I (Simon King) heard recently from naturalist Graham Wellstead who was keen to write about a special place for FFON readers – he wrote: “Here I am taking liberties. I had been considering this as I have many many pictures taken over several years of land which while close to major conurbations, retains its wildness. One of its highest point you can see for miles and only one building shows human presence. It is a place for those who like to get away from people.” Intrigued as I always am by Graham’s email I read on:

Walking through the heather (avoiding the mortar bombs although I have this insane urge to kick one) there is plenty to see.

When I first wrote for this blog I felt that I had not quite kept to the subject by extending the remit outside the view from an armchair. I was kindly allowed to move into the outside world of my garden. But as the blog evolved others too extended their view, so now I stretch things a little more.

My viewpoint is now much larger, the open heather heathland used for over a century by the army for live firing, not far from my home. I have walked this land for 60 plus years and little has changed. It is not often walked on, the locals tend to stay away, as there are things hidden in the grass and heather which can do you great harm, and so the relatively few footpaths are where most walk, if at all. Over the years I can recall meeting very few people. Wildlife, however, abounds in all its forms.

Sadly, in my view, the land is managed by the local wildlife trust, and not managed well. The first picture shows the shelterbelt of trees which are the backstop for the rifle range, while on the left, the ground is almost bare. A week before it was thick with gorse heather and the intrusive scots pine, all was cleared to aid the regrowth of the rare heather heathland. Give with one hand, and take away with the other.

Apart from the habitat destruction by man, we also have natural disasters wildfires.

The gorse was a vital resource for the Dartford Warbler, until recently the only overwintering warbler species in the UK. I saw these little birds on my daily walks, often they would accompany me, which gave me great pleasure. They had moved away, and I found the family party later about 1/2 mile away. Apart from the habitat destruction by man, we also have natural disasters wildfires. I heard that the land was ablaze, and arrived the next day to find about 500 acres burned to the ground. This was where the warbler had moved, but also where nightjars were breeding. Not having my pointer who would find and point nightjar any more I was unable to find any evidence.

Disasters aside, this is a magical place in all its moods. This picture taken at 4.30 am after a night’s rain, gives a different perspective of the land on a sunny afternoon. There are paths where a profusion of wild orchids grow and rare plants which give it its SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status.

Walking through the heather (avoiding the mortar bombs although I have this insane urge to kick one) there is plenty to see. Insect life is everywhere, sand lizards, a fat toad hiding under a large stone, something I have not seen for many a year, bank voles which came as a surprise and I add a picture taken some years ago in winter when I was concerned for their survival, a harvest mouse site.

While looking back at earlier pictures I found these crab apples on the ground. I have never seen evidence of anything eating them, not even the deer, so I gathered them up and took them to a cider maker, who took apples of any kind and returned a percentage as cider.

Whilst most of the many thousands of acres are used for live firing with access restricted, it is only safe to walk when the red flags are down. During daylight, that means almost never, but from just before first light up to 7 am I can walk anywhere.

Sometimes I choose to walk on the training ground, which is separate safe and open all the time. Here the terrain is different, steep slopes up and down which make me puff. With loose pebbles and sand underfoot it’s easy to fall and a long way from help if you break a leg, but a good place to hide in a WW1 trench and watch for Roe deer, with twins maybe. But no sign of them, the weather turned and the sky black with clouds silhouetted a red kite high on the soar.

By Graham Wellstead.