Travel: Tanks for the wildlife

Country: Nicholas Schoon on plans to develop Army land in national parks
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The Independent Travel
Look at an OS map of the north of Dartmoor National Park, or the heart of Northumberland National Park, and you see lots of red ink, warning of danger areas.

Go to either of these places, and what do you find amid the wild, bleak scenery? Big signs warning people to keep away when the Army is firing; red flags fluttering; barriers across the roads. Gunfire often smothers the sounds of the wind in the heather, lark song and rushing water.

Then look at your map again, and reflect that this indispensable guide for Britain's walkers and nature lovers had military origins. The Ordnance Survey was carried out to help gunners shell accurately in every bit of Britain.

The Ministry of Defence owns or is licensed to use land in nine of the 11 National Parks in England and Wales. Hardest hit are Northumberland (22 per cent of its area is MoD controlled), Dartmoor (15 per cent) and the Pembrokeshire Coast in south-west Wales (5 per cent). For much of the time the public have to keep out or risk prosecution - and their lives.

Yet these parks are designated as our most precious terrain, and Acts of Parliament say their natural beauty should be preserved to promote public enjoyment. What on earth is the military doing here?

It's a question ramblers and environmentalists have been asking since the parks were founded half a century ago. It was raised again this week, with the opening of a public inquiry into the Army's plans for developing its big Otterburn training area, straddling the middle of Northumberland National Park. It is the least visited and most remote of the parks: 400 square miles of moor and low mountain, just south of the Scottish border.

The inquiry will last as long as six months and cost the taxpayer more than pounds 2.5m. The artillery wants to use Otterburn to train with its Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and its Artillery System 90 big gun. These heavy, tracked vehicles would sink into the soft, peaty soil. So the plan is to widen nearly 30 miles of narrow, metalled roads through the training area, and build new gun emplacements. New huts would be built to house extra soldiers in its Otterburn camp, plus a concrete vehicle park the size of a couple of football pitches - to be screened by trees. Three more miles of track would be built on the hillsides.

The military is not the only culprit in such developments. A nuclear power station, now defunct, was built at Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia. In the mid-Eighties five miles of dual carriageway was pushed through Dartmoor National Park, allowing the busy A30 to bypass Okehampton.

But whereas it is extremely unlikely that these kind of developments would be allowed today, the military pressure on the parks seems likely to continue. The army would like an extra 39,000 hectares of training area in Britain - the equivalent of another Salisbury Plain - following the ending of the Cold War, which enabled the Army to withdraw most of its armour and soldiers from Germany.

The Army argues that its very presence helps conserve the landscape and wildlife of the parks. Apart from the shell holes, red flags and warning signs, Otterburn is the least spoilt, most natural part of the Northumberland National Park.

Conifer plantations, decried by a generation of hill walkers, are not much in evidence. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle has been kept in check; there are 31 sheep and cattle farms in Otterburn rented from the Army, but grazing is limited.

Training grounds such as Otterburn provide a haven for endangered wildlife - both inside and beyond the National Parks - because intensive agriculture has not been allowed to harm them. Salisbury Plain is Britain's largest remaining fragment of the rolling chalk downlands that once covered much of southern England. Most of this habitat has been ploughed for crops or "improved" with fertiliser - wiping out many wild flowers.

The stone curlew, a wading bird that has adapted to live on dry land, survives on the plain. So does the hobby, a magnificent bird of prey, four nationally scarce butterflies, and other rarities. If the army were to leave, the plain would qualify for instant designation as a National Park.

The Army wants to move AS90 training to Otterburn so as to make the maximum possible use of Salisbury Plain for tank training. It is one of few areas where the ground is hard enough for them to roam freely. As for the MLRS, Otterburn is the only UK training area where this fearsome weapon can launch its salvo without having to close a major public road. Even its practice rocket, which does not fly as far as the real thing, requires a completely unpopulated safety zone 11 miles long and two miles wide. That is not available on Salisbury Plain.

The key issues for the public inquiry are whether the disturbance that this means for Northumberland National Park can be justified. Government policy is that there should be no major construction in the parks unless there are exceptional circumstances, and it is in the national interest.

The Army argues yes on both counts. Its main opponents, the Northumberland National Park Authority, the county council and a coalition of conservation groups, will try to demonstrate that the military has failed to consider other ways of training with this new artillery. Could it use computer simulation instead? Train overseas? Use other areas, or buy some new land altogether? No, no, no and no, says the Army.

Eventually the Government-appointed inspector will write his report, then the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a decision some time in 1998 or 1999. The best guess is that the Army will get the go- ahead, with a few further restrictions imposed upon it.

The inquiry follows three years of negotiations during which the National Park Authority agreed that there was a case for developing the training area in principle - an important breakthrough for the Army. Yet even after the military made further concessions to reduce the development, and the disturbance training causes to walkers and wildlife, the authority still refused planning permission last year, precipitating the inquiry. Maybe it should have offered a little bit more. Perhaps the Army's mistake was its somewhat aggressive public relations; many locals warmly approve of its presence because of its importance to the local economy. It did not help that the Army's spokesman on this issue also suggested the Authority's chief officer, Graham Taylor, was a Quaker pacifist who might be opposed to the military presence in principle.

Whatever the outcome, the tensions in Northumberland and other national parks will continue. The army will never get the funds to buy or rent large new chunks of training land in other thinly populated areas. It will seek to make the best possible use of the land it already controls, and perhaps add on a few bits around the edges. What it needs is plenty of tact, and a willingness to allow maximum possible public access to its training grounds - brilliant public relations, in short. The thunder of gunfire will rumble on in the hills of Otterburn and other national parks long after the verbal salvoes at the inquiry have ceased.

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