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Conservation at Norton Manor Camp

One of the many ponds
One of the many ponds

Norton Manor Camp is situated in 130 acres of what was formerly part of Norton Manor House Estate. At the time of its purchase in 1939, the site consisted of mixed woodland and open parkland, the camp being built on the latter. The woodland, totalling some 50 acres, has remained and forms a screen, which shelters the camp from view and the worst of the weather. The majority of the woodland, 40 acres, is on Knowle Hill, which forms the camp's western boundary. This is designated a Special Landscape Feature by Taunton Deane Borough Council because of its visual impact on the surrounding area.

The camp has many fine specimen exotic trees, which were planted by the early Victorian owners of the estate. These include cedars, giant redwoods, Swamp Cypress and maples. Doubtless many others were lost when the camp was built in 1939/40.

Sadly by the time 40 Commando Royal Marines occupied the camp in 1983 the camp had been badly neglected. The World War II buildings were in a poor state as were the original estate buildings. The Victorian stable block was particularly dilapidated with the complete interior being derelict. The woodland had not been managed/worked upon for 30-40 years. Clearly large areas of woodland had been planted with good intentions, however this was in regimental rows with approximately two metres between the trees. Over a period of 40 years the trees had become tall and spindly with very little canopy development. The Manor House terraced walks were totally overgrown and almost invisible under self seeded trees, brambles and stinging nettles, as were the supposedly grass slopes immediately to the east of the manor House (now the Officer's Mess).

The use of energy was extremely inefficient. The main boilers were fired by Propane Gas with some oil, electricity and natural gas. Not only were the systems expensive to run, but the boilers and calorifiers were in a terrible state. This resulted in excessive emissions into the atmosphere.

Not much changed until 1992. A permanent Property Management Department had been established and the camp's Redevelopment Plan agreed. There was a need for a considerable amount of work to be carried out. This included

a. Renovation and conservation of listed estate buildings.

b. Replacement of all types of heating fuel by natural gas combined with the replacement of boilers and calorifiers.

c. Systematic replacement of the high voltage electrical distribution network.

d. Replacement of the entire cast iron water distribution network with new plastic piping to resolve the considerable leak problem.

e. Agreeing the long-term strategy for the management of the woodland and the more formally landscaped areas.

f. Providing a better habitat for the considerable amount of flora and fauna within the camp.

Much has been done to meet these tasks. The effort put into the renovation of Norton manor house and its associated stable block (now Commando Headquarters) has been recognised by the local authorities in their award schemes. Similarly the utility infrastructure has been totally replaced. This, combined with increased energy conservation measures have seen Norton Manor Camp at the head of CINCFLEET's league for several years. Whilst these are notable achievements which help conservation in its broadest sense and set the scene in terms of what has been achieved, the aim of this article is to concentrate on the environment and wildlife of the camp.

Norton Manor Camp enjoys a rich variety of flora and fauna including Badgers, Foxes, Grey Squirrels, rabbits, Stoats, some sixty species of birds and a wide variety of trees and other vegetation. We have even recorded a visit by an otter on our security video. Interestingly it met a fox on its trip round the trim trail. Although passing within a metre they were totally indifferent about each other's presence.

Whilst this sounds idyllic as explained earlier there were a considerable number of problems to be resolved with precious little money to throw at them. It was essential that whatever work was to be carried out had to be largely self funded and had to marry in with the redevelopment Plan. The problem for some of the wildlife was exacerbated by the construction of the perimeter fence which restricted the range of the deer, badgers and Foxes particularly as well as isolating them from a ready supply of water in the summer months. The Badgers caused several security scares by digging under the wire over night. Clay pipes were installed wherever this happened. Their traditional rotes were so well established that since the eight pipes were installed there has not been a single incident during the last ten years. Knowle Woods are used extensively by 40 Commando RM for training. This had to be borne in mind but was not really a problem, as a good natural habitat also provides a testing training facility. The wildlife is surprisingly adaptable to occasional disturbance and loud bangs.

The priorities were to establish the way forward ensuring that a rich habitat was provided for the wildlife and to refurbish the more formally planted areas in the vicinity of the manor House and Stable Block. It was decided that the spine road from the sick bay via the manor house and Stable Block to the Lodge would be the dividing line between conservation and training area and the more formally managed areas for specimen trees. Thus the whole of Knowle Woods to the west of the road would be managed in a sympathetic way to produce a thriving natural habitat for the wildlife. That to the east would be largely cleared of undergrowth to provide more open woodland with grass. All the other small copses around the perimeter are managed as wildlife areas and this is illustrated on the plan of the camp.

In conjunction with the forestry department from Defence Estates at Durrington a five-year plan was drawn up for the woodland areas. This involved the progressive thinning of over planted areas of woodland in order to permit the development of the canopy and natural regeneration of the under storey. The timber was sold for pulp and the income generated was used for the felling of poor specimens from which no income could be derived. Where trees had reached the end of their life and become dangerous they were either crown reduced to avoid the risk of them falling or felled. Wherever possible the arisings were left on the ground to rot down naturally thus providing a habitat for the lower end of the ecological chain. In an ideal environment some 30 percent of natural woodland should be in decay. Our policy enabled this and where decaying trees could be left standing in a safe condition this has provided excellent nesting sites for birds such as woodpeckers. We are blessed with all three British species. A wealth of insect life supports a considerable bird population.

