Safe Access on MOD Land
Military training including live firing takes place in many upland and coastal areas popular with walkers and climbers. The rules on accessing MOD land are strict, but so long as appropriate precautions are taken the risk can be easily managed. Lizzie Enfield explains the dos and don'ts.
The summit of Castlelaw Hill is swathed in clouds as we head up along a gorse-lined path through the Pentland Hills, south-west of Edinburgh. Halfway up we are rewarded with a view of L-shaped Glencorse reservoir, grey and steely in the glen below. Deer graze in the surrounding heather and the occasional lizard darts amongst the rocks. It's a scene of peaceful tranquility, which is suddenly disturbed by the sound of gunfire and bullets ricocheting off the red scree.
A rude interruption but not unexpected, as the Ministry of Defence owns Castlelaw Hill, and on its flanks is a firing range.
A sign at the base alerts walkers to the presence of troops and warns you not to go beyond the perimeter fence if the red flag is flying. Today it is. Forewarned is forearmed.
And so we circumvent the area marked on the OS map as two concentric rings. The range is in the inner circle and the outer one is a kind of safety zone, absorbing stray bullets and keeping walkers out of the line of fire.
It's unnerving, when you are out walking and encounter signs warning of explosions or ambush risk, but hiking and military manoeuvres are not mutually exclusive. The popularity of the Pentland Hills regional park with walkers, mountain bikers and fell runners proves the point. If you know what the area is used for, when you can safely access it and what precautions you need to take then it's safe to enjoy land used for military training.
As of April 2021 the MOD owned 233,000 hectares of land and foreshore in the UK, which is about 1% of the total land mass. It also has rights over a further 0.5%. This land acquisition began in the early 19th century when the military began to occupy large swathes of land to train its troops.
The most famous is no doubt Salisbury Plain, where again, responsible and legal public access is welcomed. There are exceptions, such as the impact area, which is the landing area for munitions, and Imber village. The small village evacuated as part of the war effort in 1943 and has remained uninhabited ever since. The public are allowed access only on specific dates, usually around Christmas, Easter and August bank holidays.
The MOD has a policy of 'presumption in favour of public access' on its training estates, as long as this is compatible with military requirements and public safety.
Land includes green spaces in fairly populated areas such as Aldershot and Minley Training ranges, and coastal areas like Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire, Thorney Island in West Sussex and Braunton Burrows in Devon. The latter is one of the largest sand dune systems in the UK (approximately 1,000 hectares) and played an important role in the Second World War, as practice ground for the Normandy landings.
The MOD also manages wilder, more rugged upland areas, including large parts of Dartmoor, Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands, and the Warcop ranges in the North Pennines, between them covering some of the more remote parts of the UK. Here you can walk across moors and ancient ridges, as long as you know what military risks to be aware of and how to avoid them. The MOD does not release figures for accidents and injuries to civilians on its land and such incidents are rare. The real risk to non-military personnel comes from ignoring the warnings and accessing land at prohibited times.
Know the dangers
Apart from live shots, you might also encounter firing of blank ammunition, unexploded ordnance, flares and other pyrotechnics, fast moving vehicles (including tanks) and live ambush training. There are a number of systems in place to warn people where and when it is safe to walk.
- Red flags (or red lights at night) are a sign that life-threatening activity is taking place and no access whatsoever is allowed.
- On OS maps training areas are marked as "Danger Areas" denoted by a solid red line and triangles. There may well be a public right of way across these areas but the MOD uses byelaws to close them at certain times and the red flag or light denotes that they are temporarily no-go areas.
- The dates on when this happens are advertised well in advance on this government website.
As we head up Castlelaw, skirting the perimeter of the firing ranges, we are rewarded with a magnificent view across Lothian to Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and in the distance the Highlands.
Descending on the other side of the firing range we join a track that leads to Dreghorn barracks. This particular stretch of land is not used for live firing but it is a 'dry' training area. Here we encounter military patrols and, when my friend slips behind some bushes to answer a call of nature rather than duty, he encounters a surprised bunch of cadets taking cover.
Dry training areas are used for things like vehicle driving practice, orienteering and ambush training. The red line and triangle is also used to show them on maps but marked with "Managed Access." This can also be restricted at certain times, for example when land is recovering from training use, where trees are being felled or for nature conservation.
This is another side to the MOD's ownership and stewardship of land and one which has protected it from development and allowed wildlife to thrive. 170 MOD sites are designated as either a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) or an area of special scientific interest (ASSI). This means that those deployed on a site for defence purposes also have a duty to conserve its wildlife. Salisbury Plain, for example, the largest area of chalk grassland in north-west Europe, supports species of rare butterflies, including the marsh fritillary, Adonis blue and brown hairstreak, while Castlemartin tank firing range in Pembrokeshire has one of the highest concentrations of seabirds in the county and supports around a dozen breeding pairs of chough – a shy species now extinct in most of England and Wales.
Although it was not until the early 19C that the MOD became a landowner, the history of military activity in hills and mountains goes back much further - as evidenced in the Iron Age hill fort at the bottom of Castlelaw hill.
The fort has an unusual feature beneath its three concentric rings of ramparts surrounded by ditches - an underground earth house or passage known as a souterrain. These are typically found in eastern Scotland and archaeologists think they might have been used to store grain or performing religious ceremonies. Nobody knows for sure but what they do reveal is that even thousands of years ago military training sites and civilian life were intertwined.
The same is true now. A sign warning you of live shelling or the possibility of ambush is not meant to deter the public, but to remind them that the land is shared and to be mindful of this when passing through.
What to look out for when walking through MOD sites
Red flags or red lights: These denote a 'do not enter' area and while the land might be accessible at other times, when the flags are up or the lights lit access is not permitted.
Keep dogs under control: A red flag means nothing to a dog and if they stray into firing ranges or interrupt a training exercise they are liable to be injured or could disturb ambushes and get in the way of military vehicles.
Follow advice: Given on information boards found near military sites or by personnel patrolling the area.
Look out for vehicles: You may not expect them in the countryside but jeeps and even tanks have access and move quickly
Do not touch: Ammunition or debris
Do not enter: Any buildings or vehicles on military sites.
Check online: for the Military Ranges Firing Notices