Surrey Countryside Partnerships - for healthy habitats & people participation
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By Debbie Hescott, Partnership Development Officer
The Surrey Countryside Partnerships (SCP) provides a countryside management partnership service and has over 35 years of experience, working with the vital support of volunteers, within and for local communities. The SCP team maintain and restore local beautiful countryside areas and their habitats for biodiversity, wildlife, public access and enjoyment by all.
Our main areas of working span North, Northeast and West Surrey and the neighbouring urban fringe areas of Croydon, Sutton, Kingston and Bromley. The SCP service is hosted and core funded by Surrey County Council, in partnership with eleven borough and district council core funding partners. The other main funding partners include John Whitgift Foundation, as well as two dedicated, independent, registered charity partners, the Downlands Trust and Lower Mole Countryside Trust.
SCP comprises three partnerships, Lower Mole (principally woodland management), Downlands (principally rare chalk grassland management) and Surrey Heathland (rare heathland management). Our service carries out seasonal, targeted habitat work including scrub clearance, invasive species control, pond maintenance and traditional coppicing to manage and open up local countryside sites, large and small, to increase and support biodiversity and to improve access. We are proactively helping to address the decline in Surrey’s nature - refer Surrey Nature Partnership’s the State of Surrey’s Nature report 2017.
There has been a 56% decrease in woodland butterflies since 1990 and ancient woodland flora species have declined by 34% in the last 20 years; 30% of declining species are those of wetlands. During 2019-20, the Lower Moles completed 1.5ha of woodland management, involving coppicing and ride management. Most recently the Lower Moles co-ordinated a fantastic partnership project to complete new wetland and bank regrading works along the Rye Brook in Kestrel Field, Ashtead, Surrey. The scheme was designed by the River Mole Catchment Partnership as part of the Rye to Good Project, which aims to move the Rye Brook to Good Potential as a watercourse. The completed scheme encourages the river to meander and allows it to flood into the new wetland, creating habitat for aquatic fauna and flora. The regraded banks have a lower gradient and the Rye is once again a dynamic part of the natural landscape.
Chalk grassland is notably one of our most beautiful and richest wildlife habitats, with over 50 kinds of plant species often found in a square metre. These plants in turn support a rich and varied wildlife and the habitat comes alive during the early summer months with orchids and butterflies. The North Downs was once covered in flower-rich chalk grassland; much of it has now been lost and only around 1% now survives on the Surrey Hills, so it is very important that we continue to help this special habitat to thrive. Downlands Partnership is a chalk grassland conservation champion! During 2019-20, 191ha of rare chalk grassland was restored/managed by clearing scrub and grazing; volunteers’ tree popped scrub, brushcut grasslands and forked up invasive species. All great green workouts!
Downlands Partnership provides a conservation grazing service with its own flock of sheep (native hardy breeds including Beulah Speckled Face), British Feral goats and Sussex cattle. The animals help to control the growth of the coarse vegetation on the chalk grassland sites, which in turn allows the beautiful wildflowers to grow and butterflies to brood. The conservation grazing service is based at a 90-acre farm in Carshalton; it is supported by over 100 voluntary livestock checkers that help to look after our animals grazing across the Partnership area, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. These volunteers contribute a significant number of volunteer hours per year, notably 4,595 hours for 2019-20; the livestock were very busy too, contributing 1,766,000 hours of grazing!
The Surrey Heathland Partnership works as a contract supervisor and specialist advisor for its partners, managing 740ha of heathland through clearance and grazing, to ensure this habitat is not shaded out or lost. Heathland is a rare habitat with 85% of Surrey’s lost in the last 200 years, leading to a severe loss of biodiversity. Surrey is one of only three counties in the British Isles which support all of the native heathland reptiles and amphibians, including the rare and specially protected sand lizard and Natterjack toad. Surrey heathland also supports internationally important numbers of three ground-nesting bird species, the nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler. Along with contiguous heathland in Hampshire and Berkshire, heathland in this part of Surrey amounts to approximately two thirds (about 2,000 hectares) of the county's surviving heathland.
During 2019-20, our SCP service worked on over 100 different sites and provided task days/events on 336 days, so almost every day of the year… we a very busy small team!
The support of our countryside volunteers is imperative to our service delivery and during 2019-20 a total of 19,411 volunteer hours was achieved with the Downlands and Lower Mole Partnerships, equivalent to 12.5 full time staff. The recognised wide-ranging mental and physical health and well-being benefits of being in the great outdoors has been highlighted even more so in recent times during the Covid-19 pandemic, as greenspaces have provided places for much needed escapism and exploration for us all.
The SCP primary volunteer sector is over 60s, as the majority of our tasks are held during the week, but once we can welcome volunteers out on task with us again (we all hope very soon), we are looking to develop our green social prescribing offer and hope to welcome more unemployed and young people to volunteer with our service, looking to further link in with the #PowerofYouth and #iwillfornature campaigns.
Countryside volunteering with us is great for health, happiness and habitat, summed up perfectly recently by Bill, one of our Lower Mole Partnership volunteers:
“It's not so much how good volunteering is as how awful not volunteering is. I've done a bit with a different group, but it's not quite the same. I miss the people and their terrible jokes. I miss the tea made with water from the Kelly or Volcano kettle (not now, unfortunately). I miss coming home to beer and food and a good sleep, knowing that I've done something I couldn't have done if Lower Mole didn't exist.”
We also provide internship and training placements, supporting people in their countryside careers, as well as bespoke environmental education and conservation volunteering sessions for schools, community and corporate groups. Our countryside volunteering offer helps companies to deliver their Employer Supported Volunteering schemes and to meet their Corporate Social Responsibility targets.
Our charity partners, Downlands Trust and Lower Mole Countryside Trust are both run by small boards of dedicated voluntary trustees. Both trusts provide essential financial and profile-raising support for the SCP countryside management service. SCP staff work closely with both trusts on fundraising initiatives and membership recruitment. We are working together to improve the future financial sustainability of our established service in these difficult financial times and would welcome interest from any new funding partners that might like to get involved.
We work collaboratively to increase public awareness, encourage further voluntary and community involvement and are building county-wide corporate support for our countryside management work. We are passionate about helping all ages to learn and understand about the importance of caring for and respecting the countryside and rare habitats and all the amazing flora and fauna; underlining the need to ensure there is a healthy balance of biodiversity and access.
To find out more and to subscribe to our e-newsletter, please visit: http://www.surreycc.gov.uk/surreycountrysidepartnerships
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