SAS ambushed by hunt ban
THE ARMY has been dealt an unexpected and inconvenient blow by Welsh farmers as a side effect of the Government’s Hunting Act. The Special Air Service's gruelling selection course has been thrown into chaos by farmers who have refused the elite troops permission to train on their land in protest over the Government's hunting ban.
The move in the Elan Valley area of mid-Wales and in parts of the Brecon Beacons in South Wales is one of the most damaging revolts by landowners since the ban was introduced in February.
Senior SAS officers had considered the unprecedented step of postponing one of the regiment's two annual six-month long selection courses, but that was ruled out by a severe manpower shortage within the unit.
The SAS - which comprises around 500 troops - has been severely depleted over the past two years after dozens of soldiers left for lucrative jobs as security advisers in Iraq.
The Ministry of Defence had hoped to avoid a clash, but talks earlier this year with the Welsh National Farmers' Union failed to come to any agreement.
A senior defence official described the ban as "irritating, irresponsible and frustrating".
He said: "The ban was the last thing the SAS needed. Like many busy Army units it is under-strength and over-committed and is desperate for new recruits.
"But they have to be selected and carefully trained. Suitable training areas can not simply be acquired at the drop of a hat."
The Hereford-based regiment holds two selection courses a year to which anyone under the age of 32 - although that limit is flexible - can apply.
The summer and winter courses attract up to 150 candidates, although historically only 10 per cent of those volunteering to serve with the regiment are accepted.
Each course begins with an endurance phase, lasting three weeks in the Brecon Beacons. This phase is essentially a test of physical stamina and volunteers have to complete a series of marches carrying loads of up to 50lb and a rifle.
One of the toughest tests is known as the Long Drag, when soldiers have to complete a 40-mile march in 24 hours. After finishing the endurance phase, the soldiers move on to jungle training in Brunei.
It is understood that it is the escape and evasion phase that was worst hit by protesting farmers.
The SAS has been carrying out escape and evasion within the Elan Valley for more than 20 years. It is regarded as an ideal training area because of the harshness of the terrain.
During this section, potential SAS troopers have to escape from a hunter force of soldiers who are under orders to capture them. The exercise usually lasts three days, at the end of which most of the soldiers have been captured by the hunter force. Those who pass this phase are allowed to join the regiment.
A spokesman for the MoD refused to comment on SAS selection but did confirm that much of the military training on private land in many areas of Wales had been cancelled because of action by landowners who were in dispute with the Government over the hunting ban.
"Some landowners in Wales, including those in the Elan Valley, have refused to allow training exercises to take place on their land," he said. "In most cases we have been able to make other arrangements."