Tank track goes back to nature in army's pony club

It is an odd little oasis in what otherwise would be a field of combat. Where once the caterpillar tracks of the army's Chieftain tanks churned up the soil, a pair of Exmoor ponies now graze contentedly.

Ponies have moved on to the Foxglove Covert Nature Reserve inside Catterick Garrison. Picture by Simon Hulme

The nature reserve at the heart of Catterick Garrison is the only one of its kind in Britain, and the arrival this week of the ponies Lark and Taurus took it back even further to its roots.

It was 25 years ago that the last tank trundled across what was then a 10-hectare site within what the army refers to as its Northern Super Garrison. By that time, the pounding it had taken from 50 Chieftains, and the effects of the fencing put up to keep out terrorists, had reduced it to a wilderness.

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But Tony Crease, a major with an interest in wildlife, saw that it could be returned to nature.

Ponies have moved on to the Foxglove Covert Nature Reserve inside Catterick Garrison. Picture by Simon Hulme

“The land hadn’t been cultivated for years,” he said. “A lot of it had been landlocked because it was inaccessible and had lain fallow for 20 years since the days of the IRA, when fencing had been placed around large areas.

“There had been no tree cutting or interference or management. It was a wilderness - that’s the only word for it.”

Today, the conservation area established behind Catterick’s Cambrai barracks, with money and manpower from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, extends to 40 hectares, is home to more than 2,600 species, and has played host to 770,000 visitors - all of whom have had to pass through the guardroom.

“There’s no other place in the country that’s quite like it,” said Maj Crease, now retired from active service but still working with the Ministry of Defence.

Ponies have moved on to the Foxglove Covert Nature Reserve inside Catterick Garrison. Picture by Simon Hulme

He had conceived the idea of taking a corner of Catterick back to the land after seeing similar projects in Germany during his 25 years there.

“There were 1,200 young soldiers here at that time and this was an avenue for them,” he said.

The two ponies, on loan from the Yorkshire Exmoor Pony Trust and financed as part of a £30,000 conservation project, will help control invasive species of flora by the natural method of eating those not required.

Steve Scoffin, senior reserve manager at what is now known as Foxglove Covert nature reserve, said: “What you really need to use is a breed of pony from an area with rough grazing.

“That’s why we chose Exmoors. A third of their diet is gorse, and it’s that and the invading birch that we need to be eaten. They will remove what don’t want and leave what we need.

“Otherwise, it would be done manually, or we would have to get a mechanical cutter and then rake everything off, just to do what the ponies are doing for us.”

Mr Scoffin, who has spent his career in environmental protection, says the Foxglove reserve is unique.

“I have been in the countryside for nearly 40 years and I’ve never managed a reserve which wasn’t openly accessible to the public at all times,” he said.

“This one is open during the day but visitors have to come through the gate and then through the guardroom.

“It’s only a nature reserve at all because it was surplus to requirements for tank training 25 years ago, and it was felt that it would be useful to develop it.”

The ponies, who are around 10 years old, have spent their lives on similar exercises and are used to each other’s company, Mr Scoffin said.