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   Inside Out - South East: Monday January 9, 2006

Wild wild country

Konig horse Photo: Chris Packham
Wild horses are helping to restore habitats

The South East is charging ahead into the 21st Century as fast as anywhere.

But there is one part of the South East which is going backwards in time - by about 7,000 years.

Inside Out investigates how two areas of wilderness are being restored to their original state thanks to the reintroduction of wild animals.

Stodmarsh near Canterbury is an extraordinary part of Kent. It's a National Nature Reserve, as is Ham Fen near Sandwich.

Both these places are owned and run on our behalf by English Nature.

English Nature wants to restore them to their original state - to how they were about 7,000 years ago.

Back in time

Taking these places back to that moment in time involves horses. Coincidentally, Stodmarsh was originally called Stud Marsh.

But these are not just any old horses. These are wild horses, specially imported by English Nature, the Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Wildlife Park.

They do the job of restoring habitats simply by eating the grass and reeds to stop the woody scrub building up.

Wild horse foal
Wild horses are the new conservationists

Without them the wetland would dry up and become woodland.

Normally the conservation organisations would use heavy machinery to keep down the vegetation. But now the horses do it for them the natural way.

These horses come from Holland, and they are genetically the closest thing to wild horses that roamed across England 7,000 years ago.

The Dutch have been breeding them for the same purpose in their nature reserves.

Three and a half years ago Inside Out travelled with the horses as they made their journey from the continent over to Kent.

Today, the horses are flourishing. Nine were originally introduced to Stodmarsh and seven have been born here.

Natural conservation

The transformation of this bit of countryside in Kent is going as planned.

Beaver c/o Newsround
Eager Beaver - helping habitats in the fen lands

The wild horses have eaten their way through the reed beds leaving behind a flooded field - a brand new habitat for wildlife, all thanks to the animals' voracious appetite.

But wild horses aren't the only animals involved in this project.

Conservationists have also been to Norway to catch Beaver and bring them back to Kent.

And over the last four years the Beavers have left their mark in Ham Fen.

They have created channels which help wildlife. Beaver also help to hydrate the land, allowing other animals to flourish.

Wild Boar and Water Voles

As well as the horses, another animal needed to take the woodland back to its original state is the Wild Boar.

Boar were hunted to extinction in England about 300 years ago, but they arrived back comparatively recently.

The Boars return the woodland to its natural state in several ways. They destroy non-native trees by rubbing against them for years on end.

Wild Boar
Wild Boar - back to help with conservation

They also eat acorns and other seeds which are then spread around the wood when they pop out of the pigs' other end.

They also help the seeds to germinate by rooting in the undergrowth and loosening up the earth, and they root out and destroy non natural plants like rhododendron.

Another creature which is helping the land to go back in time is the Water Vole - Britain's most endangered mammal.

As a result of these animals, there are a couple of bits of Kent left that remain natural havens - Stodmarsh and Ham Fen.

And if these two places end up just how they were 7,000 years ago, we can thank the Wild Boar, the Water Voles, the Beavers, and one group of very special wild horses.

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Bomb danger?

Trenches at Ypres Photo: Associated Press
Down in the trenches - First World War soldiers at Ypres

Inside Out East investigates how dangerous live military shells and bombs are going missing before the Army or Police can make them safe.

Renegade military dealers and collectors are stealing 'live' chemical shells and bombs from the battlefields of Belgium and France.

They are then smuggling these potentially deadly munitions back through the Channel Tunnel or on the ferries into the UK for sale on the military blackmarket or on the web.

Trench warfare

Our story starts 90 years ago. The Great War claimed over 15 million lives and focused on a narrow strip of land in Belgium and France.

This intense trench warfare led to constant shelling by both sides, but not every bomb fired exploded. Hundreds of thousands failed to detonate.

Today the remains of the Belgian front line can still be seen - some trenches are still visible, and visitors can walk past the barbed wire and inspect the rusting military hardware left behind.

And it is those shells that are now resurfacing and presenting a new threat.

Ammunition sales

FACT FILE


* Every year more than 30 people are killed on the battlefields of Europe after disturbing or picking up unexploded bombs and shells.

* It's estimated that three Titanics worth of unexploded bombs still litter the fields of France and Belgium, left over from World War 1.

* Some of these shells contain deadly Mustard Gas and Phosgene. Chemical shells left over from World War 1 that are still as deadly as the day they were fired.

* The Belgian Bomb Disposal Team brings back two lorry loads of unexploded bombs every day for safe destruction.

* Inside the high security chemical warfare lab, bomb teams work four hour shifts inside special chemical suits as they take the gas shells apart and destroy the chemicals.

Inside Out's investigation was kick-started last autumn by a set of brothers.

Chris and Matt Haffenden are military collectors from Hailsham in Sussex and they told us they’d seen live First World War ammunition on sale in the South East of England.

One man who did smuggle in a live military bomb was Stephen Hart from Tunbridge Wells.

Last summer he was handed a nine month suspended prison sentence and a hefty fine after being caught with a unexploded mortar shell in the boot of his car at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

This case made Inside Out wonder just what could a military enthusiast get hold of abroad so we headed off to the battlefields of Belgium to have a dig around.

Bombs and shells

A large amount of ammunition has been unearthed in the fields around the town of Ypres - and that is exactly where we headed.

We wanted to find out where you could get live bombs and shells, and we also met with someone who had first hand knowledge that ammunition was being stolen off the battlefields.

Domenik Dendooven is a curator at the museum and was worried live bombs and shells were disappearing before the army could make them safe.

Some of the live shells going missing are toxic and contain chemicals that could kill.

Trenches Photo: Associated Press
Trench warfare - bombs are still being uncovered

It appears that toxic shells containing mustard gas and and phosgene were being stolen and were finding their way illegally back into the UK.

So many live bombs are unearthed by farmers, there are designated spots where they are left for collection by the military.

They may be 90-years-old and look harmless but the chemical agents can be as deadly as the day they were first made. Destroying them has to take place inside a high security lab.

The scale of the problem is frightening and with toxic agents like phosgene and mustard gas, it is dangerous work.

Despite the dangers some hardcore diggers don’t stay clear. They steal the ammunition and smuggle it back into the UK posing a risk to themselves and all around.

Nothing illegal was found in the search and the lads went on their way but when we approached the police to let them know our concerns, this is what they had to say:

"Kent Police will take positive action against any member of the public who attempts to carry explosive devices into the country. These war time devices are inherently dangerous and could still maim and kill innocent members of the public. If you have any information relating to the smuggling of wartime devices, can you please contact Kent Police on Crimestoppers."

Kent Police - contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

Photographs courtesy of Associated Press.

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