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FROSTY'S RAMBLINGS From bombs to vipers on Greenham Common

Twenty years ago Greenham Common ceased to be a cold-war bomber base — but it’s now returned to nature. PETER FROST goes snake hunting on the site

NOW, this is an interesting story. If I was a hippie (my wife Ann says “if you were still a hippie”), I might see a strange mystical connection between Greenham Common, once home of deadly nuclear weapons now being one of the best places to see Britain’s only venomous snake — the adder (Vipera berus).

The words Greenham Common hold all kinds of meanings — not least to readers of the Morning Star. 

For much of the last half-century, Greenham Common was the home of nuclear weapons on an airbase shared by British and US forces. 

It also became home to a wonderful and inspiring women’s peace camp that would change anti-war campaigning and politics forever.

Geographically, Greenham Common is at the heart of a large area of lowland heathland, ancient woodland, reedbeds, rivers and streams.  

It is a fragile and threatened habitat full of very special wildlife such as rare ground-nesting birds, including nightjar, woodlark and lapwing.  

In various seasons huge areas become covered in many species of orchid.

The many ponds and streams abound with amphibians — frogs, toads and newts. 

Grass-snakes will hunt these amphibians for food. The grass-snake isn’t Greenham’s only reptile: common lizards are often seen here, as is the adder, of which much more later.

What is wonderful is how just a score of years after this place ceased to be dedicated to death and destruction, nature has claimed it back as a tranquil place of peace and beauty.

Greenham Common has a rich history. The heathland sits on top of a flat gravel plateau from the last Ice Age. 

Since then it has fed prehistoric hunter-gatherers, while the Romans brought their rabbits who still call it home and farmers grazed it as common land. 

Then it became a military aerodrome. General Eisenhower watched squadrons taking off for D-Day here.  

At the start of the 1980s, nuclear cruise missiles, weapons of mass destruction, arrived at Greenham.

Demonstrations at the base made regular headline news and galvanised the start of the Peace Women’s movement in 1981. 

Mass protest saw more than 20,000 women joining hands around the perimeter of the base. 

Many new and unique strategies for the peace movement were devised and perfected.

Finally the bombs and bombers left Greenham Common. After those decades of military occupation, the common was officially reopened to the public in the spring of 2000. 

The cold-war control tower is still in place, still displaying the electronic technology designed to destroy the world. 

Today it is a small museum, a cafe and a community space. In late summer hundreds of autumn lady’s-tresses orchids advance on the tower. 

These beautiful snow-white flowers, twirling around soft grey stems, waft a soft, coconut fragrance in late afternoon.  

If you are lucky you might hear the song of a nightingale or a skylark high in a sky now free of warplanes. 

In summer, Greenham comes alive with over 30 species of butterflies — some very rare. 

They are joined by dazzling displays from damselflies and dragonflies, all set to a soundtrack of grasshoppers and crickets.

Cattle and Exmoor ponies graze the common freely, but decaying bunkers, rusting ironwork and curious foundations still remind us of the shameful history of the site.

I had come to the common in search of a very rare beast — the adder or viper, our only venomous snake. 

They are acutely sensitive to noise and vibration and for that reason they are hard to see in the wild. 

Greenham is now one of the best places to find this rare but fascinating species. 

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Yes the adder can bite. It is painful and can be dangerous but adder bites are incredibly rare — the snake will always move swiftly away if disturbed. 

There have only been 14 recorded human deaths from adder bite since 1876, the last being 45 years ago in 1975. 

That poisonous bite is designed to help kill the adder’s favourite diet of voles and mice.

Adders are both beautiful and fascinating. They can grow to around 90cm (3 feet) and are generally silvery grey to reddish brown and sometimes even black. 

They have a distinctive dark zigzag pattern down the back. Adders have red eyes and grass-snakes have blue eyes — a good way to tell them apart.

The adder hunts lizards and small mammals, as well as raiding the nests of ground-nesting birds. 

In spring, male adders perform a gyrating dance during which they duel to fend off competition to mate. 

Females incubate the eggs internally, giving birth to between three and 20 live, tiny but perfectly formed miniature adders. 

Adders are in serious decline all over the country and we aren’t exactly sure why. 

A number of snake enthusiasts choose Greenham as a perfect study site. We know the general habits and behaviour of adders, as they have been studied in Britain for a long time. Now work at Greenham is becoming key to the survival of the species.

Greenham Common has a large and growing adder population but because the base was closed off for so many years we still know little about how adders actually live here. 

Where do they hibernate from October to spring? Where do they give birth? How do they move around the site? And how they interact with one another?

To try to answer some of these questions, the snake-watchers attach tiny but powerful radio transmitters to the backs of a number of snakes. 

They use the radio transmissions to track and record adder movement. Careful tagging doesn’t harm the snakes. The tags are shed when the snake outgrows its skin and sloughs it off.  

The now recognisable snakes — identified using the unique pattern of markings on their head — are captured again to have new tags fitted. 

The tag information is used to generate maps of where the snakes travelled throughout the summer. 

These charts can then be used to direct management of the adders’ preferred habitat.
 
Tagging is helping discover how different groups of adders relate with each other. The common currently supports several distinct groups. 

There are significant distances between each group and its nearest neighbours. Tagging shows if individual groups are isolated from each other. Individual groups may be physically separate but are in fact genetically connected. Males can travel between groups in search of a mate. 

This is a critical factor in the long-term survival of the Britain’s  adder population. 

A lack of interaction between different groups would put these rare animals at risk of genetic inbreeding, leading to unhealthy populations or even potentially local extinction.

Radio tag tracking of individual snakes from different areas across the common tells us how far they travel, which areas they prefer and, ultimately, whether the groups of adders are interconnected and interbreeding, or whether they are isolated from one another. 

Today it is great to see how electronic technology at Greenham Common no longer directs nuclear weapons on their journeys of mass destruction, but helps one rare but valuable species on the road to survival. 

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