50 Years of Sussex Wildlife Trust
PUBLISHED: 11:26 19 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:42 20 February 2013
Celebrating a 50th anniversary is both a time for reflection and looking forward; reflecting on what has been achieved over half a decade and looking forward to the challenges in the future, says Mike Russell of the Sussex Wildlife Trust
Back in 1961, the loss of our wildlife and habitats was alarming. This was the time when environmental concerns were coming to the fore, 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson was a year away from being published and many county Wildlife Trusts, including Sussex, were formed to try and do something to stem the decline of wildlife locally.
For the first five years the Sussex Naturalists Trust, as it was originally known, was effectively homeless but in 1966 the then owner of Woods Mill just south of Henfield donated the buildings and 15 acres of surrounding land to the Trust, with the freehold passing to them two years later. The Trust now had a base.
In those early years the Trust was run entirely on a volunteer basis but the acquisition of Woods Mill led to the employment of a warden, their first paid employee. Fifty years on, the Trust has more than 80 employees but even so it is still essentially a voluntary organisation. We would not be able to achieve anything like we do without the expertise, enthusiasm and input of our volunteers.
Decline in wildlife was very much down to the changes in agricultural practices following the end of the Second World War. Quite understandably the importance of being self-sufficient in food was a major policy at this time and the farming community through Government subsidies and support responded with great aptitude and efficiency to achieve this in a short space of time. But, the industrialisation process, in particular the application of pesticides, the enlargement of fields and the removal of hedgerows had a devastating effecting on wildlife.
In response, the Trust began to acquire some of the few remaining best bits so that in the worst case scenario, there were pockets of protected wildlife. In the early days some of these best bits included wonderful woodlands such as Ebernoe Common and The Mens near Petworth. Over the years the Trust added heathland reserves on Ashdown Forest and Iping and Stedham Commons near Midhurst, as well as some of the few remaining areas of chalk downland at Malling Down (Lewes), Ditchling Beacon and Levin Down (near Chichester).
Perhaps the first major battle the Trust became involved in was to try and prevent further drainage of Amberley Wildbrooks one of the most important wetland areas in the UK and was actually successful in doing so. This was achieved in partnership with other conservation organisations and is perhaps one of the great strengths of the Trust - working with other organisations to deliver conservation throughout Sussex.
But conservation is as much about people as it is about wildlife. Unless people want wildlife, understand its importance in their own lives and enjoy seeing it and knowing that it is there it will continue to suffer and decline. Sussex Wildlife Trust has been very good at engaging people since its inception and one of the most pleasing achievements has been the growth in membership, particularly over the past 10 years. The Trust has always had an excellent record of working with children with over 21,000 school pupils enjoying a day out with the Trust each year.
Woods Mill nature reserve has proved to be an excellent place for schools to learn about wildlife. People now in their middle years remember visiting as a child and are indeed bringing their own children. In 2001 the Trust was invited by the Sussex Downs Conservation Board to deliver education at Seven Sisters Country Park.
In 1989, Sussex was the first Trust to employ a Community Wildlife Officer and working with communities to help look after and enjoy their own local patch was a very important development. This continues today through our Gatwick Greenspace Project as well as working with communities in Brighton and Hastings.
So, have we been successful in our 50 years? Well, the answer is yes and no; yes that we have grown to be a mid-sized organisation that owns and manages over 3,500 acres of land, advises other landowners about managing their land and lobby on behalf of wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of people have engaged with the Trust through schools visits, events and courses, working in the community, volunteering and through publications such as Sussex Life.
But wildlife is still declining; not all species, some are thriving, particularly on nature reserves and there have been some great strides in getting lost species back in Sussex again, such as the otter. But most of our wildlife lives in the wider countryside not nature reserves and organisations such as ours will only ever be able to own or manage a fraction of the land needed for wildlife to flourish.
Our approach now is to look at larger scale conservation, a 'Living Landscapes' approach involving landowners, communities and gardens, as after all, the combined gardens of Sussex are the biggest nature reserves that we have and are becoming increasingly important for some wildlife. This involves using our reserves as core places of high wildlife value and then adding to them by either trying to purchase land or by working with adjoining landowners to improve their land for wildlife.
Fifty years has seen interest in and concern about the natural world increase enormously. The Trust has been instrumental in slowing down the decline in Sussex wildlife and in some cases has helped reverse the trend, but huge problems still face us: climate change, population growth and industrialisation are all issues that challenge us in the future.
The Trust will continue to face those challenges with the support of the people of Sussex and hope that when we celebrate our centenary in 2061 we can look back on a Sussex that is thriving for both people and wildlife.