Ratatat-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. Ratatat-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. ‘Ooh, is that a…? Yes, I think it is. It is. It’s machine gun fire,’ says my companion. Normally, it would be disconcerting to hear heavy weaponry in a remote part of the British countryside, but for us, it just confirms that we’re in the right place – Salisbury Plain’s military training area.
I’ve been brought here by Marianna Dudley, an environmental historian from Bristol University who has designed a nine-and-a-half-kilometre walk that slices right through the middle of this unusual part of southern Britain. She’s keen to highlight the somewhat unexpected links between militarisation and conservation, and encourage more people to walk in these areas.
‘People see the signs that say “Military Training Area” and think that they should keep out, but actually, the public has access to much of this land,’ Dudley says. Presumably not the land where the machine gun is spraying out rounds of ammunition? ‘No, that’s in the Impact Zone. Military training areas tend to consist of an Impact Zone surrounded by a Dry Zone, and the soldiers fire their weapons into the centre of the Impact Zone, so we’re safe here and actually have the right to roam, whereas in the Impact Zone, access is much more restricted for safety reasons.’
It’s a big landscape, bigger than we’re used to finding in England. There’s little that’s cosy here; in fact, it’s verging on bleak. The vast, open, near-featureless landscape is more on the scale of the US Midwest than England’s customary rolling hills.
And there are a lot of ‘biggests’ here. At 38,000 hectares, it’s Britain’s biggest military training area and Northern Europe’s biggest area of unimproved chalk grassland. It’s also home to Europe’s biggest land bird, and right now, we’re standing on the nation’s biggest prehistoric long barrow – a mound of raised earth thought to have been used as a collective tomb.
“Salisbury Plain lies on a bed of chalk that stretches from Norfolk to Dorset”
The entanglement of humans with this landscape goes back a long way. There are more than 2,000 prehistoric sites in the training area, dating back to around 4,000 BC. ‘Archaeologists view it as a fossilised landscape because so much has remained intact,’ says Dudley. The first humans are thought to have settled here more than 6,500 years ago, and by the time nearby Stonehenge and Avebury Circle were constructed, 1,000 years or so later, the landscape would have been dotted with small farming settlements.
But it wasn’t an easy life. Salisbury Plain lies on a bed of chalk that stretches from Norfolk to Dorset, created from the remains of sea creatures that drifted to the bottom of warm, shallow seas during the Cretaceous Period (65–90 million years ago). When sea levels receded, the chalky land of Salisbury Plain gave rise to a poor and exposed soil. The local Neolithic people eventually took their tools to more fertile ground and the land lay fallow – apart from a brief agricultural renaissance during the Middle Ages – for around 2,000 years.
Between then and now, the place gained a reputation for its eerie bleakness. As one 19th-century poet wrote:‘Not a shrub nor a tree/Nor a bush can you see:/No hedges, no ditches, no gates, no stiles/Much less a house, or a cottage for miles;/ It’s a very sad thing to be caught in the rain/When night’s coming up on Salisbury Plain.’
For his part, William Wordsworth spoke of its ‘wastes of corn that stretched without a bound’ and being ‘the only creature in the wild. On whom elements could rage their wreak.’ Moby Dick author Herman Melville described it as ‘desolate’ and compared its ‘inhospitable wilds’ to those of the oceans traversed by whaling ships.
But the very aspects that made it unwelcoming for civilians made it attractive to the military. The British Army began buying land in the area between the First and Second Boer Wars at the tail end of the 19th century. An etching from the time shows horses pulling a cannon past Stonehenge and a crowd of locals. Just prior to the Second World War, further land was requisitioned and the plain became the largest military training ground in Britain, enabling soldiers to practice with the widest range of weaponry.
“The soldiers have left their mark elsewhere, too. The trees atop the long barrow are scored with arboglyphs”
However, not everyone supported their largeholding. Imber – now a shell of a village in the middle of the Impact Zone – was once an idyllic farming community with a church, a manor house, a pub and 100-or-so residents. They all evacuated their homes during the Second World War with little complaint, believing that they would be able to return when the fighting was over.
But that wasn’t to be the case. Instead, citing Cold War pressures, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) held on to the village. ‘Now they’re allowed back a couple of times a year to tend to graves,’ says Dudley. ‘When you see the graffiti in the village from both the “Imber Freedom Fighters” and squaddies, you get a real sense of Imber’s conflicted history.’
