SURROUNDED by military hardware and thousands of soldiers, Foxglove Covert Nature Reserve has been the focal point for conservation and environmental activities in the Dales for more than 20 years.

In 1992, Major Tony Crease of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards was posted to Catterick Garrison on his return from Iraq. Looking for somewhere to exercise his two border collies, he came across part of the training area, fenced off during the 1970s.

It had lain fallow ever since and he had an idea that was to have a long-lasting legacy.

He said: “Right from the start, I had the idea of a nature reserve.

“It was a perfect area for recruits, who need something outside military activity.”

Applying to the Ministry of Defence for permission to use the area, Major Crease was given 28 acres. A hut costing £300 was brought in by a military JCB, and for the first eight years access was through the training area, until a gate was put in.

He added: “It was an absolute wilderness – we had to fight our way in and you couldn’t walk through it. We actually used tanks and a light armoured vehicle to clear a space.

“Right from the start, it was clear to us that the public should be allowed in.”

The new reserve quickly established a management group and in 1998 grew to 42 acres with an old recruiting caravan as the HQ.

Statutory designation as a nature reserve was granted in 2001 in a partnership with Natural England, Richmondshire District Council and the MoD. It was the first local nature reserve in the UK to receive this legal protection.

Realising the site was outgrowing its facilities, the management group came up with the idea for a new field centre. The cost was estimated at £300,000 and of the 70 letters sent out, they received only seven replies.

In the event, they received funding of £350,000, and the new centre sprang up over the winter. The doors were opened in May 2002 with Field Marshal Sir John Chapel performing the ceremony.

Foxglove Covert now covers 100 acres and has been intentionally developed as a rare mix of 12 different habitats. Woodland, wetland, and moorland terrain all make the site diverse, with its 2,236 species of birds, fish and mammals.

Today Major Crease is fighting a different battle. The reserve costs £100,000 a year to run, much of which comes from the MoD. However, he warns: “It very difficult, as we depend heavily upon friends and visitors to contribute as we do not charge the general public to visit.”

The day-to-day running of the reserve is down to hardworking duo Sophie Rainer and Adam Edmond, who supervise the team of 80 volunteers.

Reserve manager Sophie said: “As a volunteer you could find yourself doing anything from habitat management, herding cattle, or helping with events.

“In winter we tend to do most of the maintenance work and in summer, school visits are our priority.”

Foxglove is amongst the top three bird-ringing sites in the country, and currently over 90,000 birds of 80 different species have been processed and subsequently tracked throughout Europe.

More than 300,000 people have visited since that opening day, including the Prince of Wales, community and youth groups. Foreign Secretary William Hague is a regular guest.

Foxglove also has strong links with the Dales School, which caters for children with acute learning difficulties, the adult learning service, pupil referral scheme and Youth Justice.

The Army Welfare Service, Help for Heroes and the Military Personnel Recovery and Rehabilitation Centre are all involved. Last year, more than 2,000 children paid an educational visit.

The centre is open every day, with access through the military camp, and although potentially daunting, the garrison encourages visitors to Foxglove. Procedures for visitors are simple but it is necessary to show some form of identification.

The reserve remains optimistic about the future and plans to create an orchard and continue with events for members of the public such as wildlife photography and natural history training courses.

Major Crease says: “Foxglove Covert is a rare example of community and garrison co-operation in support of conservation. It is possible for tanks to live alongside tawny owls, and soldiers to seek cover in the grass alongside snails.

“The success and reputation of Foxglove rests upon the hard work of a very small number of committed people. Attracting volunteers provides the lifeblood of expertise and support to Foxglove, but a hard core of dedicated ‘professionals’ allows it to exist as it does.”

  • Foxglove Covert Nature Reserve is situated on Catterick Garrison, postcode DL9 3PZ.

It is open weekdays from 9am until 5pm and weekends and most bank holidays from 10am until 4pm.

Visit for further information.