In the first of a new series on Yorkshire nature reserves, Andrew Vine visits the country’s only wildlife sanctuary under the protection of the Army.
THE IRA surely never had this in mind when 40 years ago it turned its murderous attention to the mainland with a campaign of bombings and shootings.
A tranquil 100-acre haven for wildlife, a destination that enchants and educates thousands of children every year, and a centre of excellence for the tracking and study of British birdlife are unlikely legacies of some of the darkest days of Northern Ireland’s troubles.
Yet in an odd, and heartening, twist of fate, that is what the IRA has bequeathed to North Yorkshire, with the help of a Guards officer with a passion for conservation.
Foxglove Covert is unique amongst British nature reserves, peacefully co-existing with the bustle of Europe’s biggest military base, going about its business of protecting animals and plants, developing and conserving their habitats while the sound of machine guns from nearby live-firing ranges echoes through the woods and wetlands, and Army helicopters whirr overhead.
This is undoubtedly the best-protected reserve in the country, approached past the armed sentries, razor wire and dog patrols of Catterick Garrison, which effectively watches over its 2,050 so far identified species of flora and fauna on the only site of its type on Ministry of Defence land.
Its location within the garrison is what brought it into being. In the early 1970s, the IRA started attacking targets on the British mainland, and military bases were high on its hit list. Security was tightened at Catterick, and a high razor-wire fence encircled Cambrai Barracks, cutting off a former training area, complete with slit trenches, foxholes and hollows scraped out to test the mettle of tank crews.
The fence kept the terrorists out, and everybody else too. The result was that nothing disturbed the plants or animals, and that’s the way it stayed for the next 20 years, by which time the site had returned completely to nature, its inaccessibility reinforced by the dense woodland that developed. The foxholes were colonised by foxgloves, the slit trenches by great crested newts, the tank scrapes by water beetles, and the whole area was alive with birds.
Then, in 1992 the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards returned to Catterick, having served in the First Gulf War, and with them came Major Tony Crease. “I was in Cambrai Barracks and this place had lain fallow for 20 years,” he said. “It was a no-man’s-land between the barracks and the training areas. The fence had been put there when the IRA kicked off in 1971 to protect the camp.
“I had an interest in natural history, and so the possibilities of this place were very interesting. We forced our way in – and I mean literally forced our way in. There was no open space anywhere. You couldn’t stretch your arms out without touching trees.”
Major Crease was interested in bird-ringing, and that was what initially drew him to the site. As he learned more, the idea occurred to him that the site could become a nature reserve – an unusual proposition for an officer in a tank regiment to put to the authorities at a huge military base.
“I’m a tank soldier, that’s what I did before I came here. They probably thought I was off my rocker. ‘Who is this guy who comes from a background of a tank regiment, used to trashing everything, who’s interested in creating a nature reserve?’ I think they probably expected it to last about three months and then I would hopefully go away and not bother them any more.”
The MoD handed over 28 acres of overgrown land, which would need some clearing. Maj Crease found a ready source of help in the Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment, which was being relocated to Dorset. “We had quite a lot of soldiers here with not a great deal to do, so we brought them in and they put their backs into it and helped to create the reserve.”
Once again, Foxglove Covert evolved, increasing in size as the MoD handed over more land, taking it to almost four times its starting acreage. “There was no grand plan,” said Maj Crease. “There was no road and no paths so people could get in, even if they wanted to. It was only when a gate was put in that we realised people wanted to come in, and that this place had other uses, and could be shared with the community itself.”
The trickle of visitors that began when public access to the reserve was created has now swelled to 17,000 a year.
That’s been good for the Army as well as the community, forging closer links and going some way to mitigate the occasional grumbles about the inevitable disruption that the presence of Catterick Garrison can have on the surrounding area.
And in its turn, the Army has been good to Foxglove Covert, covering a third of the cost of the £350,000 study centre which hosts educational visits, and charging only a peppercorn rent for the land. “Having the military interface is very useful to us,” said Maj Crease. “We do get assistance from the military because they are quite fortunate to have it here. It’s a healthy balance.”
It is among the most diverse reserves in Yorkshire for its size. “The thing that this place is best known for is its mosaic of habitats, and you can see a huge variety of species due to the fragmented habitats in the different parts of the reserve. There’s heathlands, wetlands, woodlands, ponds lakes and moorland,” said Maj Crease.
Although the links with the Army remain close, Foxglove Covert is run by a management committee which also includes Richmondshire District Council and Natural England.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of its being declared a Site of Local Conservation Importance.
Maj Crease, 64, who is retired from active service but is Deputy Commander of Defence Training Estate North, is treasurer of the committee. He visits the reserve most days, but the running of the site is in the hands of two reserve managers, Sophie Benaiges and Marion Hannaford, who said: “We get the helicopters overhead, and hear the machine gun fire from the training areas, but it doesn’t bother the wildlife because the Army’s been here as long as the wildlife.”
About 50 regular volunteers pitch in with the maintenance of the reserve. They’ve been busy this year – spring saw the main lake more than doubled in size, with habitats for water voles and kingfishers being made in its banks, and new pathways accessible for wheelchair users have been laid.
The ringing of birds, to track their movements and numbers, remains one of Foxglove Covert’s prime functions. Amid the woods, there are more than 50 net rides in regular use – flightpaths where birds are temporarily captured in nets, ringed, and then released. The work makes for long days, being done on the same 12 days every year, starting as early as 3am and continuing for ten-and-a-half hours.
The information is fed back to the British Trust for Ornithology. “We’re the second-best bird ringing set-up in the country, and we gather a hell of a lot of information,” said Maj Crease. That information is in demand – one recent request for data gathered at Foxglove Covert came from Chicago.
The reserve continues to evolve – a new outdoor classroom has just opened, and this summer will see the introduction of Galloway cattle onto the moorland to graze, trampling bracken and encouraging the growth of wildflowers.
And despite the sounds of Army training that are often in the background, Foxglove Covert remains particularly peaceful and untroubled by vandalism, the blight of so many nature reserves, thanks to its location under the watchful eye of the garrison. Hoodies don’t stand a chance here. “We don’t have any vandalism,” said Maj Crease. “The worst that had happened is someone once snapped a ringing pole and chucked it in the lake. We don’t have to waste time and money on that.”
• Foxglove Covert holds an open day on July 23. The reserve’s website is www.foxglovecovert.org.uk