Flower power flourishes amid Plain's firepower

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The Independent Online

Artillery shells batter it, tanks trundle over it, yet it remains the most wildlife-rich open landscape in Britain. And now millions of pounds are to be spent enhancing nature conservation on the army's best-known training ground, Salisbury Plain.

The great expanse of chalk grassland in Wiltshire accommodates men preparing for war. But the plain is also home to unparalleled numbers of wild birds, flowers and insects, and the granting last week of European Union funds to improve it for wildlife, matched by money from the Government and British wildlife bodies, is a formal and long-delayed recognition that it is as important for the national environment as it is for national security.

Over the next four years, more than £2m will be spent on clearing natural grassland overgrown with scrub and pine plantations, and bringing in grazing animals to keep the grass short, which allows other plants to flourish, and butterflies, such as the rare marsh fritillary, to breed.

Half the money has come from Brussels, and the rest is being provided by the army, the government's wildlife advisers at English Nature, and by several other conservation bodies.

They think it is well worth it. Chalk grassland is the richest of all European habitats for wild flowers and butterflies. If it is grazed regularly a square metre of it can contain up to 50 different species of plant.

Until the Second World War chalk grassland stretched in a great unbroken belt across the downs of southern England, from Dorset over to Bedfordshire, much of it kept as trim as a bowling green by the grazing of thousands of sheep. But the urgent need to provide food for a nation at war began a process of ploughing-up for crops that has continued until this day, when an estimated 80 per cent of the original grassland area has gone. In areas such as the North and South Downs, the natural grassland survives only in patches on the scarp slopes of the hills, which are too steep for the plough.

Salisbury Plain's 40,000 grassland acres, however, are just as they have always been: the army's 100-year-long occupation has prevented them from being ploughed up or intensively farmed and, unlike most of the modern British countryside, they remain free from pesticides and artificial fertilisers. The result is a continuing profusion of wildlife, which is quite astonishing in a countryside ravaged by intensive farming .

The plain contains no fewer than 14,000 pairs of skylarks, the highest number in one place in Britain of a bird whose population has crashed; 400 pairs of whinchats; 70 pairs of barn owls; and more than 20 pairs of stone curlews, one of Britain's rarest summer visitors. It is more species-rich in wild flowers than anywhere else, and the same goes for butterflies. "This is the only place in Britain where you might get a sense of wildlife as you see it in the Cévennes of the Pyrenees, in terms of actual numbers," said Steven Davis, the English Nature conservation officer who is in charge of the restoration project. "There are literally clouds of butterflies. You can see thousands of dark green fritillaries in some of the firing impact areas."

Firing and armoured manoeuvres do not, however, harm the wildlife as one might suppose. Paul Toynton, conservation officer for the Defence Estates, said: "Most of nature conservation here doesn't really conflict with military training." Indeed, tanks and guns churning up the grassland helps, because the movement provides new, bare ground for annual plants. It is rich in seeds, which provide plenty of food for wild birds.

David Arnold-Foster, English Nature's chief executive, said: "We are confident that all our partners can work together to balance the needs of nature with military training on Salisbury Plain. Flower power can co-exist with firepower."

That certainly seemed the case late last week. Even as the shells from the AS-90 howitzers were screaming overhead to burst in flame and smoke on the distant downland, flocks of linnets and goldfinches were gathering and twittering on the great banks of dead thistles.

Roe deer moved through the scrub, unconcerned. And each time your ears recovered from the thumping crack of the big guns, you could hear the skylarks singing.