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Crop Circles


       
 
 Copyright Colin Andrews
Millions of words have been written about the crop circle phenomenon.  Several books have been written on the mystery, together with countless newspaper and magazine features.  Numerous Internet sites are devoted to the subject.  Various theories about crop circles exist, attributing them to such causes as extraterrestrials, Earth energies, wind vortices or hoaxers.  This world exclusive article will deal with only one aspect of the mystery, namely official involvement in the phenomenon.  Several allegations have been made concerning interest on the part of the Ministry of Defence and the military, but is there any truth to such claims?  Have the Government been involved?  Is there any official interest?  This article sets the record straight and lifts the lid on one of the MoD’s most bizarre X-Files.  
       

Crop Circles - An Official History

Army Helicopters

The military and MoD’s first involvement with the crop circle mystery was in 1985.  A farmer had found a spectacular quintuplet formation on his land and telephoned the Army Air Corps base at Middle Wallop to ask what they were up to, it having been suggested that the pattern might have been formed by the downwash from a helicopter’s rotor blades.  The Army does a lot of flying training in the area, some of which involves practicing landings.  To do this, permission is needed from landowners, making it important to stay on good terms with local farmers.  Noise from military aircraft leads to many complaints each year, so it is important for the military to stay on good terms not just with farmers, but with the public more generally.  With this in mind, the Army moved quickly to deal with the suggestion that the crop circle in question had been formed by a low flying helicopter.

The matter was investigated by Lieutenant Colonel Edgecombe, who flew over the formation and took photographs.  He then attended a public meeting and was able to give a categorical assurance that the downwash from a helicopter’s rotor blades could not create symmetrical and well-defined formations of the type being seen.  He also pointed out that the Army would not in any case damage farmers’ crops in this way.  Finally, he told the meeting that he had forwarded a report of his investigation to the Ministry of Defence, together with the photographs.  This report went to Secretariat(Air Staff), who did little more than acknowledge it and thank Edgecombe for his hard work.

This incident was to have unforeseen consequences for the MoD.  The Army’s prompt and very public actions had been noted by certain crop circle investigators, who took it as a sign that the military were interested in the phenomenon per se.  It was also noted that the report had been sent to Sec(AS), which also handled UFO reports.  This confirmed in some researchers’ minds a link between the two phenomena, when in fact there were many conflicting theories about crop circles.

Questions In Parliament

The issue of crop circles has been raised in Parliament four times, by means of written Parliamentary Questions.  The questions and answers were printed in Hansard (The formal, published record of Parliamentary proceedings) and are worth quoting in full:

Cereal Fields (Hansard, 11 July 1989):

Mr Teddy Taylor: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many reports he has received of the flattening of circular areas in cereal fields in the south-west and other areas of England respectively; and if he will make a statement.

Mr Ryder: The flattening of circular areas in cereal fields is a phenomenon known to occur from time to time.  It is confined to winter cereal crops and is more prevalent in dry seasons, but we have no arrangements for recording such occurrences and therefore cannot comment on their frequency.

Cereal Fields (Hansard, 11 July 1989):

Mr Teddy Taylor: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what progress has been made in the inquiries initiated by Army helicopters based in the south-west in investigating the origin of flattened circular areas of wheat; and if he will make a statement.

Mr Neubert: The Ministry of Defence is not conducting any inquiries into the origins of flattened circular areas of crops.  However, we are satisfied that they are not caused by service helicopter activity.

Cornfield Circles (Hansard, 26 July 1989) :

Mr Colvin: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will call for a report from the chief constables of Hampshire and Wiltshire on their investigations into the cornfield circles in Hampshire and Wiltshire; what is the estimated cost of these investigations; and if he will make a statement.

Mr Hurd: I understand from the chief constables of Hampshire and Wiltshire that there have been no investigations into the cornfield circles by their officers.

Cornfield Circles (Hansard, 17 October 1989):

Mr Colvin: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether any official assistance has been given by service personnel to civilians investigating the origin of cornfield circles in Hampshire and Wiltshire; and if he will make a statement.

Mr Archie Hamilton: I am not aware of any official assistance having been given by service personnel to civilians investigating the origin of crop circles.

