In the UK's newest national park, the restoration of landscapes and wildlife populations is generating a range of benefits.
The South Downs are often referred to as the lungs of southeast England - a bucolic swathe of greenery edged by an iconic coastal margin. Gently undulating hills, dazzling chalk cliffs, wildflower-filled ancient woodlands - the stunning landscapes of Sussex and Hampshire are what attract so many people to live and visit.
But today the much-cherished open spaces of the South Downs face an uncertain future. Numerous challenges to the area's natural and cultural assets include a growing population (leading to development pressure), the diverse effects of climate change, and the burgeoning impact of tourism.
To counter these pressures, and boost the resilience of the area, the South Downs National Park (SDNP) was established as the UK's fifteenth and newest national park in 2011. Covering an area of 628 square miles, it stretches from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, through the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex.
The grassy-topped wave of hills which give the SDNP its name are undoubtedly magnificent, but there's far more to the park than the Downs themselves. Habitats include the woodlands, hedgerows and lowland pastures of the western Weald, river ssuch as the Itchen, Rother, Arun and Ouse, and a short but glorious band of white cliffs - the Sussex Heritage Coast. Around a quarter of the park is covered in trees, making this the most thickly wooded national park in Britain.
Beachy Head - one of the iconic landscapes of the South Downs National Park.
A balanced approach
Balancing the needs of the community and the interests of the natural environment is particularly challenging in areas as densely populated areas as southeast England. Over two million people live in or within three miles of the SDNP, and many more live and work in surrounding towns and cities.
Looking ahead to 2050, the vision for the SDNP encompasses both wild nature and people. Specific aims include the conservation and restoration of lowland landscapes and heritage, connecting the park to the economic and social wellbeing of the communities in and around it, the conservation and enhancement of nature-based services the park provides, and the development nature-based businesses (such as those related to farming, forestry and tourism).
"The creation of the SDNP has been a catalyst for new partnerships which are helping to protect and restore wildlife at a landscape scale," says Andrew Lee, the park's Director of Countryside Policy and Management.
Road to recovery
Since its foundation restoration has played a key role in the management of the SDNP. The first year of operation saw it become the only UK national park to establish a Defra-sponsored Nature Improvement Area - the South Downs Way Ahead project - which cleared scrub and restored grazing management to clusters of chalk downland sites from Winchester to Eastbourne.
Other restoration initiatives include the Meon Valley Water Vole project - a partnership between the South Downs National Park Authority, the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust - has seen over 2300 water voles reintroduced along the River Meon. A variety of factors, including predation by the invasive American mink, had led to their local extinction.
Monitoring by volunteers has shown that the Meon Valley's water voles are now settled and breeding at release sites. Because the animals are ecosystem engineers, altering the availability of resources through their burrowing networks, the reintroduction has benefitted a whole range of animal and plant species.
The SDNP's Heathlands Reunited project has already restored 45 football pitches worth of rare heathland. And on the central downs, a farmland bird initiative has shown how grey partridges and corn buntings can thrive on working farms, bucking the national trend.
From degraded to upgraded
Restoring biodiversity in the South Downs will require a range of actions and approaches. These include the encouragement of more nature-friendly farming, removing some land from agricultural production, enhancing woodland management, and restoring river valleys to a more natural state.
While some of these actions may be challenging, Andrew Lee believes the benefits more than justify the effort.
"In addition to helping nature recover, rewilding can produce good food, cleaner water and air, healthier and more attractive places to visit, and local jobs," says Lee. "In this way we are breathing more life into our managed landscapes."
Facts and figures
- Area of South Downs National Park: 628 square miles
- Water voles reintroduced in Meon Valley since SDNP established: ~2500
- People living in / close to the SDNP: ~2 million
- An area of heathland greater than 1200 football pitches will be restored by 2021 through the SDNP's Heathlands United project.