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Nature and an army at war

Friday 27 August 2010

The British Army is involved in yet another brutal war and our soldiers are dying on an almost daily basis. But today, our countryside commentator John Sheard examines a rarely acknowledged side to the army’s work – as a major conservation body

MANY years ago, when the Iron Curtain still split Europe down the middle, I travelled by special train across what was then East Germany to write a magazine feature about a British tank regiment based in the British sector of Berlin.

These brave young men, whose home depot was at Fulwood on the outskirts of Preston, were the very sharp point of NATO forces facing the Red Army at the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Catterick volunteers at work :Natural England

If the Soviets chose to attack the surrounded city, these youngster, mainly lads from Lancashire and Yorkshire, were expected to take the brunt of the very first assault. And they knew fine well that they would be lucky to hold out for two or three days to give their NATO allies back in West Germany time to mobilise.

And what was one of their main concerns as they trained with their huge Challenger tanks? Believe it or not, it was the well-being of a rare toad which shared their training ground in a disused quarry, an amphibian so rare that the Berlin authorities had asked the army to reduce its already tiny training area.

The army agreed, right at the height of the Cold War, and the majority of my readers were shocked that such a “minor” consideration could affect the defence of Western Europe.

Our army, in fact, has always made great efforts to create good relationships with the locals wherever they are based. In the UK – and this is the point of this article – most of those bases are in open countryside where the locals care about the wildlife. And that has made the army one of the biggest nature conservationists in the land.

Down on Salisbury Plain, where the army maintains tank and artillery ranges and massive explosions rend the air on an almost daily basis, there is one of the biggest – if not the biggest - wildlife reserves in Britain.

Here birds, mammals and rare insects have learned to ignore the uproar in thousands of acres of territory guarded from civilian intruders like poachers, egg collectors, vandals and innocent but often disturbing people like dog walkers.

Here in North Yorkshire, they are just completing some enlightened improvements to a nature reserve right at the heart of the biggest military base in Western Europe, Catterick Camp. It is called, almost poetically, Foxglove Covert Nature Reserve and it lies just a few miles south of Richmond.

It has also been called “a hidden gem”...

Although this is Ministry of Defence property, it has applied for and been granted funds by Natural England under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (HLS) to build new visitor and educational facilities for local school children.

Volunteers have been at work digging out a new wetland area for water fowl (see picture), which will also be home to amphibians and water-born insects and will even have underwater cameras.

There is a new disability friendly bird hide, access bridge and equipment like microscopes for use by those school children – one more example of the army’s campaign to keep of friendly terms with local residents even at a time of war when the training grounds are, inevitably, bustling with activity, heavy traffic and noise.

The reserve covers 94 acres and boasts a wide variety of habitats, including: heathland, the new wetland area, semi-natural woodland and flower rich grassland. These harbour a number of imaginatively named species like pepper saxifrage grass, diamond-back moth and cuckoo bee.

Lucinda Holdsworth of Natural England’s Richmondshire land Management Team says: “It was a pleasure to be a part of this wonderful project. Local people, young and old will enjoy the benefits of these improvements when they pay the reserve a visit.”

Says retired Major Tony Crease, of the reserve’s management team,: “We have worked extremely hard over the years to make Foxglove Covert a place where wildlife and nature thrive.

“The works we are undertaking will make the site fully accessible to all and we hope people will be inspired to pay us a visit. Whether you want to bring the kids and try pond dipping, or if you just want to spend a quiet afternoon bird watching, there is something for everyone.”

The very name Foxglove Covert suggests that, until now, there has been something rather “hush-hush” about this marvellous place, which is perhaps to be expected in the heart of an enormous military base. It has also been called “a hidden gem.” Well it’s hidden no more. Go visit – it’s worth it.

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