A Nature Improvement Area for the South Downs

, 27 February 2012

Author Tony Whitbread

Duke of Burgundy frilliary / Paul Marten
Duke of Burgundy frilliary / Paul Marten

I was delighted to hear that the South Downs has been awarded some £608,000 to become one of the Nations 12 pilot Nature Improvement Areas (NIA). We have been working with the South Downs National Park Authority, along with 26 other partners across the South Downs, to help develop the proposal and this recognition of the project is great news.

NIAs were one of the good commitments that came out of the Natural Environment White Paper published last year, the aim being to enhance and reconnect nature on a landscape scale. The White Paper stated that government wished to see “NIAs wherever the opportunities or benefits are greatest, driven by the knowledge and vision of local partners”. The 12 pilot NIAs, including that for the South Downs will hopefully therefore just be a starting point.

As pilot NIAs, the successful bids therefore aim to pilot something. The very clear message from the National Ecosystem Assessment, reflected in the white paper, is that nature is not adequately valued in our economic decision making. We rely on nature for everything and yet most of the goods and benefits we get from nature (ecosystem services) are ignored or taken for granted. The South Downs pilot NIA aims to look at one small part of that equation.

Our chalk downland is vital for the survival of some of our most cherished wildlife – such as the orchid-rich downland turf and uncommon butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy fritillary. As nature conservationists we would like to enhance, expand and join up this valuable habitat. This would be to the benefit of downland wildlife but in the process could improve the Downs in terms of the benefits people get.

Obviously we get food from the Downs – and it is the sensitive sheep-grazing regime that has created the downland landscape we know today. So food, in particular meat from lamb, is a clear benefit.

But a well-maintained downland turf also allows clean water to percolate into underground to replenish our water supplies. We get nearly 80% of our water from underground aquifers; erosion, pollution or an excess of fertilisers can damage this and result in large treatment costs.

The South Downs is also a major green-lung to people in Sussex, not least for the major urban centres in places like Eastbourne and Brighton. The enjoyment of the Downs for recreation, exercise or even just the chance to see a Duke of Burgundy fritillary is another benefit we all get which is impossible to put a price on.

Southerham nature reserve in the South Downs / Nigel Symington
Southerham nature reserve in the South Downs / Nigel Symington

A large number of other services are also provided by a rich environment – far too many to list, or put a price on (what price on a bee that pollinates our crops…). But the South Downs NIA will try to make a start at recognising the wider benefits provided by a wildlife-rich landscape.

The farmers of the South Downs are fundamental to all of this. Environmentally sensitive farming is an ethic to many farmers but their returns for practicing it are limited. At present, if they are lucky they may get an economic return by producing food. But all the other benefits they produce are barely recognised. I hope the NIA will help to find ways of rewarding people like farmers and landowners for the benefits we all receive – maybe by looking again at our agricultural incentive schemes or by finding novel sources of funding.

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