Villagers say the move is illegal but Hart is not budging and is preparing to fight its case at a three-day public inquiry.

For more than six years people living near the common have fought Hart and English Nature’s plans to fell most of Odiham Wood, put up fencing and introduce grazing.

Landowner Hart has fenced the north-eastern section of the woodland and chopped down dozens of oaks since a government planning inspector backed the scheme in a public inquiry four years ago.

Leading campaigner Elynor Gilbert said she could not believe Hart was pushing ahead with the latest scheme.

“How many Hart District Council ratepayers are aware of the enormous sums it has wilfully spent over the last four and a half years on a crazy plan to ‘manage’ the north-east sector of Odiham Common? ‘Hart Broke’ the council has claimed, but its financial accountability has been challenged in its recent audit.

“Grants from Hampshire County Council and the Countryside Agency have enabled it to destroy a valuable and beautiful woodland. Visitors have abandoned it. The area, bluntly, is a disaster — it is there for all to see.”

Mrs Gilbert said she was astounded Hart was now applying for permission to permanently fence the whole common and was pushing ahead with a second costly public inquiry at North Warnborough Village Hall on February 25, 26 and 27.

“This is presumably because the council actually believes that the permission to fence half the common granted in 1998 has been a huge success in woodland management.

“Their arrogance knows no bounds, unless they have been misled by English Nature into believing that the purpose of the fencing is purely to restrain a handful of grazing cows during summer months.”

Mrs Gilbert added: “It is the wilful attempt by Hart to mislead us about the true cost of this ‘experiment’ that is so disgraceful.

“The new plan includes six more cattle grids at a cost of £150,000 to the taxpayer. Hart wants us to continue to pay for a plan that has already gone seriously wrong, but why?

“The council’s offence lies in its unprofessionalism, its lack of probity and in the conduct of its councillors who recently voted to apply to permanently fence the whole common without the consent of Odiham’s own parish council.

“The final absurdity is that DEFRA has now advised Hart that the law under which the first part of the common was fenced should not be used in this case.

“To fence therefore would be unlawful yet Hart has decided, against all logic, to ignore government advice.

“We are to have yet another costly public inquiry in the full knowledge that fencing cannot be permitted under the law in question.”

Mrs Gilbert said a more valid legislation stands in the way of Hart’s plan — the Scheme of Regulation, Odiham Common’s own list of rules which is based on the 1899 Commons Act.

“The scheme forbids the use of fencing for cattle,” said Mrs Gilbert.

“It specifically states ‘the council shall do nothing that may otherwise vary or alter the natural features or aspects of the commons or interfere with free access to any part thereof’.

“Unsurprisingly we have been told by DEFRA that this is a ‘subsidiary issue’ for the purposes of the inquiry so Hart has sworn to amend it at even more cost.

“The council is not only profligate and incompetent but overwhelmingly arrogant.”

l The issue has also forced Odiham Parish Council to issue the following urgent message:

“Due to the number of complaints about the way Hart District Council (HDC) are managing Odiham Common, the parish council engaged an expert consultant to assess the HDC management plan for the common and the way in which it has been carried out to date.

“The consultant’s report is available for reading in the Odiham Library. Following a public meeting on the subject, he has prepared an alternative management plan which does not require the permanent fencing of the whole common, which is what HDC is now seeking to do via a public inquiry.

“His alternative manage-ment plan should also be available in the library within the next few days.”