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Environment

Nature moves in as Germans argue over 'bombodrom'

For years it was a Soviet testing ground, which Germany's air force had hoped to inherit. Yet as humans argue over the fate of the 'bombodrom,' wolves, heather and rare sheep have intervened with their own plans.

A barrier preventing road access to the 'bombodrom' at Wittstock in Germany

The former munitions-testing site is off limits to humans, but not nature

Every day, Bundeswehr commander Thomas Hering drives out to the grounds of the 'bombodrom.'

The bumpy road is lined with pine trees. Warning signs flank the path, and for good reason. It doesn't take long for Thomas Hering to spot a grenade.

"Someone tried to set it off, but it didn't explode," he says.

Bundeswehr commander Thomas Hering showing some of the military scrap metal he has found in the soil

Bundeswehr commander Thomas Hering and his team dispose live munitions

Hering explains that someone from his team will take a closer look at the explosive on their next sweep through the area. If it poses a threat, they'll blow it up.

An estimated 1.5 million munitions are still buried here, but it would be too expensive to remove them all. Instead, signs announce that trespassing is strictly prohibited.

Yet that hasn't kept mushroom pickers and junk collectors from wandering through the area. Luckily, no one has yet been hurt.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Germany's armed forces, inherited this one-time testing ground from their former East Bloc adversaries.

Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe, wanted to use the area as a bombing range, but locals derailed the project with protests and lawsuits.

After years of struggle, the Bundeswehr finally dropped its claim to the land in April last year, but the war over the bombodrom's future is far from over.

An image of calluna heather

The calluna heather depend on sheep keeping pine saplings at bay

Wolves or wind turbines?

Much of the area here is protected moorland - home to the heather, which - when in bloom - takes on a dark red color.

To prevent pine trees from pushing out the heather, a herd of Heidschnucke moorland sheep grazes on a patch of relatively munitions-free land.

The protected race of sheep help maintain the landscape, explains ranger Christoph Licht.

"The main reason for having the sheep graze here is to slow reforestation. That plays an important part in keeping this heath an open area."

Indeed the sheep aren't the only species to benefit from the absence of humans.

At night, they are herded into an enclosure to protect them from a burgeoning wolf population and white-tailed eagles, cranes, short-eared owls and woodlarks have also migrated here.

Germany's federal government wants to declare the area a nature reserve, but Brandenburg's Environment Minister Anita Tack, from the Left Party, opposes these plans.

She would rather use the space to generate renewable energy. The problem is, you can't build 30-meter-high wind turbines on natural heritage sites.

"It would be good to rehabilitate the areas using renewable energies to pay for the clean up. We thought wind or solar energy would be good, but wind power is out of the question," Tack said, following a meeting with her federal counterpart, Norbert Röttgen.

"One thing that could work, even if it's a natural heritage site, would be to use the former barracks and tank depots to situate solar power generators."

A herd of German heath sheep grazing in the Bombodrom area

The Heidschnucke sheep need to be protected at night from a burgeoning wolf population

Mixed use

Christian Gilde is a veteran of the campaign against the Bundeswehr's plans for the bombodrom. The 65-year-old heads a local committee that is looking into possible alternatives for the site.

He would like to see an emphasis on tourism. He can imagine attracting visitors with horse-drawn carriage rides through the heather and stories of the Cold War.

"History should be made accessible," he says. "We want to show how war games were simulated here and what the protest movement achieved."

His model is the former Münsingen base near Stuttgart.

The 6,700 hectares area is located in the Swabian Albs and was used for military purposes for over 100 years. Today, 45 kilometers of hiking trails and a reservation attract greater numbers of visitors every year.

Yet it could take many years before the land in this part of Brandenburg is safe enough for tourists.

Munitions dropped from a great height can penetrate deeply underground, so hiking tracks would need be cleared several meters below the surface to make sure that no nasty surprises should push their way up over time.

Still, some locals hope that someday, the grounds will serve as a place for city-dwellers to come to relax.

"Berliners could use the cycling paths here, there's nothing more beautiful than nature," says one farmer.

"Sure, there's some stuff in the ground, but hikers should just stay on the trails."

Author: Claudia Hennen / nh
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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