An extraordinary community bid, assembled in just three weeks and spearheaded by local residents has secured the future of 37.5 acres of rare chalk grassland on the North Downs in Guildford, Surrey. Home to nesting skylarks, chalk hill blue butterflies, bumblebees, wild thyme and orchids, the fields support a rich array of wildlife. With the help of Surrey Wildlife Trust, a new nature reserve will now be created on Pewley Down Fields to preserve the land in perpetuity for future generations.
Pewley Down Fields, which were auctioned for sale on 13th May 2021, are at the centre of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s North Downs nature recovery network and are among the largest of fifty priority mini landscapes for nature restoration in Surrey. Protecting land along strategic wildlife corridors is key to The Wildlife Trusts’ national strategy to protect and connect at least 30 per cent of land for nature’s recovery by 2030.
Julia Stephenson, lead donor, explained: ‘Having grown up on these rare chalk downland fields, I know how precious they are to the local community, and we felt they could only be safeguarded if together with our partners we bought them. The sweeping views and rare wildlife form an integral part of this stunning landscape. During the lockdown, people appreciated more than ever how intrinsic nature is to our health and wellbeing. So we are absolutely delighted the fields will be protected for future generations.’
Julia’s generosity followed in family footsteps, as her mother bought neighbouring chalk downland, now Rosamund Meadows, to save for nature in 1985.
The fields, adjacent to the south-east edge of the town, are within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI). Local residents who started the campaign to save the fields attracted pledges of support from many hundreds of local people, worked closely with lead donor, Julia Stephenson, conservationist, and Surrey Wildlife Trust, which also contributed to purchase the land.
The fields, with spectacular views and breeding skylarks, will be leased for 500 years to Surrey Wildlife Trust and managed for wildlife. In recognition of the value of nature to the mental health and wellbeing of the population during the pandemic, new perimeter paths will make the reserve accessible to the public and local school children so they can observe the diversity and beauty of wild creatures, wildflowers, and other plants on the reserve.
Jonathan Mitchell, a local resident who leads Pewley Down’s community conservation group and is a member of the team that worked to secure the bid, said: ‘When the message popped into a local residents’ WhatsApp group saying it was up for sale, immediately we all felt the fields could only be safeguarded if we bought them ourselves. We were just amazed by the response from local networks of people and further afield who all came together to pledge money for the purchase. We can hardly believe that with the help of Julia and Surrey Wildlife Trust, who responded so quickly, that we could achieve the winning bid to purchase the fields in just weeks. We are absolutely delighted that as each pledge comes in we are one step closer to the fields being protected for future generations.’
The skylarks, which nest on the ground in the fields, are renowned for their beautiful and captivating song as they ascend in a vertical display flight. This streaky brown bird has inspired poets and composers, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, with his famous piece The Lark Ascending. But skylarks have declined dramatically in the UK and so are ‘red-listed’ as a priority species for conservation concern.
Sarah Jane Chimbwandira, chief executive of Surrey Wildlife Trust, said: ‘We have already lost 97 per cent of traditionally managed wildflower-rich meadows and pastures across the UK in the last 80 years. This disappearance has led to the drastic decline of many species including a rich array of colourful wildflowers, familiar farmland birds and vast numbers of pollinating bumblebees, butterflies, and other insects.
‘Once restored, chalk downland can become one of the richest habitats for wildlife in Britain, supporting species which are found nowhere else. Their natural dryness and low fertility supports a high diversity of fine-bladed grasses and low growing flowers such as quaking-grass, yellow oat and upright brome, the wild ancestors of herbs like basil, thyme and marjoram, several scabiouses, a variety of vetches and trefoils, as well as a distinctive suite of native orchid species.
‘This rich flora in turn supports a wide variety of invertebrates, which includes at least 30 species of butterfly, over 500 species of moth and more than 80 species of bees. Butterflies include important populations of small and chalkhill blues, green and brown hairstreaks, and dingy and grizzled skippers. Extremely rare moths, such as the campanula pug, forester and fuscous flat-body, have been recorded hereabouts and on warm summer nights the lights of glow worms can be seen.’
Now Pewley Down Fields, alongside Pewley Down Nature Reserve and Rosamund Meadows, will form part of a huge swathe of 80 acres of rare grassland protected for nature where wildlife will flourish. With the expert advice and management of Surrey Wildlife Trust this amazing assemblage of wild flora and fauna will be protected for many future generations.
For further information about Surrey Wildlife Trust visit www.surreywildlifetrust.org