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Military Moor Access

Military Moor Access

Here is a perfect example of how NOT to plan a trip onto the moor with a few tips of what to check beforehand. Let me set the scene, I am currently researching the Lych Way for my forthcoming MA dissertation and need to do some fieldwork which basically involves walking the ancient track. Being in the unfortunate position of having to work this means having to do tasks at weekends or taking some holiday. So we thought it would be nice to rent a cottage and spend a week on the moor in order to have easy access and to serve as a little treat. The wife spent hours searching for a holiday let which fitted our needs, namely; close to the north moor, had a log fire and most importantly, that would take dogs. Eventually she came up with a superb cottage which accommodated our requirements and the countdown began.

A few days ago I recieved an email from the webmaster of the Dartmoor Firing site which prompted me just to check that there was to be no scheduled military use of the ranges during our holiday. You will find on this site numerous recommendations to check the firing times before going on the moor – do as I say not as I do. On visiting the site I found to my dismay that in fact all the ranges were to be in use the week we had booked to be on the moor. The Lych Way weaves its way across both the Merrivale and Willsworthy ranges which meant that a good two thirds of its route would be out of bounds – marvellous, embuggerance number one.

There is a lot of debate as to whether the military should be using the moor for training purposes, many deem that it should not but I have always taken the view that if one part of the moor is closed there are plenty of others open, that is until now. The official line of the use of Dartmoor for military training purposes is:

Military training has taken place on Dartmoor since the early 1800s, being used intensively for tactical exercises with live ammunition during the Second World War. Today the MOD uses (by freehold, lease or licence) about 12,760 hectares of the National Park’s 94,400 hectares designated in 1951. The Dartmoor Training Area is used for light forces’ exercises, mostly for Royal Marines and other units based in the south west. Access Opportunities” – online source.

In July 2007 the Dartmoor Steering Group issued a report to the secretaries of Defence and Environment,  Affairs and Food and Rural Affairs in which they stated the following statistics regarding the military use of Dartmoor in 2006, – online source:

Days – 2006 Okehampton Merrivale Willsworthy
Permitted 118 174 245
Notified 43 92 162
Actual 35 75 123
Cancelled 8 (18.5%) 17 (18.5%) 39 (24.1%)
Cancelled – bad visibility 6 11 20
Cancelled – good weather 1 2 3
Cancelled – user 1 4 16

If you are wondering why a military exercise should be cancelled because of, “good weather” it is because the military, in order to complete their training, build in a safeguard of a few days for bad weather. If however it’s fine then the exercise finishes on time and the extra days aren’t needed, hence the cancellation. The cancellations that are called, “user” days are occasions when the units due to be training have other commitments such as short-notice operational deployments. In the event of a cancellation due to good weather or user commitments the procedure should be that the Dartmoor National Park Authority are notified by 16.00 the previous day. As can be seen in 2006 there was a total of 537 days when it would have been possible for the military to hold training exercises, they elected to schedule 297 days for training. When it actually came to holding these exercises and close the ranges to public access it happened on 233 days. This meant that the public were notified via the firing notices that the ranges would be shut when in fact on 64 occasions the exercise was cancelled and access was needlessly denied to at the very least 4.00pm the previous day.

There is what is called a Defence Estates Strategy in place whereby the the MOD undertake to manage the ‘estate’ in a sensitive manner which is outlined in various action plans, one of which is to: ensure that maximum advance notice is given both of access opportunities and unavoidable changes to publicised arrangements“, – online source. In reality this means:

Firing may be cancelled at short notice, after the publication of the firing notices, mostly because poor visibility prevents observation of the boundary. On days when firing has been advertised, if the red flags are not flying by 0900 hours from April-September inclusive and by 1000 hours from October-March inclusive no firing will take place that day or the following night. This web site, BBC Radio Devon and the Dartmoor National Park Information Centres are informed of cancellations as soon as they occur”, – online source.

Following the clock change in October there is usually enough light to start a walk at about 7.00am, if for whatever reason that walk was going across any of the ranges one would have to wait until 10.00am to see or hear if there had been any cancellation. Ok, the answer is that to be sure of a walk on any particular day don’t plan to go near a range if it’s scheduled to be closed. But what if there is a specific need to enter such an area and the only time available was on a scheduled firing day and the walk is postponed only to find out later that the exercise was cancelled and the range was open afterall? Couldn’t happen, well sorry it could as I have found out! The optimum time to do my fieldwork is when the bracken is dying down which means the autumn and winter months. It will take several days to complete so logic and expense dictates that the work is done over several days based on the moor, this means taking a holiday. My wife is a teacher and the only holiday she can take is during half term which is the exact week when all the ranges are shut or will they be listed under next year’s, “cancelled”, days?

I have just re-checked the firing notice and find that it has changed, access to the Willsworthy range is now restricted to just 1 day which is good news. However, bearing in mind the restraints of only being able to take holidays out of term time what if we had looked at the original firing notice and decided not to book the holiday because all the ranges were shut? Somebody would have possibly lost out on a holiday booking and the local shops and services would not be getting our custom. The very advice of checking the firing notices seems a nonsense if you are planning a visit in the long-term as it’s now very apparent that things will change at the last minute.

So, now it’s just the weather to worry about and looking at the long-term forecast it doesn’t look so good for our chosen week, who can I blame for that I wonder? I know, I’ll take the latest DEFRA line and lay the fault clearly at the feet of everyone who buys fresh milk. The milk is kept in refrigerators, both in the supermarkets and homes ,which in turn adds to global warming which in its turn is giving us wetter weather and so if it does rain whilst on holiday the milk consumers are to blame – QED.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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