Country: Where the army meets the conservationists

Michael Prestage checks out Hankley Moor
Click to follow
The Independent Online
As well as being one of Britain's most valuable lowland heathlands, Hankley Moor is also something of a military theme park with the Army using the 7,000 acre site for a wide variety of training uses. On a recent visit the heathland that is rarer than rainforest and dubbed "the secret of Surrey" by conservationists was playing host to a detachment of the Third Battalion The Parachute Regiment, who were practising manoeuvres and training with anti-tank weapons.

Hankley Moor's other, more permanent, guests include rare reptiles like the smooth snake and the sand lizard, uncommon birds like the Dartford Warbler, the Hobby and the Nightjar and the Silver Studded Blue butterfly.

For those keen on modern history, tucked away in a wood is a section of the North Atlantic Wall erected prior to the invasion of Normandy so that explosives experts could determine just what was needed to blow holes in it. For those whose interest in archaeology goes back further, a stone age site was excavated last year.

Dougal Driver, employed by the Ministry of Defence as chief forester on the site, said: "There is not just heath here, but heather, gorse, some woodland and bog. Fortunately, here the needs of the military and keeping the variety of flora and fauna on the heathland are not incompatible. Army officers and conservationists all go away happy."

The thinning of trees to provide less cover for troops also helps the heather. The firebreaks that are used as paths by advancing paras also help protect the heath. And even cutting short the cover for a parachute dropping zone has created an area ideal for spiders, including the Raft Spider.

And while in this part of Surrey, heathland has proved irresistible for agriculture or housing over the years the ownership by the MoD that stretches back to the First World War has ensured it has remained largely intact.

There is the possibility that Highland cattle might be introduced to keep down birch and conifer scrub. An initiative already tried at sites where the heath is under threat. But it will be strictly controlled.

However, there are no plans at Hankley to repeat the award-winning scheme at Defence Research Agency land near Farnborough, Hampshire, last year when zoo-bred Przewalski's horses were released in semi-wild conditions in preparation for a possible reintroduction into their native Mongolia.

The ecological diversity of Hankley was not lost on the paras taking part in exercises. Lance Cpl Simon Cummins said: "We are given a brief on points of interest and rare or endangered species. Usually we are too busy with the exercise to take notice, but we do have a few guys who are keen and at quieter moments studying what's here passes the time."

The MoD policy is now to encourage public access wherever possible. Some of the tracks being used by the paras are also recognised bridle ways that can be used by local horse riders. There obviously have to be some constraints for safety reasons but, wherever possible, access is afforded.

Lt Col (retd) Bill Briggs, commandant Long Moor training area that includes Hankley Moor, said: "We are surrounded by conurbations where hundreds of thousands of people live cheek by jowl with training areas. There is enormous pressure for recreational access on to training sites and we have to find a middle course between military training and public use."

He said at Hankley the heathland and woodland are kept in balance. The army needs to extend the training area, but it will only be done in consultation with conservation groups. He added that the end of the largescale use of training grounds in Germany had put additional pressure on UK sites that had to be met, though with as little ecological damage as possible.

Hankley Moor, near the village of Elstead, is the chief rural military training area in the South East of England. In all 290 units of various size use it from the Special Air Service to Army Cadet Forces. Its main use is for small arms firing, infantry tactics and logistical deployments.

It makes up just a small part of the 240,000 hectare MoD estate that has been developed over the last 150 years. Sixty per cent of the country's remaining dry heathland is in the hands of the military.

The MoD's landholding also includes 3,200 separate sites that represent a variety of habitats and it owns the second largest number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest as well as many ancient monuments.

Since 1974 with the publication of The Nugent Report there has been a dedicated conservation officer for military land. The role is currently carried out by Col James Baker who explained: "The post evolved in keeping with the change in the natioal atmosphere towards conservation. The military was in step with the national conscience."

The variety of habitats means the MoD boasts the leading sites for a variety of rare species. The premier bat colony is at RAF Chilmark near Salisbury; Porton Down, Wiltshire, has the leading butterfly site in Britain and also boasts all 12 native species of reptiles and amphibians; the most prolific site for the Slender Cotton Grass is at the Ash rifle ranges, near Perbright, Surrey.

The MoD works with conservation groups including officials from English Nature on producing a management plan to ensure the most can be done to protect the sites while acknowledging that military use has to take precedence.

Col Baker said there were instances of the development of firing ranges being moved to protect particular species. This happened at Longmoor in Surrey where the preferred site chosen by experts in small arms fire was on a Natterjack toad spawning ground.

"The use of conservation groups has worked well. With heathland we have found that the military and ecological requirements go hand in hand. Other areas have been forested, but you can't train for war in a woodland so what suits us also preserves the heather," he said.