The natural environment in which our town and villages are nestled is highly valued by local residents. This is reflected in the second of four strategic objectives in the Neighbourhood Plan for the area: “To protect and enrich our green spaces, biodiversity and the natural environment that surrounds us”.
Many organizations are working on biodiversity and there are National and County level plans, but work is needed to adapt and translate it into local action plans and mobilize action on the ground. The Haslemere area Neighbourhood Plan aims to protect biodiversity and the environment with policies covering trees and hedgerows, dark skies, local green spaces and biodiversity net gain. At consultation, draft biodiversity policies were supported by 90%+ of respondents, with several urging them to be strengthened or taken further.
The comprehensive State of Nature Reports highlight the UK as one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and biodiversity in Surrey shows sharper declines than most. Despite major works to identify and protect habitats in recent decades, wildlife has been decimated by centuries of persecution, pollution and habitat loss and steps taken have not been sufficient to halt declines. 15% of 8,418 species assessed are regarded as threatened with extinction and species identified as conservation priorities have fallen to 40% of their 1970 value.
Wildlife cannot speak up on its own behalf and has been left behind in claims on land and food. With limited access to funds (no pockets!) it needs people familiar with the legislation in place to help and willing to volunteer their time to make a difference.
Haslemere Town Council’s 2019 climate and biodiversity emergency motion recognizes the urgency of the situation and that climate change will continue to affect surrounding ecosystems, having a direct impact on the abundance, distribution and phenology of the plant and animal communities. Much of the land local to the Plan area is considered of high value to wildlife conservation in Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.
Haslemere occupies a unique location, with the South Downs National Park abutting the town’s southern edge and Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) wrapping around the remaining three sides of the town. Almost all of the land surrounding this beautiful area has some form of ‘green’ protection and there are two large Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, or BOAs, on our borders. BOAs identify where the greatest opportunities for habitat creation and restoration lie, enabling resources to be focused where they will have the greatest positive conservation impact. Initiatives in and around BOAs have the potential to positively (or negatively) affect wildlife populations across a wider area.
The challenge for us locally is not only to better protect these sites, but to make these habitats work better for the species making their homes there. Protecting what is left has not halted species decline, so we must find new ways to revive the natural world that surrounds us.
THE HASLEMERE ECOLOGICAL NETWORK (H.E.N)
Animals use links such as hedgerows and streams to move in search of food, shelter and social lives. The importance of these small connections can be overlooked and are easily damaged. Small mammals such as dormice will not venture into grassland or open space, requiring prickly cover between them and predators at all times. If owners of a hedge aren’t aware of the effects, removing a section is an easy mistake to make, but can doom tiny families. Other species cannot venture far from water and use ponds to hop across a region. A new, beautifully painted fence that cuts off a garden pond in an otherwise arid space can block access to a whole terrain.
Just how important links between habitats are to overall animal population health is unknown but potential benefits could be exponential and may be key in slowing species decline. To ask developers and wildlife organizations to protect and enhance these wildlife corridors however, they needed to be mapped out. Information on protected sites was available at National, County and Borough levels, but none looked at the routes species use to move between them.
Volunteers from the biodiversity team commissioned professional ecologists to map out key wildlife corridors across the Plan area and the Haslemere Ecological Network (H.E.N) was born. The funding that made this possible came from local organizations; CPRE Surrey, The Haslemere Society, the Lob’s Charity and Haslemere Town Council, to whom we are incredibly grateful.
The Network identifies and will protect wildlife routes between the BOAs and 44 other sites of varying National and Local significance within the area. They cover key transport routes, aquatic habitats and hedgerows which are key to movement of various species, including critically endangered dormice, bats, birds and others which have been spotted in and around the area. The Vision worked with Surrey Wildlife Trust to validate the methodology and findings of the H.E.N. so that it could be used to support Neighbourhood Plan policies. The work is testament to the power of local organizations to effect change; taking advantage of expert advice from National organizations and working with professionals on the ground to provide high quality but cost-effective solutions.
With no protection currently in place the role of the Neighbourhood Plan biodiversity policy H12 ‘Protecting and enhancing biodiversity through Haslemere’s Ecological Network (link) is critical. Future phases of work will involve plenty of on the ground work as the network is ‘ground-truthed’ and weaknesses (broken hedgerows, blocked streams) identified and strengthened. If the H.E.N. is found to positively contribute to local biodiversity, it will be expanded into neighbouring areas to enable species to move and flourish.
VISION, MISSION, GOALS
The area is rich in habitat value and variety and many rare species make their home here. Although there is some degradation and permanent severances of one habitat from another (e.g. by busy roads or the railway line) there are many small things that can be done to improve connectivity and the potential to become a wildlife haven is within reach. In many parts of the UK that potential is simply no longer there.
Vision: To become a recognized haven for wildlife with a series of well-connected, well-managed habitats that enable species to flourish and become abundant.
Mission: To connect, enrich, expand and selectively re-wild green spaces in and around the Haslemere area.
- Grow our relationships with local and National partners to attract funding, expertise and recognition for our biodiversity conservation work
- Work with legislators and planners at Town, Borough and National level to ensure biodiversity is a key priority in policies affecting the area and that processes are in place to ensure policies have effect on the ground
- Provide a platform for the many local and national wildlife/ conservation groups active in this area to share ideas, experience and best practice and ensure that efforts have maximum benefit for wildlife
- Monitor and measure the effect initiatives have on local biodiversity
- Raise awareness of local biodiversity issues and activities through effective communication and community engagement
- Work with local partners to grow Haslemere’s reputation as a destination for green tourism; rich in walking routes and wildlife.
