How to run a small-scale Conservation project?
No money, no land…
For myself, as for many people, with a postage stamp garden and a low to average earning potential, it can seem impossible to make any kind of impact on the environment. Climate change, habitat fragmentation and species loss, all appear too big to conquer on an individual scale.
Yet, there are many examples of individuals taking it upon themselves to do a little day by day until it adds up to something significant.
When I moved into my village on the edge of Wales, I decided I wanted to make an impact. Something bigger than planting wildflowers in my garden and putting up a bird feeder.
Looking around, I could see potential opportunities to give nature a boost, from planting trees to creating meadows. The land wasn’t mine, and I didn’t have any money, but it seemed like the first step was to ask the question.
As with many areas of rural Wales, the majority of the land is owned by the farming community and public bodies such as the council. My first step was to approach the village’s community council and put in a request for what I wanted to do. They were also the best place to find out who might own the land.
Pitching projects without finance or a bigger brand behind you isn’t the easiest sale in the world, and certainly, many of the people I approached refused me as politely as they could. Yet, the thing with rolling a dice is that sometimes it has to land on your lucky numbers. So I just kept rolling.
The question of finance was a little more complex to solve. While there are many funding opportunities available for those willing to fill out the paperwork, few funders will offer their support to an individual without the backing of a larger organisation. Luckily an existing community group within the village, who specialized in gardening, were willing to take me under their wings, allowing me to take advantage of their existing structure.
With the community group, with its people, insurance and importantly bank account, behind me, I was able to apply for a grant from select organisations. When applying for funding the most important thing to consider is whether your project meets the aims and desires of the funder. If not then the lengthy application process will probably end in emptier coffers.
Applying for funding is also slow, in some cases no answer being given for at least a year. Therefore a couple of failed attempts took several frustrating years, before I was able to secure funding from the Landfill Trust. With the money and the land now in place I was finally able to start the business of making an impact.
One of the biggest and most exciting parts of the project was to create a brand new pond on the edge of the village. Over the past century it’s thought 70% of ponds have been lost across the UK. This is in part because ponds slowly infill over time, naturally disappearing if not cleared out through human intervention.
Many have also been lost through deliberate destruction, smoothed out to make way for houses, roads and to increase farm productivity. Others have simply vanished as generation after generation have successfully drained our landscape, disconnected our rivers from our floodplains and lowered our water tables through over abstraction.
Recreating these habitats is, however, a relatively simple affair. Many people define a pond simply as a large body of water, however, ponds come in many different shapes and sizes. In particular some have fluctuating water levels, while others remain stable. Depending on what kind of pond it is, and where it is located, it can attract very different species, creating different niches and living conditions.
Our pond was to be dug into a damp area at the base of a hill, where the farmer had allowed the land to slow regenerate to scrub. We avoided using a liner for the pond, as liners are made of plastic, and are therefore not a natural addition to the landscape. They also need repairing over time, which cannot always be carried out once the funding has been used up.
By accepting that the pond levels will likely go up and down with the seasons we negated the need for a liner, and could create a dynamic and interesting habitat that should attract a wide range of wildlife.
The funding paid local contractors to carry out the groundworks, while volunteers planted native pond plants in the newly exposed soil.
Within our landscape there are a shortage of old trees, and through this shortage also a lack of nest holes. Many tree nesting animals have therefore adapted to use human structures, the barn owl having been named after such a habit. Yet modern buildings lack many of the nooks and crannies that these animals once took advantage of.
The solution would be to have more mature trees within our landscape, but this will take many decades if not centuries to achieve. Houses can include built in nesting options, such as swift bricks, however, many builders avoid including these because of the added costs.
Another easy option is the installation of bird boxes. Most boxes that can be brought from a non specialist retailer are only suitable for a few species, such as robins and blackbirds. But more knowledgeable suppliers can build boxes for specific species. During the project we installed two barn owl boxes and five tawny owl boxes, in order to encourage these wonderful birds.
As with all bird boxes location is all important and we asked a member of a local Barn Owl Conservation group to offer advice on suitable trees for the boxes, to ensure the highest likelihood of success.
The biggest part of the project came in the form of meadow creation. While we may think of our countryside as green, we have lost much of the colour that was once found within it. For example, many arable weeds have declined drastically with increased use of herbicides, such as poppies, corn buttercup and corn marigold.
Within our grasslands, hay meadows that can hold up to 45 species of plant per square meter have been replaced with silage fields that contain largely ryegrass and clover, excellent fodder for livestock but a virtual desert for many insect species. Even our road verges and lawns have suffered, with an increased desire for tidiness meaning that regular mowing has killed off many wildflowers from these fringe grasslands.
Within the village there are many areas of grass that serve little purpose except to be mowed and kept neat, from road verges to graveyards to areas within playgrounds. As part of the project we set up several ‘mini meadows’ around the village, persuading the community council to allow disused corners and margins of fields to be allowed to grow long from April to August. They were then cut and the grass collected and removed.
Over time this new cutting regime will remove nutrients from the soil (high nutrient levels causing coarse grasses to outcompete wildflowers) and create the ideal conditions for wildflowers to thrive. To speed up the process we prepared the soil in some areas, by removing the turf, and scattered native hay meadow seeds on the site. In other areas we left the turf and planted native wildflower plug plants (small plants grown in trays).
