Keeping the South Downs landscape at its best
PUBLISHED: 14:54 05 February 2016 | UPDATED: 14:54 05 February 2016
Anne Katrin Purkiss
The western end of the South Downs is a special place for many people. Five years on since the youngest National Park in England was created, Viv Micklefield finds out what's being done here in Hampshire to keep this unique landscape at its best
Between its gateway at Winchester City Mill and the far fringes of the western Weald, the Hampshire stretch of the 1600 square kilometre South Downs National Park, has some of the most stunning scenery found anywhere in the country. Add to this its rare wildlife and habitats, the ancient farmland yielding exquisite produce, a rich cultural heritage, and towns and villages where communities take a real pride in their local area and it’s small wonder that so many of us flock to enjoy what’s on offer.
“This landscape is a real mosaic because it has so many elements within it,” says Nick Heasman the western downs area manager for the National Park Authority, which in April 2011 became responsible for promoting its purposes and the interests of those who live and work within it. He goes on: “Whereas some of the National Parks might be seen as a wilderness, here, it’s as much about the people as it is about the place.
“You can see this particularly in the market towns where, for instance, there will be local watercress and trout on sale. It’s really nice to see that connection with the landscape - that real Hampshire vibe which is a wonderful backdrop to people’s lives.”
As Nick points out: “With the urban coastal developments of Southampton and Portsmouth, the need to have this green space in-between them and London is probably considered to be even more important today than it was in the 1930s when the Park was first conceived.
“We’ve got demands on the landscape, whether it’s for recreation, water or food… also affordable housing is a major issue with a growing population. As a Parks Authority, we’re keen to see this achieved through sustainable development but also, wherever that development takes place, to ensure there’s a benefit applied directly to that local population - that’s really important.”
So, recently completed is a new cycle route that links Petersfield with Queen Elizabeth Park, and enables the growing neighbourhoods south of Butser Hill to have safer access to the local town.
But creating a more sustainable future involves many organisations. Parish councils, wildlife trusts, Natural England, the National Trust, the Environment Agency and water companies, as well as Hampshire’s rural estates, are all creating a legacy of land management. And they are not the only ones.
Nevill Brooke, who lives in Petersfield, is one of 80 volunteer rangers supporting the western downs’ habitat teams. From coppicing hazel to building nesting boxes for barn owls and river monitoring, he’s swapped sitting behind a computer for working in the fresh air.
“I’d highly recommend volunteering,” he says. “I’ve been involved in the water vole release project on the River Meon for the past five years.
“Having set traps to catch the American mink that had wiped-out the water vole, we’ve surveyed the river and have identified, with the landowners, suitable areas for their reintroduction. So far, we’ve released over 1600.”
Elsewhere, bus users in Martyr Worthy, Couch Green and Itchen Abbas are now protected from the elements, after funding to support local sustainable transport saw three new shelters built from wood grown and crafted within the Park itself. Patrick Appleby, chair of Itchen Valley Parish Council is delighted, he says: “The team effort between ourselves, the architects, the South Downs National Park and Artizans of Wood (the makers), has provided us with some unique new bus shelters that will serve the Parish for many years to come.”
However, despite over 160 different community projects being supported during the past five years, as Margaret Paren, chair of the Park Authority admits: “There’s no easy way to prioritise these across such a big area”. As a consequence, the western downs (which make up 34 per cent of the Park) compete annually for around £10million of funding from the Department of Farming and Rural Affairs, as well as grants secured elsewhere.
So for a National Park with a resolutely 21st century focus, how does it find a way for its residents to live in harmony with nature?
As head of the country’s eighth largest planning authority which, actually, owns none of the land within its boundary, Margaret says: “Since the National Park was set-up it’s been about working in partnership, this means bringing the landowners, the farmers and the conservation groups together.
“These are very historic communities, with some people having lived here for generations - whilst others, like me, have moved here because it is so beautiful. The Local Plan for the South Downs National Park has been to consultation and we shall be putting out an updated version this coming autumn.”
Taking a keen interest in what’s proposed is the South Downs Society. It currently has almost 2000 members and policy officer Steve Ankers believes the Plan’s constraints on townscape development and support for the use of local building materials alongside good design, gives grounds for optimism.
“Until now the Park Authority has been making development control decisions on the basis of a dozen different county and district plans, which, with the best will in the world, are not entirely consistent. Having an overarching plan that operates within national planning law but also puts conservation as a priority, we may well get some different decisions being made.
“As a Society I think we’re listened to and can often point to decisions that we feel, we may have influenced.”
One instance of this, he says, was near Oakhanger. “The Society campaigned on behalf of residents against the expansion of a sand quarry because it’s in the National Park. That’s a good example of pressure by local people, the Society’s knowledge of mineral extraction and the support of the South Downs National Park Authority, all coming together.”
And that’s surely the secret of the Park’s enduring success - a shared respect and passion for the landscape. Speak to Margaret, and Old Winchester Hill with its grassland nature reserve is one of her special places, for Nick the great heathland of Woolmer Forest sets his pulse racing, whilst Nevill enjoys nothing more than wading along the chalk streams of the Meon Valley.
Play your part
• Get active: become a member of the part-time South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service or join a local conservation group; www.southdowns.gov.uk has links.
• Ditch the car: access the Park and the South Downs Way using public transport.
• Conserve water: simply turn off the tap!
• Take the lead: keep family dogs under control around livestock and wildlife.
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