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Changing Chalk: partnership aims to breathe new life into ancient landscape with £2m grant

A habitat that is so diverse in wildlife it has been nicknamed ‘Europe’s tropical rainforest’ is to be brought back to life thanks to a multi-million-pound grant raised by players of the National Lottery.

Chalk grassland is internationally rare and one of the most nature-rich landscapes in the UK, home to beautiful and unusual wildflowers, orchids and butterflies. But the extent of the habitat has plunged by over 80% in recent decades – caused in part by intensive agriculture and the loss of traditional grazing – leaving sites small and isolated, and threatening resident wildlife.

Now a £2.23m fund seeks to change that by breathing new life into chalk grassland on the eastern South Downs, while reconnecting local people and surrounding towns with the ancient habitat. The pioneering scheme, named Changing Chalk, is led by the National Trust and made up of ten core partners – including conservation organisations, Government bodies and a food charity.  

Over the next four years, 18 ambitious projects will restore and care for nature, improve people’s wellbeing, bring local histories and heritage to life, and break down complex barriers to participation in the outdoors in some of the UK’s most economically-deprived wards.

A total of 815 hectares of land will be managed for nature, including returning 60 hectares of golf course back to chalk downland and reintroducing cattle and sheep grazing at 40 sites. Outdoor therapeutic sessions will be offered to people with mental health needs and an archaeology project will get people digging for history in their gardens and public spaces.  

The partnership will work with local communities, farmers and landowners – even vineyards are part of the scheme. Jobs, apprenticeships and training opportunities will be created in Brighton & Hove, Eastbourne and Lewes and around 2,500 volunteers will have the chance to learn new skills. The National Lottery Heritage Fund grant is being supplemented by partners through funding, fundraising, volunteer time and in-kind support.

Richard Henderson, Assistant Director at the National Trust and chair of the partnership says: “We’re delighted to have received this support thanks to National Lottery players. The need to connect nature, people and heritage has never felt more important or relevant, and the commitment from our partners to achieve this is truly wonderful. The project has an amazing cross-section of activities that will protect and restore the South Downs landscape for people to enjoy, for health and wellbeing, for nature’s recovery and climate resilience into the future.” 

Stuart McLeod, Director London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said:
“We are delighted to support the ‘Changing Chalk’ partnership and help them to restore the vital chalk grassland habitat of the South Downs. Investing in projects that support nature is a key priority for us and now, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, a wider range of people will be able to enjoy this area so rich in biodiversity, while benefitting from both a mental health and wellbeing perspective”

The eighteen interconnected projects will deliver Changing Chalk’s vision across three areas:

Restoring Chalkland Biodiversity 
The chalk grassland of the South Downs is home to iconic wildlife, including rare orchids, wildflowers and butterflies. 

At the heart of the partnership, two new Chalk Life Rangers and an Education Ranger will lead community activities to support the care and restoration of the chalk grassland. NEETS programmes, apprenticeships and volunteering will promote skills development and give more young people an opportunity to discover the Downs on their doorstep. 

Over the four years partners will support the management of more than 800ha of land for nature, including 60ha of golf course returned to species-rich chalk downland and 40 sites returned to active grazing. 5 new dew ponds, meadows and enhanced habitat for pollinators will also be established. National Nature Reserves and Local Wildlife Sites will be improved and vital habitat research funded.

Farmers and land managers will be supported in sustainable management of chalk grassland, to improve its ecological resilience to the effects of climate change by re-connecting fragmented areas of this rare and important habitat. 

Connecting Downs and Towns 
Today’s world has new challenges for urban communities – heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Changing Chalk area has some of the most economically deprived wards in the UK, with high unemployment and physical and mental health needs. 

The partnership will improve well-being through connection with the local landscape. Outdoor activities will benefit local people with physical and mental health needs, and new accessible maps co-created with local charities will help underserved and less physically able communities to access green space. Meanwhile the Downs will come to the towns with new chalk grassland planting on twelve city sites. 

In addition, a Community Grants Scheme will award £150,000 to local communities for community-led initiatives supporting Changing Chalk’s vision. 

Hearts and Histories of the Downs 
The South Downs is defined by historical features and a rich cultural history which has helped shape the landscape. However more than one in 10 (12%) 5 heritage sites urgently need more care to survive. 

There will be community excavation projects in Eastbourne, the chance to ‘adopt’ ancient monuments, and activities celebrating local connections to the Downs. There will also be creative writing, storytelling and other arts and cultural activity to engage diverse audiences.

Changing Chalk will kick off in early 2022.

Header image: John Miller, National Trust Images.