With great anticipation Elen and I drove across Tank Crossing V and out on to Salisbury Plain. I had wanted to come here for years. What stuck me immediately was the sense of space; the Plain is enormous, with rolling grasslands stretching away in every direction for miles. I could see why it has been called the ‘British steppe’. And this is not just any old grassland, it is flower and insect rich chalk grassland, the most extensive in all of northwest Europe. Elsewhere in Britain it has mostly been reduced to museum fragments in a sea of intensive agriculture.
We parked up rather carefully as apparently trainee tank drivers have been known to flatten badly parked cars. This highlights the other distinction about Salisbury Plain: that it is a 40,000 ha. military training area in very active use, with understandably restricted access – so nobody goes there much. However there are public access routes and we had been tipped off about a few. Standing by the parked car scanning the wide horizon I thought that Thomas Hardy would have recognised this landscape, at least without the scattered woodland blocks planted by the military – the better to resemble eastern Europe apparently. From a plume of dust a mile away down the dead straight road three camouflaged vehicles gradually emerged and rumbled past covering us in powdered chalk. I felt invisible, their eyes were elsewhere, we are of no consequence.
It is hot, dry and dusty, a far cry from my usual haunts in the hills of North Wales. We set off on our planned 3-4 mile circular walk, but we didn’t get very far all day. The detail in this huge landscape was so fascinating we spent much of our time on hands and knees peering into the grass. Wonderfully showy flowers such as sainfoin, musk thistle, viper’s bugloss, pyramidal orchid and the delicate froth of dropwort were everywhere. Between these were smaller, more delicate plants such as rockrose, basil thyme and fine-leaved sandwort that had colonised the ground churned up by military vehicles. The sheer variety and abundance of flowers seemed from another, gentler age.
A droning helicopter grated on us as it repeated endless search manoeuvres like a predatory dragonfly round an enormous pond. We felt watched, but it was indifferent to us. Eventually it clattered away allowing the space and peace to settle as we sat in the sun. Butterflies danced all around – chequerboard marbled whites and elegant dark green fritillaries; small blues, like smoky grey fragments of burnt paper drifting through the grass, so elusive it was sometimes hard to know if you had seen them or not. We found a single, rather battered Adonis blue, still the essence of blueness, enamelled lustrous cobalt fit to wear. Grasshoppers ticked away in the grass like a mass of freewheeling bicycles. It was blissful.
Three tanks ground round a corner rasping the ground with their skid turns, no one was visible inside. Two soldiers with painted faces drove out of a thicket in a shiny Japanese pickup. They didn’t return my wave. None of this made any difference to the myriad insects, the skylarks pouring out their song in the sky or the jingling corn bunting parachuting into the luxury of long grass. A survey in 2000 found 15,000 (fifteen thousand!) pairs of skylarks on Salisbury Plain. So it wasn’t just the variety (so often the yardstick) of wildlife so promiscuously on show here but its abundance that enchanted me. I was remembering the clouds of butterflies that were commonplace in my childhood before ‘the great thinning’. This is Michael McCarthy’s term, in his book The Moth Snowstorm, for the barely noticed attrition of half of Britain’s wildlife over the last 40-50 years. Most of this has been due to the intensification of agriculture, particularly in arable areas. The great irony is that here on Salisbury Plain, in an area dedicated to violence and destruction, nature has continued to thrive; firstly as a by-product of military indifference and more recently, to their credit, as a result of active conservation. Had the military not continued to hold this land its wonderful abundance of wild plants and animals would undoubtedly have been obliterated by the seemingly benign face of farming.