One of the barriers that quickly appeared was a misconception of what true wildflower meadows are. Due to the use of ‘pictorial’ meadow mixtures, which often contain non-native species, many people do not appreciate the beauty of a truly wild meadow. Wild meadows also include grasses, which are an important food source for many insects, including many species of caterpillars.
As well as the mini meadows created in odd disused corners here and there, we managed to persuade a local sports club to let us restore a small disused field next to their courts. As the area was too big to deturf we asked a local farmer to harrow the ground, which exposes some bare earth. This creates an ideal growing medium for the wildflowers seeds, later scattered. We also added yellow rattle seeds, a grassland wildflower often referred to as the ‘meadow maker’. This species parasitises grasses, stealing nutrients from them, which causes them to decline. As the grass declines more wildflowers move into the open space.
We also planted woodland species within the area, where existing trees and bushes were found, such as native bluebells and foxgloves. These species tolerate the shady conditions created by the cover.
Finally, in order to manage the areas, we brought a grass collector, a machine which can be pulled after a quadbike to collect the grass cuttings. While we had started out raking the grass from the smaller areas, as the size of the meadows grew this became infeasible with the number of volunteers available to do the work.
Fruit trees are a fantastic resource for wildlife. Not only do they offer blossom in the spring, and fruit in the autumn, their bark and branches can be great places to seek shelter. Due to the size a tree will grow to we were only able to plant a handful around the village, but even these few will make an amazing impact in the long-term.
A small part of the project was to install a green roof on a stall of a local market gardener on the edge of the village. Green roofs are a great way to create more habitat for wildlife on what would otherwise be quite a stale and lifeless surface.
To do this the stall owner installed sedum panels on the roof after an all-important waterproof membrane had been put down. While some people criticise sedum, a type of succulent often found growing in Rocky areas, as less valuable than an extensive roof, which would hold more meadow species, it is the simplest and cheapest green-roof to install, and still provides a richer habitat than no green roof at all.
It’s important to be honest about the failures of a project as well as it’s successes. Not only are failures beneficial because they can be learned from, it is also good to show other people that a series of failures does not mean a project will not be successful in the long run.
During the start of the project I approached many people to ask about the possibility of working on their land. The village doctors have several areas of lawn that are regularly cut but not used in any other way. Approaching them to ask about making a mini meadow the response was at first positive until the surgery gardener stated categorically that it was not an appropriate place for wildflowers.
While the community council granted several areas as ‘mini meadows’, many more were rejected as being too visible, as these were thought to be too controversial to turn into meadows. Within the village playground we requested the chance to plant fruit trees to provide shade for the children in the summer. These were rejected as there was a fear the fruit would make the ground slippy and the children would climb the trees.
While these, and many more rejections, were frustrating, and at times hard to understand, it is important to remember that change, even small changes, make many people nervous and uncertain. I have often found that it is best to start with the open doors, and in time the closed doors may loosen as you are able to provide proof of your success.
Throughout the project we relied on volunteers to carry out a lot of the day-to-day work, from planting wildflowers to digging in trees. Through the project we were able to fund transportation for a group of refugees and asylum seekers from a local urban area. For many of these volunteers they enjoyed the chance to get back to their roots, having helped grandparents in their gardens as children, or worked as farm labourers in their past.
As well as these volunteers we linked in with other established volunteer groups, brought out people from the village, and got school children to assist. Many hands, as always, make light work. But more than this, bringing other people into the project gives it a longevity that can be lost when a single person tries to do everything. People protect what they love, and they will love what they have had a chance to get to know.
Where to start: Urban nature
I’m aware that the majority of people live in urban environments, and my story is one of the countryside. Yet, it’s important to note that there are just as many opportunities within towns and cities as there are in the countryside.
Verges, parks and roundabouts are all meadows waiting to grow wild again. Tarmacked surfaces have tree seeds below them waiting to be let free. And there is no roof that in my opinion wouldn’t look better as a green roof.
The biggest challenge in cities isn’t finding things to do, it’s persuading the people that live there to let you do it. It might take more rolls of the dice, but still lucky numbers will turn up eventually.
One of the objections I encountered when I first started my project was that the village already had enough nature.
It’s true that we are relatively lucky in this patch of Welsh countryside I inhabit. A river snakes its way around the village, flanked by woodlands graced with native daffodils, wood anemones and wild garlic. Many of the fields are still lined with hedgerows and large trees, and the houses still possess many colourful gardens.
Yet, what is ‘enough nature’? We are lucky here to have many tawny owls, swifts and herons, but I’ve never seen a hedgehog or a pied flycatcher or a water vole. I can see within the landscape where hedgerows have been removed, ponds filled in and native woodlands felled for plantations.
If we look back to what we once had and consider what could still be possible, it’s easy to see that even the most celebrated landscapes do not yet have ‘enough nature’.
While big changes are needed, and governments, corporations, and people who, yes, have land and money, need to make them, little changes will play their part too. While a new pond will not replace the thousands that have been lost in the last century, it is one more pond than has been there before.
In the summer, once dragonflies have taken to flying over its waters, and water snails are crawling around in the deep, that one pond will have become home to many thousands of tiny creatures.
So whether it’s persuading your council to leave a verge long, or applying for a grant for a few bird boxes, there are many small projects you can do to help nature in your little patch. Simply start with asking the questions, you’ll never know where they may lead you.
Find me on meadowia.com where I write about wildlife in general!