Why we own land

Managing land is vital, but owning land gives the Wildlife Trust far greater influence locally, says Debbie Tann, Chief Executive, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

The Wildlife Trust has recently set up two funds to help it acquire more land in Hampshire and on the Island. It’s a positive move because owning land is a fundamental part of the Trust’s strategy for wildlife conservation.

Yes, it is vitally important that we continue to work with landowners and other organisations to help them manage their land for wildlife, but owning land brings with it both direct benefits for wildlife as well as a host of indirect benefits for the Trust’s work as a whole, helping us make a real difference for the future.

Land owned by the Trust is safeguarded in perpetuity, protected from development and other land use changes. We have control over land that we own, which means we can manage and restore it for the benefit of biodiversity and then demonstrate this to others.

Although there are a host of other mechanisms and ways in which we can influence land management for biodiversity, the Trust’s estate will always be there with wildlife conservation as its primary purpose.

As a landowner, the Trust is also able to relate to other landowners in our two counties. This gives us vital credibility when giving advice on land management for wildlife. We manage livestock, we manage hedgerows, we have to deal with the regulatory bodies, we have to deal with rights of way and health and safety – in short, we can speak to landowners from a position of shared experiences and that helps us build lasting relationships.

As a local charity, it is important that we are part of the community. We need to understand local issues and be able to respond to local decision making. Owning land gives the Trust a locus in an area, embedding us in the community and enabling us to have our say in these matters.

Owning land is also our ‘roots’ – it is how we started and why we exist. In 1912 the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves was founded – leading eventually to the creation of the 46 local Wildlife Trusts in subsequent decades. Originally, the acquisition and protection of special sites was the focus of the Wildlife Trusts’ work, and whilst our remit has expanded enormously, this core purpose is still there and, arguably, is more important than ever.

Our nature reserves are the building blocks for our vision of creating living landscapes – biodiversity hotspots where wildlife can be protected and can spread out to neighbouring land once conditions are favourable.

(Contrast this with our inability to ‘buy’ seabed to create marine nature reserves. It is one of the reasons why our marine wildlife has been decimated over the last century. The new Marine Act, which The Wildlife Trusts lobbied long and hard for, allows for the creation of ‘marine conservation zones’ which will protect vital breeding and nursery grounds for our most threatened marine life.)

The Wildlife Trust currently manages around 5,000 hectares of land for wildlife across the two counties. This is made up of our 53 nature reserves and other land that we manage or graze on behalf of others, most notably the Ministry of Defence. All of these sites are crucially important for biodiversity and help us take forward our living landscapes vision. But we actually own or have on a long lease on just under 2,000 hectares – less than half of all the land we manage.

Pyramidal Orchid by David Kilby

Part of our vision for the future is to actively buy more land under threat in places where it can not only safeguard threatened species but also be a ‘building block’ for creating a living landscape. The funds to buy and manage such land are increasingly hard to come by and, of course, the price of land just keeps going up. It only becomes possible thanks to the generosity of people supporting our land purchase appeals or leaving us gifts in their wills.

Sometimes we cannot raise the money quickly enough to complete the land purchase and we have lost sites to developers. So to try and avoid this we have launched two new designated funds, the Hampshire Nature Fund and the Wight Wildlife Fund, where donations and legacies can be saved and then spent as soon as suitable wildlife sites become available.

Recently money from appeals and legacies has enabled us to purchase new reserves such as Sandy Down near Brockenhurst. We have identified a number of other valuable wildlife sites in strategic locations that we would like to buy should they become available.

The Hampshire Nature Fund will be used to buy and manage land only in the county of Hampshire. The Wight Wildlife Fund will be used to buy and manage land only on the Isle of Wight. In both cases the funds will enable us to act quickly to buy land when it becomes available and also to find the matched funding needed (usually 10% or 20% of the cost) when we successfully apply for lottery or landfill tax money for land purchase and management.

Knighton Down

Such an opportunity has arisen for the Wildlife Trust to buy a valuable wildlife site on the Island called Knighton Down.

It is an area of unimproved chalk grassland and woodland on the Island’s eastern chalk ridge. The Island’s chalk backbone is of national habitat importance because it supports a distinctive community of plant and insect species. The previous management of the site means that it already supports a wealth of wildlife such as the grizzled skipper and chalkhill blue butterflies, skylarks, autumn gentian, squinancywort and red squirrels.

Red Squirrel in Eaglehead Copse by Chris Archbold

Its proximity to our Eaglehead and Bloodstone Copse Wildlife Reserve and our Arreton Down Wildlife Reserve means that it can become a vital stepping stone for wildlife, enabling species to spread out across the wider countryside. It has added value as a vital link in our ‘living landscapes’ approach to nature conservation – improving connectivity between existing sites of high biodiversity value to allow wildlife to spread.

We still need to raise a further £20,000 from the public towards the purchase and management costs. If you can help us by making a donation, your support would be really appreciated. You can send a cheque, donate online at www.hwt.org.uk or calls us on 01489 447700.

The Costs of Management

Managing land for wildlife is not cheap, as these examples show.

On the Isle of Wight we spend the equivalent of £680 per hectare each year to keep the varied habitats and species under our stewardship thriving. The high cost is due to the fact that we have a number of small sites spread over a wide area.

Eaglehead and Bloodstone Copses on the Island cost approximately £3,000 a year. The reserve includes red squirrels, dormice, woodland bats species, turtle dove and Isle of Wight helleborine.

Keeping our ‘access infrastructure’ (that’s paths, boardwalks, gates, stiles, bird hides, benches and signs) in good, safe condition is an additional cost. For example basic path works cost around £20 per metre depending on the site. A new bird hide costs in the region of £20,000 to put in place.