Tanks carve up heritage sites on Salisbury Plain: Peter Dunn reports on growing concern at damage being done to a priceless landscape

Britain is paying a price for the European Peace Dividend in widespread damage to wildlife and ancient monuments on Salisbury Plain, the finest archaeological landscape in Europe.

Forced off their broad training acres in Germany - where the British military presence must be reduced from 55,000 to 25,000 by next year - commanders have been queuing to use their tank battle school across 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) of Wiltshire chalk downs.

Conservationists are appalled by the scale of destruction across the plain's 1,800 barrows, field systems and ancient settlements.

Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, told the Commons defence select committee this week that one third of the area's archaeological sites had been damaged by military use. He blamed the destruction partly on a breakdown in discipline - the failure of commanders to educate troops before turning them loose across a priceless landscape.

Mr Stevens said yesterday that he had alerted Lord Cranborne, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, to the crisis. 'He flew over the area in a helicopter and told me earlier this week that he was shocked by what he had seen,' Mr Stevens said. 'There has been a complete breakdown there over the last three months. Troops new to the area are going over everything causing absolute mayhem.'

An estimated five-fold increase in warfare training across the area, which includes 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and European Special Protection Areas, has turned parts of Salisbury Plain into a quagmire, churned up by ever-widening tank tracks, some of them 100 yards wide. The Army's problems have been compounded by the wettest winter in living memory.

The most serious allegations of environmental damage centre less on wildlife - the plain has 35 species to an acre - but to the wrecking of ancient monuments by gung-ho tank commanders.

Conservationists say that such activity is a serious breach of the 1992 Rio Summit, signed by John Major and designed to preserve valuable landscapes for future generations.

Roy Canham, Wiltshire County Council's archaeologist who has access to the Salisbury Plain sites, has seen the damage at first hand. He disputes claims by Mike Evans, head of special projects at Defence Land Services, the plain's Whitehall landlords, that there had been only 'minor incursions' across ancient monuments. He says the spoliation started within weeks of a wide- ranging archaeological management plan for the plain's ancient monuments being launched last July by Lord Cranborne.

Russell Wright, conservation officer for English Nature in Wiltshire, is worried about the long- term effect of tank activity. But he recognises that the site owes its existence to the Army's presence there for almost a century.

'Without the military it would have been wall-to-wall barley, without question, so that's brownie points to them,' he says. 'Chalk grassland is fairly robust in terms of survival of wildlife but if this amount of activity was to continue for the next ten years in the same conditions there would be increasing losses, there's no question about it.

'The MoD and English Nature have a declaration of interest which says military training has the priority within the SSSIs and nature conservation has the second priority land use. The object is that we keep the place fit for wildlife and they can train on it. That doesn't include turning it into a massive mud bath because that's no good for them and it's not a lot of good for us.'

Conservationists, meanwhile, are eagerly awaiting the publication of another management plan for Salisbury Plain, this one being an MoD-commissioned impact study by Dr Anne Kemp of RSK Environmental, Dorking, Surrey. Dr Kemp's report was expected to be published before last Christmas but has been delayed amid suspicions (rejected by army spokesmen) that it will recommend unacceptably tough restrictions on tank activity.

Privately, senior army officers say the only answer is an injection of millions of pounds of government money to accelerate MoD plans to build stone highways for tanks and the Army's new 40-ton AS 90 field gun which has just started trials on the plain.

Col James Baker, the MoD's chief conservation officer, defends the Army's conservation record. 'We do try terribly hard across the country to be caring landlords and any damage that is done grieves one enormously,' he said. 'I appreciate that archaeology is a finite resource and we're doing really an enormous amount to minimise any damage.'

Mr Canham acknowledges that the Army tries to minimise its war games damage (First Crusade, a major battle exercise involving 1,000 armoured vehicles in March, was heavily-monitored) but remains critical of the effort so far. Another exercise, Phantom Bugle, is to be staged next month with a bigger operation in August.