In parallel with felling and thinning trees a replanting programme was embarked upon. A grant was obtained from the Forestry Commission and a considerable number of natural species such as oak, beech, hazel, holly, hornbeam and birch were planted. Since thinning started there has been a massive regeneration of ash and sycamore. Two successive five-year plans have now been completed resulting in a much-improved woodland environment. The natural regeneration of the Back Covert area is such that it has become popular with Woodcock during the winter months. Sadly they are not breeding on site.

During the summer of 1995 there was a prolonged drought. As the security fence had excluded all adjacent waterways from the camp this gave the Roe deer problems. A small temporary pond was dug and old baths used to establish water points around the camp. In order to avoid a repeat of this three ponds have been constructed to serve as both watering holes and conservation areas. Guidance was given by staff from the Somerset Environmental Records Centre in order that the ponds provide the maximum benefit. The main pond is located in Knowle Woods above the Manor House on the site of a very old tennis court. It is incredible how quickly it has become established. Newts colonised it in considerable numbers and at least one of our resident foxes enjoys curling up on the grass bank to sleep in a sunny patch. Unfortunately no camera was to hand at the time.

In 1997, with the aid of local experts, a MOD Bird Count was carried out for the first time. This identified some 55 species, however, it was thought that the habitat had potential for considerably more. In order to improve the availability of nest sites it was decided to provide nest and roost boxes for birds and bats. In all a little more than 80 boxes have been provided in a variety of shapes and sizes. Whilst these have been readily taken up by tits and Nuthatches the other boxes are rarely used by other species although field mice seem to like tit boxes as well.

The bat boxes were put up in the hope that they would be used by woodland species. This followed the discovery of summer roosts of Lesser Horseshoe and Brown Long Eared Bats in the roof space of the old stable block. This caused great excitement amongst our contracts at English Nature. Pipistrelle Bats are known to roost in Gardeners Cottage and the Commanding Officers'House. Given the age of the wooden huts it was thought that they may provide further roosts. Care was therefore taken to check roof spaces prior to demolition. To date none have been identified. Checks will continue to be made prior to future demolitions.

Other benefits to wildlife include the decision not to cut grass where this is unnecessary. This has greatly increased the amount of natural grassland within the camp, encouraging insects as well as providing a wide variety of seeds, which benefits birds and small mammals.

Mention must be made of Colour Sergeant Brian Johnson, the Work Liaison SNCO, who is also the Camp Deer Manager. He has done much to manage the camp's Roe Deer population on behalf of Defence Deer Management. He is also actively involved with training courses run by the British Deer Society. Unfortunately inbreeding caused by the deer being captive within the wire has resulted in them having to be culled during last year. Brian is still very active however and is the MOD Deer Manager at Merryfield, an outstation of RNAS Yeovilton and is very much involved with environmental management at Norton Manor Camp.

As mentioned earlier, much of the camp was originally parkland and has some quite splendid exotic trees. As the camp is being redeveloped the ground area occupied by buildings is being progressively reduced. This is enabling significant landscaping to take place. One of our tree management contractors has taken a great deal of interest in the site and has given considerable assistance in the selection of the tree varieties and planting schemes without charging a fee. Every effort has been made to obtain varieties that would have been available during the Victorian era. To date some three thousand trees and shrubs have been planted in these formally landscaped areas. Given another 20 years when the trees have grown significantly, Norton Manor Camp should be one of the finest arboretums in the South West. There is still a considerable amount of redevelopment to be carried out and much landscaping to do but I believe we are heading in a direction, which the Victorian owners of the estate would have approved of. Taunton Deane Borough Council has certainly appreciated our efforts as we won the Landscaping Award in1997 for the JRSLA Landscaping scheme. The camp was nominated for the 1999 award but the new Sergeants' Mess scheme was incomplete and we were unsuccessful. None the less our efforts were clearly appreciated.

The EWC's tree consultant, Doug Smith, has been most helpful in giving first class guidance on the management and care of the considerable number of ornamental trees. Whilst there is insufficient funding to meet all his recommendations we have been able to prioritise work to ensure that most crucial work is attended to.

So what for the future? There is a considerable amount of tree thinning to be carried out at the southern end of Knowle Hill Wood and Back Covert. There is still about 10 years worth of new landscaping to be implemented in tandem with the new redevelopment projects. A new challenge has arisen as a result of global warming and its impact on weather patterns. The Environmental Agency is insisting that all future redevelopment within the camp incorporates a water attenuation scheme. This effectively means that storm water arising from roofs, roads and car parks has to be captured and released slowly into the local watercourses. The cheapest and most aesthetically pleasing way of achieving this is by constructing a large pond or ponds. Ironically the original version of the Redevelopment Plan incorporated a lake. There had been one on the site of what are now playing fields, prior to the camp being built. This was deleted from the plan, as we could not see funding being approved. This may well now be a serious option particularly as the majority of the old parade ground is destined to be dug up and landscaped anyway. A new lake would contribute even further to the already rich biodiversity of Norton Manor Camp.

Water Attenuation Scheme