone and flag system to stop civilians using the land when it is actually carrying out training, to which Lt Col Ludlow said was an options under consideration.
Among those at the meeting were members of the Trail Action Group (TAG), which represents mountain bikers who ride on land including Ash Ranges, Hawley Common, Minley Wood, Pyestock Hill and Velmead Woods in Fleet, Old Dean Common in Camberley, Yateley Heath and the Caeser’s Camp/Rushmoor Arena area between Aldershot, Fleet and Farnham.
Fleet resident Russell Funnell, 49, rides with the Tunnel Hill Trolls, whose members sit on the TAG committee. He said he came away from the meeting ‘confused’.
“Mountain bikers of course, came away not knowing where we stand and what the future really holds,” he added.
“The messages that came out of the meeting were mixed, on one hand be careful and considerate on military land when riding over there, but on the other hand there was the threat of all our activities being considered illegal and what constitutes the surface we can legally ride on.
“I had every sympathy for the military personnel who at the end of the day are just doing their job, but it felt to me like they were preparing us for really bad news about an outright ban on cycling on their land.
“But it didn’t really come, although there is still the threat of this under the current bye-laws and maybe even more so in the revised bye-laws.”
Mr Funnell said the best way forward for mountain bikers was to try and find a way of legally co-existing with the MoD on its land.
“So hopefully a proper dialogue will open up between those that make the rules and the rest of us,” he added.
Mr Whibley said: “The shame would be when all issues come for review that cyclists, ramblers and dog walkers are treated en mass with those that do not abide by the most basic codes of conduct.
“Legislation against any activity is messy and expensive, it does not make friends and it does not encourage good working relations between groups of people.
“A code of conduct on the other hand is a simple and effective way to ensure that everyone knows how to behave and work together.”