Battle for the soul of our uplands

Who are they kidding? The MoD says walkers would do more damage than shells and tanks
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Can a walker's boot do as much damage to the countryside as that of a squaddie or even a 25-ton multi-launch rocket system? Looking around the wilderness of Otterburn, in Northumberland, with its heather moorland turned mauve by the low winter sun, I somehow doubted it.

Can a walker's boot do as much damage to the countryside as that of a squaddie or even a 25-ton multi-launch rocket system? Looking around the wilderness of Otterburn, in Northumberland, with its heather moorland turned mauve by the low winter sun, I somehow doubted it.

Otterburn, at 60,000 acres, is the largest single training area for the armed forces in the United Kingdom. On some 300 days every year the public is barred from the range, even though it lies almost entirely within the Northumberland National Park. Only six miles of footpaths are open permanently.

The Ministry of Defence says that the stark, raw beauty - and the fauna and flora that goes with it - exists because public access is limited. Allow civilians in, the argument goes, and this haven will quickly disappear.

The sentiment has been echoed by a small number of readers who in all other respects support our Out-of-Bounds campaign. But many experts disagree, believing that the conservation value of Otterburn and other MoD sites is due more to the absence of modern farming techniques than the lack of people. They argue that a countryside which can withstand mortar shells and tanks can accommodate sensitive walkers without any great problem.

The point is neatly made in the unpolluted upland streams of the Upper Coquet valley. Peregrine falcons, dippers, wagtails and goosanders fly up and down the valley which is also a welcome retreat for otters.

Environmentalists point out that the rare Jacobs Ladder plant thrives on land where there is full public access at all times. The idea that walkers could be damaging this area any more than the 30,000 troops who visit each year seems ludicrous. For the MoD to claim otherwise, given the mortar craters that scar the hills and the geologically precious Kelso lava tracks, requires a good deal of chutzpah.

Similar feelings were prompted by the spectacular viewpoint of Middle Golden Pot. Robert Blythe, a hiker from Whitley Bay, said: "You can't beat this view, with the wild goats and the sun bearing down. But the Army just doesn't advertise it."

"There is no evidence to support the MoD view," said Dave Doxford, development officer for Northumberland National Park. "The issue of people damaging the environment just doesn't apply. This is one of the most remote parts of England."

Mr Doxford points to a contradiction in using a place of such tranquillity for military exercises which bring with them noise, traffic, fuel spillages, craters and erosion. "Walkers or bird spotters are less likely to damage things than an army making a lot of noise and operating at night. There have been occasional problems with thieves taking rare eggs and plants but these are very small."

But the MoD insists its relationship with the Otterburn environment is a positive one. Much of the MoD land is farmed and the 31 tenant hill farms support 120 people and 25,000 breeding ewes. Otterburn has 11 sites of special scientific interest as well as two national nature reserves and 26 scheduled ancient monuments. The MoD also points to the value of its stewardship elsewhere; part of the Castlemartin range near Pembroke that is permanently off limits to the public has richer and rarer fauna and flora than the eastern part where civilians have access. Salisbury Plain is home to the rare fairy shrimp and the Otmoor range in Oxfordshire is home to one of our rarest plants, the fen violet.

"It's not black and white," Mr Doxford said. "Otterburn is better looked after than other neighbouring estates and I have a lot a respect for the land managers there. But the landscape is enhanced because it hasn't been ploughed and limed and fertilisers haven't been scattered. It has avoided the excesses of gamekeepers."

But both sides acknowledge a delicate balance must be struck. Rachel Hirst, a research student at the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology, said: "We are dealing with pristine landscapes and we don't know how much human presence they can tolerate. Walkers who know and respect the countryside won't be a problem but there are birds like the stone curlew on Salisbury Plain that thrive because there are no humans around."

The RSPB is also contributing to the MoD's rural estate strategy that will seek to balance training, conservation and access. "Access needs to be done on a site by site basis," said a spokesman for the RSPB. "Upland areas such as Otterburn are not of great concern."

A further dilemma for those seeking more access is that while the MoD is warning that opening more land will damage wildlife at Otterburn, it is at the same time planning to dramatically expand exercises. For the past three years a public enquiry has attempted to resolve this contradiction after Northumberland National Park argued that army use is already at saturation point and that Otterburn's peat bogs are unsuited to training with heavy vehicles.

"It is likely that the army presence has contributed to the conservation value of the estate," said Andrew Cattermole, who has conducted environmental work on Otterburn for Newcastle University. But he believes that a managed increase in access would not affect conservation. "Access restrictions are less important than the estate management regime."