The soldiers have left their mark elsewhere, too. The trees atop the long barrow are scored with arboglyphs – tree graffiti. One simply reads ‘Frank Fearing – Hudson, Massachusetts, 1945’, beside a love heart and the name Helen. Dudley’s colleague, archaeologist Chantel Summerfield, who is studying arboglyphs for her PhD, tracked down a Barbara Fearing in Hudson, Massachusetts, whose parents were called Frank and Helen. Frank, who died in 2001, had told his daughter about carving his name everywhere he went with the army, but she had thought he was making up. Helen was still alive at the time, and Summerfield showed her a photograph of the tree that he had carved for her all those years ago on the other side of the world.
“When I last went into the village, there was Arabic graffiti on the walls, a crashed helicopter and some very realistic blood splattered across the street”
The only soldiers I see during my visit to the plain are in the Copehill Down Fighting in Built Up Areas training village. ‘It was originally constructed to look like an East German village,’ says Dudley, ‘but has since been updated to reflect the regions where the British Army is currently deployed. You can see the history of 20th century warfare in the village.
‘Recently, containers have been stacked and painted to look like Afghan compounds and other effects can be added when needed,’ she continues. ‘This might be the last training the soldiers do before they’re in a real conflict situation, so the idea is to make it look as realistic as possible. When I last went into the village, there was Arabic graffiti on the walls, a crashed helicopter and some very realistic blood splattered across the street.’
The Defence Estate now owns one per cent of Britain, and the way in which it relates to the wider community has changed. During the 1960s and early 1970s, public protests against military training on the plain led to a government review of how the military could improve community relations and take better care of its land. A committee recommended a more environmentally aware approach and better engagement with the general public who, they suggested, should be allowed and encouraged to visit the training sites more.
Although training is still the Defence Estate’s top priority, thanks to the resulting ‘khaki conservation’, it tries to be sensitive to the environmental needs of each site. ‘Inadvertently, the military’s presence here prevented development,’ Dudley says. ‘Houses weren’t built, ploughing couldn’t take place, and now archaeologists see this as an island of preserved land in an area that has been quite intensively farmed.’
She goes on to cite a number of examples where conservation and the military have gone hand in hand: spotting archaeological sites here before they’re trampled by a tank is a useful skill that can be transferred to Afghanistan, and attempts to stop the poaching of red kites in Wales was good preparation for surveillance in Northern Ireland. ‘It can be a good marriage of different interests,’ she says.
“The bustard’s eerie cry was once heard across the plain, but the male’s trophy status led to them being hunted to local extinction during the 19th century”
One organism that has become something akin to a mascot for military environmentalism on Salisbury Plain is the fairy shrimp. This rare crustacean lives in ephemeral ponds, and can undergo cryptobiosis, a state of torpor that allows it to wait out inhospitable drought conditions – for up to 15 years – until it finds itself in a puddle again.
When cattle roamed the area, the shrimp benefited from both the poached ground created by the livestock and the puddle-to-puddle lifts it received on their hooves. But, as the number of cattle on the plain declined, so did the shrimp, to the point where its very survival was under threat.
The Defence Estate is keen to point out that tanks provide similar services to cattle and consequently, fairy shrimp numbers are on the rise. ‘It’s just so incongruous that these delicate creatures have a reciprocal relationship with these massive tanks,’ says Dudley. ‘Things like that confound your expectations.’
Another creature enjoying a resurgence is the great bustard. Growing up to a metre high, and weighing up to 21 kilograms, it’s the world’s heaviest flying animal. The birds’ eerie cry was once heard across the plain, but the male’s trophy status (they can be nearly twice the size of females) and pitiful getaway speeds led to them being hunted (and their eggs collected) to local extinction during the 19th century.
Under an agreement signed with the MOD, they’re now being released at a secret location on the plain. More than 100 birds have been released since 2004, and they began breeding in 2009. There are now around 20 birds living on and around the plain. ‘I think within a couple of years we could see a self-sustaining population of about 50 or so birds,’ says David Waters, director of the Great Bustard Group. ‘Our knowledge on everything from diet and incubation temperatures to release techniques has increased significantly over the past decade, so survival rates are increasing exponentially.’
For Dudley, it’s another example of the way in which the military’s training areas can be used to support environmental projects. ‘I do remain sceptical about the promotion of conservation work as a means of greenwashing the military,’ she says. ‘But I think everyone would agree that if the military is to control such a large area of land, it’s best for it to be managed as sensitively as possible. And, whatever your opinion, you can’t deny that there’s some genuinely good conservation work being done within these military training sites.’
This was published in the April 2014 edition of Geographical magazine.