Indoor Meetings about Birds and Wildlife

Greenham Common from Military Base back to Heathland
by Ian Paine

Date: Thursday 21 February 2019 at 19:30


Thirty-three people attended this meeting at which Ian Paine gave an illustrated presentation on the history of Greenham Common, particularly since the onset of the cold war in 1947.

Ian’s talk was amusing and informative and his narrative style made for very easy listening. The pictures were not his; they were “borrowed” from various sources and were of very high quality. Just the picture of a nightjar in flight was worth attending the meeting for!

The history lesson began in the seventeenth century with the Parliamentarians suffering a defeat. 1745 saw 5,000 English troops mustering before marching north to meet Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden. 1860 saw ranks of Victorian riflemen using Greenham Common for rifle practice, prior to heading for India. In 1914 it was used as a troop training area, prior to heading to France and Europe. 1940 saw runways constructed and an RAF base established and then the Americans arrived. Greenham played a major role in the planning of the D-Day landing with meetings between General “Ike” Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. It was also used as a paratroop base, glider assembly and training and was a despatch point or the Arnhem landings.

Peace in Europe was followed by Greenham being decommissioned and recommissioned repeatedly.

However, controversy really began in 1980 when the use of Greenham for nuclear armed cruise missiles was announced. Thousands of peace activists (exclusively women) surrounded Greenham and attempted to disrupt military activity. In 1983 the cruise missiles arrived and stayed until 1991 when the USA – USSR Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty caused their removal back to the USA. Some of the peace activists remained until 2000.

Greenham’s final decommissioning and conversion back to a nature reserve began in the 1990s. The big project was the removal of the 2.75 mile long concrete runway. The control tower buildings and missile shelters were left in place. Thousands of tons of concrete and hard-core were reduced to small pebble size and then used to build the A34 Newbury by-pass.

Re-planting was done by transplanting existing vegetation from the site. From the beginning vegetation control has been achieved by grazing Exmoor ponies and cattle on the land. Greenham has now matured into an attractive and easily accessible reserve with lots of lowland heath. The control tower buildings house a café, a museum and an excellent viewing area.

The list of species seen at Greenham is very impressive and includes five species of lowland heath butterflies, adders, grass snakes, roe deer and terrapins. The bird list is extensive with heathland birds well represented – Dartford warbler, breeding woodlark, nightjar, woodcock, whinchat, stonechat, wheatear, Greenland wheatear and redstart.

Ian also presented the Greenham 10 surprise species – stone curlew, yellow-browed warbler, wryneck, red-backed shrike, short-eared owl, honey buzzard, alpine swift, black redstart, ortolan bunting and bee-eater.

He closed his story with an account of an alleged accident in the 1950s involving a bomber having to jettison its fuel tanks in an emergency and one of them hitting another bomber that was loaded with a nuclear bomb. Fortunately the nuclear bomb did not detonate in the inferno; otherwise Berkshire would now be a large radioactive crater west of Heathrow!

Ian gave an excellent talk which combined wildlife and local history.

What’s About

Brian Clews gave the report:

Horton/Wraysbury/QMR - 3 white-fronted geese roaming
Widbrook – female brambling
White Place farm – snipe, 16 widgeon, 30 teal
Maidenhead town centre – peregrine again on BT building in West Street
Dinton Pastures – oystercatcher, ferruginous duck, 2 great white egrets in the area
Twyford Pits – male red-breasted merganser, with goosanders
Kingsclere on Hants border, south of Newbury – 7 ravens, near the site where they last bred 150 years ago, but they have nested nearby since. 

--- Original Programme Information ---


Greenham Common was for centuries a piece of heathland used by the Army for training. In World War 1 it was used for trench warfare training. In World War 2 the RAF and then the USAAF used the common as an airfield. Rebuilt and extended after the war, it was used by American bombers during the 1950's. It was then little used, except for airshows, until 1983 when it became a base for cruise missiles. The missiles were removed in 1991 and the base closed in September 1992.

Neptune   Stratotanker
A Dutch Navy SP-2H Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, parked by the control tower (which still exists today). The Neptune was at Greenham Common for an airshow in 1973.   A United States Air Force KC-97L tanker aircraft taking off from Greenham Common in 1974. These air-to-air refuelling tankers were used to extend the range of fighters and bombers.

The talk looks briefly at the history of Greenham Common and how it was restored back to heathland and the wildlife that has returned.

Runway   Runway gone
Greenham Common's 10,000 foot runway in late 1980. Picture By Fender100 via Wikimedia Commons.   Greenham Common in 2014. The runway and taxiways are gone.  Picture by Harvey Milligan, via Wikimedia Commons.
Path   Stonechat
Greenham Common, as restored today.   Stonechat on the restored Greenham Common.


Ian was born in Bedfordshire and lived in Potton, 2 miles from the RSPB headquarters at The Lodge.

At the age of 6 he gave money to the RSPB when “mugged” by Joyce Grenfell of 6d for her autograph at the opening of The Lodge!

Ian has worked as a civil servant, black and white photographic technician, youth work manager and a teacher of history, drama and maths. He also worked for the RSPB as Greenham Common Heathland Awareness Officer for 2 years on a part-time basis. Since retiring he is a full-time house husband, book reader, birder and bird photographer. He is also closely involved with the RSPB Wokingham and Bracknell Local Group.

Birding claim to fame – found Berkshire’s first Pallas warbler!

Greenham Common Map
Greenham Common Map

All pictures are © Copyright. Do not reproduce without permission via Steve Williams.