These questions were inspired by researchers Paul Fuller and Jenny Randles, who had contacted their MPs and asked them to raise the matter.  The answers would have been drafted by officials within the respective government departments.  In the case of the two questions answered by Defence Ministers, this meant that civil servants in Sec(AS) had drafted the responses.

While MoD was careful not to take any position on what might cause the circles, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was prepared to speculate, probably because they had been put on the defensive by statements from crop circle researcher Colin Andrews, who had suggested that molecular changes in crops within circle formations might have health implications, if the crops then got into the food chain.  Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley had previously dismissed such an idea and stated that the circles were probably caused by wind.  In responding to letters from MPs writing on behalf of their constituents, MAFF Minister Richard Ryder suggested that the circles were “ … most likely to result from a combination of wind and local soil fertility conditions in cereals which are prone to lodging”.  The issue of contaminated crops was therefore unlikely to apply.  This response seems to have been influenced by the theories of meteorologist and crop circle researcher Dr Terence Meaden, and so far as I am aware MAFF’s view was offered without any consultation with the MoD.

Another politician who made a public comment was Dennis Healey.  In a February 1990 television interview he said that he thought a government inquiry into the subject was unnecessary, and stated that although he believed the matter was unresolved, he thought that crop circles were a natural phenomenon.  Healey had previously been involved in the debate over crop circles when he photographed a formation at Alfriston in East Sussex, in 1984.  The Daily Mail subsequently ran a story on this.

Military Aircraft Activity

Military aircraft (Mostly helicopters, but also C-130 Hercules aircraft based at RAF Lyneham) have been seen and occasionally filmed flying over crop circles.  This has fuelled rumours that the MoD is actively monitoring the phenomenon, but there are two rather more mundane explanations for this activity.   

The first is that military aircrew are just as likely as anyone else to be intrigued about the phenomenon.  Accordingly, some will plan their routine flying training sorties to overfly any formations about which they have heard.  Some aircrew will take photographs, and pictures of crop circles adorn the walls of many a crewroom at various military bases.  With the above in mind, pages 73 and 82 of Circular Evidence [Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1989] by Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews, show an Army Gazelle helicopter hovering over a formation that appeared at Westbury in 1987.  The photograph on pages 74 and 75 was taken by aircrew on this helicopter.

The second reason for such overflights is that once the location of a large crop circle is known, it can be a useful navigational marker (Like any other prominent feature visible from the air) that can be used to verify position during a flying training sortie.

In The Firing Line

My involvement with the crop circle mystery started on 29 July 1991, when I started my tour of duty in Sec(AS)2a.  My job included responsibility for investigating UFO sightings, with a view to satisfying the MoD that nothing reported was indicative of any threat to the defence of the United Kingdom.  There was no formal remit to investigate crop circles, but as had been the case with Lieutenant Colonel Edgecombe’s report six years previously, anything out of the ordinary (Especially if it was perceived as being connected to the UFO phenomenon) was always sent to Sec(AS).  Therefore my three year tour of duty saw me researching and investigating not just UFOs, but alien abductions, animal mutilations and crop circles.

I could not have joined at a more interesting time, so far as the crop circle mystery was concerned, and I was soon in the thick of things.  News had just broken concerning a spectacular pictogram at Barbury Castle in Wiltshire, and the very day after I joined Sec(AS) another large formation (The first ‘Dolphin’ pictogram) was reported in a field near the Wiltshire village of Lockeridge.  Then on 13 August a spectacular pictogram was found in a field in Ickleton in Cambridgeshire.  Dubbed “The Mandlebrot Set”, after the computer fractal that featured in chaos mathematics, it was pictured in many national newspapers.

I was quizzed by several crop circle researchers, who asked for details of what the MoD knew about the phenomenon.  Some demanded that we take action to investigate matters, while others clearly thought we knew all about it, and were covering up.  New theories and allegations abounded and I was often on the defensive.  I had to refute the bizarre idea that the formations were caused by the testing of space-based laser or directed-energy weapons, and dispel suggestions that media coverage of the issue had been stifled by use of D-Notices.  I had to deny that the 22 October 1987 crash of a Harrier aircraft was caused by energies associated with crop circles, and that these energies had caused the spontaneous firing of the pilot’s ejector seat, leading to the man’s death (The body was found in Wiltshire, not far from where some crop circles had appeared in the Summer).  I also had to deny allegations that The Queen and Margaret Thatcher had expressed interest in the phenomenon and that various high-level meetings were taking place to consider the subject.

