Chris Brayshay goes on a mission to find a special reserve – in an Army garrison

PERCHED above a waving sea of reeds, a sedge warbler sings out his churring courtship song, from a branch high in a hawthorn bush.

His only competition is a distant crack-crack as soldiers practice firing 30-round magazine SA80’s automatics.

For here, lying hidden from view in the shadow of live firing ranges, lies the 100-acre Foxglove Covert. It is Britain’s only nature reserve with its own 24-hour armed guard as it is at Catterick Garrison, the British Army’s largest camp in the world.

Lying behind a razor wire topped high metal fence and padlocked gate, is a another world: the home of roe deer, badger, water voles, 70 different kinds of bird and 670 species of plants. Visitors must show a sentry proof of identity before a red and white painted road barrier is lifted to permit entry.

Once on the reserve they pass through 15 very different habitats, including a woodland floor carpeted in spring with primroses, blue bells, violets and herb robert, wood avens, stitchwort and bugle. Marsh marigold and lady’s smock flourish around pools full of tadpoles and water boatmen, while damsel flies dart in the air above.

Major Tony Crease (retired), the reserve’s architect, said: “It is a mosaic of habitats. And it is the diversity we have here that is very much the success of the place. As one visitor put it, ‘Usually, you have to travel miles to get from habitat to another, but here in a few steps you move from wetland into woodland, into meadow’.”

Yet it all began almost by accident. A slipup in the timetable when transferring the tank training school from Catterick to Bovington, Dorset, left recruits marooned at the North Yorkshire garrison with little to do.

Tony explains: “We started this place as a result of that. The whole site had lain fallow for 20 years, when in 1992 I was asked if I could help to find some useful work for those lads to do, to give them a sense of achievement, of doing something worthwhile.

“We were only given 28 acres to begin with, but I could see the potential then. I think they (the Ministry of Defence) felt we were a bunch of nutters, that after 15 to 16 months everyone would get posted elsewhere and the place would revert back to being a wilderness.”

ALIFELONG keen “birder”, the major was first introduced to bird watching as a nine-year-old by his enthusiastic bird watching history teacher. “He had a fantastic knowledge of birds and enthusiasm. I used to love going out bird watching, I can still remember seeing and hearing my first snipe “drumming”. It was wonderful.”

The Northern Echo: View from a bridge: Chris Brayshay at the reserve.
Chris Brayshay at the reserve.

He was also impressed and inspired by what he found while serving as a soldier in Germany for 25 years and used what he saw as a template for Foxglove Covert on his return to Catterick.

“There are some fantastic nature reserves in Germany,” he says. “They manage them with typical German efficiency . They have always been very keen on their wildlife.

“I used to have access to the German training areas which were virtually massive reserves.”

Looking around him at Foxglove, Tony says: “I never imagined how the place would evolve. I think we are pretty content with what we’ve got, but we are always looking at improving habitat all the time and improving the educational side of things.”

He says: “Much of the work that is done on the reserve is done by volunteers from the local community.

The Northern Echo: reserve managers Adam Edmond and Sophie Rainer in one of the hides
Reserve managers Adam Edmond and Sophie Rainer in one of the hides

They come here every week and work very hard and they are the ones who keep this place the way it is.”

SOPHIE Rainer, one of the reserve’s two managers fully agrees. “Because it is a mosaic of habitats it is very labour intensive and we micro-manage each one. We need a lot of help,” he says.

Unlike the surrounding sweeping red grouse moors, heather burning is not plausible within the confines of Foxglove Covert; so the heather is hand-weeded.

Elizabeth Dickinson, from Darlington, is one of a 60-strong band of volunteers, including 25 diehard enthusiasts. Her passion for the reserve means she has adopted a summer route and an alternative winter route to the reserve so she can escape the worst travelling conditions to get there.

The covert had 1,600 school visits last year, the jaws of the children, particularly the little boys, dropping as they passed tanks on display and soldiers in camouflage.

One of the hides – the wetland hide – is so close to the firing ranges that it is kept locked from all but bona fide visitors, so soldiers being drilled on the ranges cannot sneak in out of the wet and cold.

The Northern Echo: the education centre
The education centre

Co-manager Adam Edmond says: “We have recorded over 2,300 species on site; plants, birds, animals, moths, bats, trees, mosses and lichen.”

Birds are caught in mist nets and ringed, with the information passed to the British Trust for Ornithology.

Some of the birds trapped in this way turn out to have been ringed in other countries, allowing incredible global migrations to be tracked.

On a large wall map displayed in the field centre’s reception area coloured ribbons radiate across the world from Catterick to show the globetrekking journeys made by individual birds ringed or recaptured on the reserve. About 90,000 birds have been caught in this way on the reserve over the past 20 years, so it is perhaps no surprise that bird ringers are trained there.

But Tony is used to having a hand in creating hits. He was pipe major with the band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards when they stormed to number one in the British music charts with Amazing Grace in 1972, re-released as a track on the 2009 album of the year, Spirit of the Glen.

The Northern Echo: an early purple orchid
An early purple orchid