Anti-fracking campaigners in the New Forest are refusing to drop their guard – despite a Government pledge to protect precious parts of the countryside.

Ministers have announced that fracking will only be allowed in national parks and other areas of outstanding natural beauty in what they describe as “exceptional circumstances”.

But the announcement has failed to satisfy opponents of the controversial technique, which has been linked to earthquakes and other environmental problems.

Critics are calling for an outright ban on fracking in national parks and other environmentally-sensitive areas.

Commenting on the wording of the Government statement, Mike Chilcott, secretary of the New Forest Association, said: “It’s that built-in loophole that gives us concern – it’s just the sort of thing that gives developers hope.”

Fracking involves drilling thousands of feet underground and then pumping in pressurised water to crack the rocks and release trapped pockets of shale gas.

Members of the New Forest National Park Authority (NPA) include David Harrison, county councillor for Totton and Marchwood South.

He said: “I would have preferred the Government to be bold and announce that fracking will never be permitted in any of our national parks.”

But NPA officers appear to have been reassured by the Government’s announcement.

Paul Walton, head of environment and rural economy, said: “We welcome the Government’s intention to safeguard National Parks to ensure these iconic landscapes continue to receive the highest status of protection.”