On 9 September 1991 the storm broke.  Today newspaper ran a front page story concerning Doug Bower and Dave Chorley’s hoaxing activities, and much of the rest of the media followed the story.  Then on 27 October, Channel 4’s Equinox programme examined the phenomenon, with the emphasis again on hoaxing.  Some researchers suggested that the MoD had a hand in all this, as part of a strategy to discredit both the phenomenon and the researchers.  This was not the case, but the allegations refused to go away.

None of this is to say that my relationship with researchers was universally difficult.  I had an ‘open-door’ policy, and most discussions I had with researchers were friendly and constructive.  The late Ralph Noyes was in regular touch.  He had retired from the MoD in 1977, having reached the rank of Under Secretary of State, and had been a former Head of Defence Secretariat 8 - the division that later evolved into Sec(AS).  When someone with such a background raised the issue it was difficult to dismiss the phenomenon out of hand, or refuse to comment.  I undertook to keep a watching brief on matters.  I opened a file on the subject, followed developments through the media and the specialist magazines, and visited a few formations in a private capacity, in my own time.

Brainstorming

I would have liked to have done more.  During the course of my tour of duty in Sec(AS) I had numerous discussions with specialist staffs, at which various plans were discussed.  The military often practice surveillance, and it might have been possible to schedule an exercise in areas where formations had appeared in previous years, to see if we could see and record the creation of a crop circle.  Chemical analysis of plants from within crop circles might have been undertaken, and the results compared with control samples from outside the formations.  Such work was supposedly being done by civilian researchers, but might usefully have been carried out officially.  Such discussions seldom came to anything, because of constraints on time and resources.  Furthermore, initiatives along the lines of those discussed here might have become public knowledge, implying a level of official interest greater than was in fact the case.

In July 1992 I did manage to acquire a soil sample that had come from within a strange ground marking that had appeared on private land, and sent it for analysis, via specialist staffs.  But before the analysis was undertaken, I discovered that the pattern on the ground had a mundane explanation.  The investigation was duly halted.

I continued to keep a watching brief on the phenomenon, as I had promised, but towards the latter part of my tour of duty, interest in crop circles seemed to be declining.  Formations were still appearing, and if anything the pictograms were becoming more spectacular, but the bubble had burst.  Public and media interest was never again to reach the level that had been seen in 1990 and 1991.  For my own part, my work was largely reactive, and because I was now receiving ever increasing numbers of fascinating UFO and alien abduction reports, I found that I had less time for crop circles.

The Current Position

It would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on the current position.  I understand, however, that the file I opened on crop circles has now been closed, and that the subject is no longer under any form of official consideration.  This summer’s formations may revive public and media interest.  Whether this means that the MoD will again find itself on the receiving end of enquiries from researchers, the press and even MPs remains to be seen.

Conclusion

I hope that this article has clarified the position concerning official involvement in the crop circle mystery.  While there certainly has been interest and involvement over the years, this has often been misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately or perhaps not.  As individuals, military and MoD personnel can be as intrigued by crop circles as anybody else, but where such interest has been expressed it has been mistakenly interpreted as implying greater corporate involvement than is actually the case. 

I am aware that the crop circle phenomenon gives rise to passions which are as strong - if not stronger - as those aroused by the UFO phenomenon.  With this in mind, I hope that this article is not seen as trying to debunk the crop circle mystery, because while I am convinced that most pictograms are man-made, I do not entirely rule out other more exotic possibilities.  The watching brief that I kept during my time in Sec(AS) continues, albeit now in a private capacity.
 

Postscript

In 2009, author and researcher Colin Andrews publicly suggested that this article was part of an MoD attempt to "rewrite history". This was the central theme of his book Government Circles, which highlighted new evidence suggesting greater official interest in crop circles than had previously been acknowledged. I wrote this article at a time when I was still working for the MoD and it's no secret that the MoD has downplayed its interest and involvement in the crop circle issue, in the same way that it has with the UFO phenomenon. This has been the policy for many years and clearly I had to play my part in this when I worked for the government. That said, some of the issues Colin highlights have arisen because the line between official and private interest - even within government, the military and the intelligence agencies - can be blurred. There are particular sensitivities and political difficulties when members of the Royal Family are involved.


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