Until this month I had not set foot in Woolmer Forest, east Hampshire, since 3 October 2002. That was when, as a member of the Countryside Agency board, I was asked to consider whether the forest should be included within the boundary of the proposed South Downs National Park. Fortunately we all thought it should be included, and so, in time, it was.
The reason why there was some doubt about that was because it is part of Longmoor range, a military live-firing area. However, as there is public access some of the time, it was rightly deemed to fall within the criteria for national park designation—offering opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities by the public. There is also a flag-free perimeter route.
The Royal Engineers and Hampshire County Council are working together on the final section of the Shipwrights’ Way along the edge of the training area. It will need a lot of work as it is to go on a board walk by a stream at the bottom of a wet wood, unfortunately only as a permissive route, not a definitive one. This 50-mile path runs between Alice Holt Forest to the north and the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth, marking the journey taken by the oak which was used in Tudor times for ship building.
Woolmer Forest is important for nature conservation, containing the largest and most diverse area of lowland heath in Hampshire outside the New Forest. It is a special area of conservation (SAC) and site of special scientific interest.
On my recent visit, I was driven round in a military 4×4 along with representatives of other recreation-user groups, as part of our annual meeting with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (now part of the Ministry of Defence, the body which manages the military estate among other things). Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ludlow (Training Safety Officer, Security and Access, South East) was our guide.
As ever, the range has competing pressures, for military training, wildlife and many types of recreation, and these may increase. With troops returning from Germany we apparently have to accommodate more training in this country, which means occupying some of our best and most sensitive landscapes.
I had a problem with the acronyms which Col Ludlow rattled out on our tour, as though from a machine gun. FARP (forward arming and replenishment point), SARTS (small arms automatic remote target system), ND (negligent discharge), and many more. The military live on acronyms.
In the afternoon we returned to the barracks (which are likely to be sold off to become a housing estate) for lunch and meeting. I puzzled over the final item on our agenda, DONM. It turned out to be the prosaic ‘date of next meeting’.
TAFN (that’s all for now).