Army opens firing ranges to ramblers

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The Independent Online
"WARNING: this training area is used by the Armed Services for firing and is dangerous."

It may not seem like an invitation to a beauty spot. But for the Army, it is a first step towards eco-tourism.

The Ministry of Defence, keen that the public should have access to its land, is to publish an internet guide to walks across its firing ranges. And in an effort to attract foreign visitors, it plans to give tourist information centres details - including maps - of walks on army training areas.

The MoD, which owns or leases 594,000 acres of land in Britain, is to open to walkers training grounds used by the Army, including the SAS and parachute regiments, for manoeuvres and mock battles.

The new strategy, being encouraged by ministers, follows criticism by ramblers that they have been told to "keep off" broad tracts of countryside owned by the MoD.

But now the defence estate has cleared a series of paths across its land of stray ammunition and bombs.

"The paths for walkers have been cleared of explosives and are clearly marked by yellow posts," the guide says. "Please keep to those way-marked paths and within fences at all times. Do not touch or pick up any metal object you may find."

Army advisers say that walkers should not attempt to approach squaddies in full pack for fear of being mistaken for a "mock enemy".

The walks "vary in length from a pleasant stroll along a couple of kilometres of Norfolk countryside to a hike through the wilds of the Otterburn Training Area in the Northumberland National Park," according to the guide. It also includes information on "red flag days" when walkers must keep out because soldiers are using live ammunition.

In an attempt to appeal to students and amateur historians, army archaeologists are compiling a visitors' guide to hill forts and ramparts and Iron Age settlements on the estate.

Ornithologists, ecologists and animal lovers are to be sent information on sites of special interest, including a system of caves at an RAF base which houses Britain's largest bat population.

"This has been one of the great secret rights of way. It is probably the only MoD secret that is not hidden from the public," said Dai Morgan Evans, general secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London and a consultant to the MoD. "The archaeological sites on MoD land are really well preserved because they are not on farmland. Armoured vehicles and tanks do go over them and it does cause some damage but not as much as being ploughed every few years. You have to stick to certain routes but you might even see trucks moving through and tanks passing by. It's part of the scenery."

The MoD, worried that walkers, especially children, may pick up stray ammunition from training exercises, has issued a map of safe routes, with information on live firing times. Sometimes the chemicals in old bombs and shells planted in pre-war manoeuvres leach through the soil.

The walking guides also include warnings of spots to avoid including buildings which could have been booby-trapped. It will offer information on where to find remains of historic buildings, including Ellerton Abbey, in Yorkshire, and Castlelaw Hill Fort, in Scotland, which was built in the Iron Age.

The publicity drive is being led by the MoD's Conservation Unit, which includes high-ranking soldiers, as well as ecologists and geologists.

The unit is charged with preserving the woodland and wildlife of the defence estate. It has issued training videos to squaddies telling them to respect trees and not to pick the flowers while on manoeuvres - and has given them tips about protecting rare species.

"A lot of people find it slightly paradoxical but we really have some of the best conserved land in Britain," said Colonel James Baker, a former commander of the Irish Guards and head of the MoD Conservation Unit. "Woolmer training area is the premier reptile site in Europe, with 12 reptiles including the common frog and great crested newt. The Cinque Ports are wonderful for orchids and one of the largest Romano-British villages is in the `impact area' on Salisbury plain.

"We also have a detailed archaeological management plan and there are areas where armoured vehicles cannot go."