Defending Those at Home on the Range

Article excerpt

Byline: By Tony Henderson

Environment Editor Tony Henderson reports on the peoples who have felt at home on the range for thousands of years.

For almost a century the Army has trained on a great swathe of Northumberland's wildest countryside.

It is believed that when Winston Churchill stayed with Lord Redesdale for a shooting party in 1910 he formed the idea that the Otterburn moors would make a fine artillery range.

A year later the War Office bought 20,000 acres.

Today, the Ministry of Defence has 58,000 acres of rough moorland and hill country making up a fifth of Northumberland National Park. It is the single largest live firing area in the UK.

Two long and sometimes hotly-contested public inquiries examined the Army's plans for pounds 45m worth of works to accommodate training by the AS90 gun and the Multiple Launch Rocket System at the Otterburn range.

The hearings turned on two conflicting national interests: On the one hand there was the case that Otterburn was vital for armed forces training and national security. On the other, the claim that national park status was the highest possible landscape designation and that the proposed development and any intensification of training were at odds with that rating.

The verdict went the way of the military and on July 4 the completed infrastructure will be officially handed over to the Army.

Now that the dust has settled, the army, national park and bodies such as English Nature and English Heritage now co-operate over the needs of military training, public access, and the outstanding conservation and archaeological qualities of the Otterburn range.

In purely military terms, the training of troops in this sweeping landscape in nothing new.

The main Roman road of Dere Street, which runs through the range, is used today by soldiers as it was almost 2,000 years ago.

The series of Roman earthwork camps on the range suggest training exercises which would have produced the same exertions, groans and grumbles as they no doubt do today. As well as the camps and Dere Street, excavations have shown that a Roman branch military road survives in good condition just below the surface.

But the Otterburn uplands have never just been about military manoeuvres.

The remoteness and rawness of the area, and the fact that for centuries it was a dangerous place to be because of Anglo-Scottish and Border Reiver conflict, has meant that it has remained largely undeveloped. This, together with the current military use, has ensured the survival of an extraordinarily rich archaeological landscape.

Surveys have revealed around 1,000 historic sites on the range and there are 62 scheduled ancient monuments. In conservation terms, the range has 13 sites of special scientific interest.

The archaeological sites include the Neolithic Bellshiel Law Long Cairn, where prehistoric people buried their dead 5,500 years ago, and Tod Law near Otterburn Camp, which is an extensive Bronze Age complex of burials, field systems and settlements.

There are Iron Age and Romano-British farmsteads at Barracker Rigg, Yatesfield and Warden Law. …