Lord Bath and the Longleat Estate moved yesterday to reassure people living in Warminster that they are not about to start fracking under their homes, after residents were sent letters telling them the aristocrat was registering mineral rights which date back centuries.
Council chiefs in the west Wiltshire town told worried residents how they might be able to contest the claim, which came in an application made by the Longleat Estate before Christmas.
The Marquess of Bath is claiming the rights to the minerals under a vast swathe of west Wiltshire around Warminster and the greater Longleat Forest, which he said dates back to the days when the title carried with it a much larger area of land.
That land has since been built on or sold off, but the marquess is claiming the estate held on to the mineral rights for whatever is underneath the ground.
Yesterday, Warminster town clerk sought to reassure worried residents that this was a legal technicality, and did not mean fracking or mining would be taking place in the area any time soon.
"Until 2002, interests in mines and mineral rights existed but did not need to be recorded on the Land Register," said town clerk Heather Abernethie. "However, following the Land Registration Act, the interests needed to be recorded by October 12, 2013, in order to be protected. Longleat believes the interest in the mineral rights has been in the ownership of the family for hundreds of years and has registered this interest accordingly.
"They are not seeking to create any new rights, but to protect existing ones," she added. Ms Abernethie said, given that Warminster is close to the Somerset border and the Mendips, fracking had been mentioned as a worry.
"Residents have also expressed worries that following recent publicity these letters have been sent out in order for the rights owner to have access to the mineral rights for the purposes of fracking," she said.
"The Land Registry makes it clear that any oil or gas belongs to the Crown, not to the owners of the land, and they would have to grant licences to extract them."
A Longleat Estate spokesman said estate managers were merely following other landowners in registering their already existing mineral rights – the Church of England Commissioners had done a similar thing recently, as had a man who claimed the mineral rights to a large part of north Bristol.
"One of the interests which affects Longleat are mineral rights vested in the land owner centuries ago. We believe that the Longleat Estate, is still in ownership of some of these rights," he said.
"An application has therefore been made by Longleat to register these rights in order to protect an interest that has been in the family for hundreds of years. We have not sought to create any new rights.
"The registration of these rights does not alter the ownership status of the land in question – it just makes it clear on the Land Register," he added.