KEY AREAS OF FUTURE WORK
As any gardener knows, caring for green spaces is a never-ending task for those that love it. There is always work to do, limited only by the amount of time we have to give. The group regularly reviews where to focus, though we will expand areas of work if and when interested volunteers come forward.
We will continue to pursue legislative protections and to champion the importance of abundant biodiversity at Town, Borough and County levels.
MONITORING & MEASURING
There are a number of initiatives already in progress to measure the presence of key species, for example chains of dormouse boxes, riparian mammal observation rafts and pond surveys. This work provides baseline biodiversity measurements that can be used to demonstrate the impact of the work in the future. Establishing habitat quality and connectivity is also important and we will be training volunteers to observe and measure the baseline health and species use of the wildlife corridors, together with identification of any weaknesses and/or improvements needed.
GUIDANCE FOR RESIDENTS, LAND MANAGERS & DEVELOPERS
Understanding which species are using the wildlife corridors will inform guidance on best practice landscape design and habitat management for land owners proximate to the corridors. In addition, the Biodiversity Group provides information and advice to guide application of Neighbourhood Plan policies (H9 – H12) (link). Residents, developers or anyone with a key interest is encouraged to contact us for advice and support as needed.
HABITAT IMPROVEMENT, CONNECTION & REWILDING
There are many green spaces in the area that could be utilised better for leisure and for wildlife. Through consultation and coordination of organisations and volunteers, we aim to improve these spaces to work better for all. We will also liaise with local landowners to conduct on the ground works on private land, for example additional planting and/or selective re-wilding. This provides a win-win; the biodiversity group enhance wildlife corridors and landowners can take advantage of a motivated volunteer workforce to make landscaping improvements.
To ensure work is focused where it will have the largest impact, the group are developing a local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for the area. These map out specific work across the area and can be shared and coordinated with partner organizations.
Trees, woodlands and hedgerows constitute key features of the town’s character, landscape and natural beauty. Many unusual specimen trees were imported by Georgian and Victorian residents which is how trees such as sequoias have become hallmarks of the area. Trees also play a vital role as wildlife corridors and stepping stones in connecting the many designated nature conservation sites and other green spaces. Some Tree Protection Orders (TPOs) are in place but most are unprotected, which has led to some unfortunate and irretrievable losses. Mature woodland is a habitat that takes more than a lifetime to replace or regenerate and the loss of mature trees should not be undertaken lightly. Working in partnership with other local organizations the Biodiversity Group will establish a tree specimen inventory and where appropriate, put protection in place.
The work is only possible with altruistic people willing to give their time and with multitudes of partner organisations providing advice and support. The Biodiversity Group will continue to engage with National and local organizations to make a difference on whatever scale we can. To date we have had success with wide public support for Neighbourhood Plan biodiversity policies and identification of the H.E.N. wildlife corridors. We very much intend to continue to garner support for local wildlife and habitats as long and as effectively as we can.
Our situation on the intersection of 3 counties (the boundaries of which wildlife does not recognize) makes coordination of efforts a little more complex. Partnering with organizations such as the Surrey, Hants and Sussex Wildlife Trusts provides us with advice and a pathway for coordination of efforts with other groups. Relationships with other towns and villages, such as with the Farnham Biodiversity Partnership, also promotes a joined-up approach, in particular with regard to County and Borough Councils and Planning authorities.
Relationships with Haslemere Town Councilors are key in making things happen in the area and the group engages with Councilors on a regular basis. Indeed, funding from the Town Council was one of the things that enabled purchase of equipment to survey local species possible. We also worked closely with the Council on the Plan biodiversity policies; though we do not aim to align with Councilors in every instance and relish our independence. Production of the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for example will be owned by the Biodiversity Group to ensure it is driven by evidence and wildlife need, versus perceptions of popular opinion.
The group also works with local wildlife organizations, for example the Surrey Dormouse Group (link) the Surrey Amphibian and Reptile Group (SARG) (link) and the Haslemere Natural History Society (link) which enables us to pool resources, funding and expertise for initiatives. These partnerships are essential in taking direct action on the ground.
We are also supported by philanthropic local groups such as the Haslemere Society and the Lobs Charity who have provided funding for initiatives and keep their members up to date on what we are doing. Their support is essential, both fiscally and in encouraging the efforts of our team.
Partnerships that offer professional expertise are also critical to the work. National authorities such as Natural England, the Campaign for Rural England and the Surrey Nature Partnership are excellent sources of advice and signpost the way to good information and ways of getting things done. The team also buys in experience in the form of professional ecologists. Buying in dedicated time has catapulted projects forward and ensured high quality output when it has been important to get work done to tight deadlines.
There is a strong leadership team in place, headed by Dr. Philippa Guest whose field of expertise is in sustainable agriculture. The group is supported by other members of the Vision, including its Chair, Lesley Banfield, who has a keen interest in biodiversity, though her background is in architecture. In most cases volunteering is driven by long held passion for wildlife (of both leafy and furry varieties) as opposed to specific expertise.
Reversing biodiversity decline is a big undertaking and the need is extensive. The key thing limiting our ambition is the number of hands to help and the group is always on the lookout for new members. In particular people with ecological experience, but we also need people on the ground (horticulturalists, walkers, bird spotters, litter pickers, landscapers) and people who can lead, administrate and publicise projects.
Volunteer time and funds permitting, projects will be rolled out further, so any gardeners willing to plant, pond-owners willing to report amphibious visitors, or landowners keen to house a dormouse nest, please do come forward, we’d love to hear from you. All you need is a couple of hours a week to give and every expression of support keeps us going, so please do contact us for a chat.