Author Fran Southgate
Water is an incredible, and sorely undervalued substance. It is the lifeblood of our planet and our landscape, and supports almost every life form on earth.
In honour of this marvellous mixture of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and the huge role it plays in our everyday lives, Sussex Wildlife Trust teamed up with Brighton University to hold the first Sussex Wetlands Conference in January this year.
The conference showcased some of the more pressing watery issues facing landowners, policy makers, conservationists and the public at large, and celebrated some of the wonderful work being done to restore wetlands in Sussex. We discussed how we can enhance ‘Wetland Services’ such as the storage of floodwater that our wetlands provide us with, along with ideas for how we might be able to help wetlands and people adapt in the face of climate change and coastal sea level rise. Of the seventy different organisations attending, we all hoped we can work much more closely together in the future, to create ground-breaking projects which deal with some of the bigger water issues at a more river catchment, landscape and ‘local community’ scale.
It was heartening to hear a water company representative speak passionately about the need to find ways to improve river and drinking water quality, by rewarding landowners who help protect the land which provides us with cleaner drinking water, and it was sobering to know that when consumer goods are taken into account, each resident of Sussex uses around 23 tonnes of water per week! We also heard about how we might be able to employ the beaver to be a ‘natural engineer’ to help us restore some of our lost wetlands.
The Sussex Wetland Conference heralded the end of a two year wetland restoration project funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. The project tried to find our exactly how much rare wetland we have left in the County. The figures are alarming, with a total of only 8,000 hectares of wetland habitat (or 2% of Sussex) found in the whole of East and West Sussex which covers nearly 400,000 hectares. What this does mean however, is that we have an immense amount of potential to undo a lot of the damage which has been done, and a huge amount of willpower amongst people in Sussex to do this.
A fantastic start has been made over the last two years. A dedicated team of volunteers and staff have managed to plant nearly 3500 trees, creating floodplain woodlands for bats, otters, black poplars and many others species covering over 4 hectares. They have helped to restore over 20 hectares of species-rich floodplain meadow, which will provide flower-rich habitats for bees and many other insects, as well as helping to store and clean floodwater. The sites to restore, were found by interviewing older landowners to find out where these incredible meadows survived in the past, and restoring these areas. We helped to re-connect a large area of river with its floodplain again, and removed invasive species to restore one of our precious chalk streams.
In all, the project logged over 500 hours of volunteer time, and generated a huge amount of enthusiasm and support. The Sussex Wetland Conference started to help people to see how important some of the soggy bits of Sussex are for helping people continue with their day to day lives, as well as just being beautiful places to be. What we are doing now to restore these wet bits is just a drop in the ocean, and we need to do much more. But what starts as a puddle, given the chance can develop into a network of puddles, which can be helped to develop into a flourishing and healthy network of wetlands across the whole of Sussex, which in turn can provide people and wildlife alike with food, water, recreation, carbon storage and a whole lot more. Here’s hoping this is the start of something big.
With sincere thanks to The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Brighton University, Sussex Wildlife Trust and all our fantastic speakers for a truly inspirational day.
Report and Presentations
Sussex Wildlife Trust Chief Executive, Tony Whitbread, Closing the Sussex Wetland Conference