Celebrating Sixty Years of Surrey’s Environmentalists

Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Contribution to Conservation

Surrey’s leading environmentalists over the last 60 years include:

a museum curator from Haslemere, teacher from Dorking, a mother of three from Woking, a teacher training undergraduate, a banker from Dorking, a civil servant from Ewell, a chemist from Dorking, zoology and natural science graduate. Could the next one be you?

Sixty years ago John Clegg a museum curator and keen ecologist from Haslemere, and John Sankey, a teacher from Dorking, together with a band of like-minded naturalists and conservationists founded the Surrey Naturalists’ Trust on 21st March 1959 at an inaugural meeting in the Surrey County Council chamber. They had two goals “to protect wildlife and educate the public about nature.” These are still fundamental to Surrey Wildlife Trust’s activities today.

Protecting Nature Reserves in Surrey

In 1960 John Clegg was instrumental in securing the first ever reserve, Seale Chalk Pit on the Hog’s Back. Along with other local Trusts there was a movement to preserve nature reserves across the country. Seale Chalk Pit contained fascinating geology and today it is a rich chalk grassland habitat, a haven for butterflies and iconic plants.

Oleg Polunin, a founder, said: ‘The Surrey Naturalists’ Trust was largely the brain-child of Mr. John Clegg and it was due in the first place to his unbound energy and enthusiasm that it came into being.  It was he, above all, who showed many of us the need for conservation… he has blazed the trail for the formation and acquisition of other reserves which may well be of outstanding importance to Surrey.’

In 1965, Bay Pond, an old mill pond near Godstone that powered gunpowder mills 400 years ago, was given to the Trust by Miss E. J. Lindley of Godstone Place. It has since become one of our two education reserves, home to dragonflies and water birds, and surrounded by beautiful wildflower meadows.

Education and Engagement With Nature

From its very first years, the Trust was keen to educate people in Surrey about wildlife, organizing trips with schools and running Nature Trails in the 1960s. However, John Sankey and Oleg Polunin, a fellow founder, were keen to establish a permanent educational nature reserve to inspire people about wildlife.  In 1963, Oleg wrote: ‘The mental health and the recreation of future generations are very much our concern, and an understanding of wildlife and nature is a most important antidote to the materialistic world in which we live.’

In November 1971, the Trust came a step closer to fulfilling this dream.  It saved a unique piece of ancient woodland Nower Wood, near Leatherhead, from development sparing more than 1,000 oak trees and securing a place for its new educational nature reserve. With a £15,000 debt to pay off, the Trust launched an appeal that drew more than 600 donations, some from as far as Canada and the US, raising £20,000 and saving 83 acres of woodland for generations to come.

Then in 1977 John Sankey approached a 19 year old teacher training undergraduate from South East London, Doug Hulyer, to ask him to ‘develop the wood into an education resource’. Doug said: ‘It was at the beginning of environmental education taking off in England, so it was a job description from heaven really.’

‘The late seventies early eighties was the heyday of environmental education.’ Doug explained: ‘Surrey was a real hotspot for this kind of education and  it was a great place to be. At that time Surrey County Council had an environment education advisor who was really interested in pushing the boundaries of environmental education and Nower Wood was just a great opportunity to get involved with all that stuff.’

‘The whole feeling that you were allowed to experiment and push the barriers was something that the Surrey Trust did uniquely. I don’t know of any other Wildlife Trust that was doing the sort of things we were doing at Nower Wood, in the Wildlife Trusts network.’

Doug said: ‘What we were doing at Nower Wood was having a ball. Nature is just about being outside and understanding what’s out there: it’s looking at a woodlouse crawling through a log, touching the lichen or moss on a tree, burying yourself in leaf litter, lying on the ground and looking up through the leaves on a spring day, smelling the wood, a bluebell and the joy of a primrose. We were doing what humans do, which is being curious and just finding joy in things. There was a lot of creativity and a lot of laughter.’

In 1979 a field centre, complete with classroom and research equipment was set up and in its first year of full-time operation, it welcomed more than 3,000 visitors, including pupils from some 80 schools. Its success has continued ever since, every year at Nower Wood 15,000 children and adults are engaged through education and outreach.

An early pioneer in engaging people with nature and wildlife he always said: ‘If you could change Surrey, you could change the world. Education is fundamental to the future of wildlife. Unless we develop an ecological literacy, we will continue to trash the planet.’

The UK’s Leading Environmentalists

Over the next forty years Doug Hulyer went on to become one of the UK’s leading environmentalists.  He has held board positions for Natural England, Jurassic Coast Trust, SW Regional Advisory Board for the National Trust, London Wetland Centre, Council for Environmental Education and also chaired the public engagement group for DEFRA.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Royal Society of Biology.

In 1984, the Trust marked 25 years of protecting Surrey’s wildlife with a Silver Jubilee dinner and it sold special memorabilia including a dragonfly tie and brooch. Looking ahead to the new millennium, David Attenborough wrote: “The pressure on our countryside has never been greater than it is today, so it becomes more important than ever to protect these few natural areas that remain and that mean so very much to so many. No organisation has done more to ensure their survival in this part of the country than the Surrey Trust and I, together with countless other inhabitants of the county, am most grateful to you.”

Volunteers Who Saved Surrey’s Green Spaces

In 1985 Mary Adler moved to Brentmoor Heath near Lightwater as she wanted somewhere to walk the dog and push the buggy as she had three young children. Not long after she heard that the MOD wanted to build housing on the heathland. She said: ‘We didn’t want there to be any development on the heathland, so we wrote to various organisations for support, most of them simply wrote back saying ‘good luck with that’. Only the Surrey Trust for Nature Conservation stepped up to help us.’

‘The Trust was a small organisation at the time, run by ecologists and recorders. They wrote to Surrey Heath Borough Council, who bought the land from the MOD, proposing they manage Brentmoor Heath as a nature reserve.

Mary said: “The answer came back from Surrey Heath: ‘Yes, great idea, but someone has to be the link between the two’, so I was asked if I’d become volunteer warden. With three very young children at the time, it was a steep learning curve. Initially, I was told all you need to do is walk the land once a week.  But, I invited various people to come and give me advice, like a reptile person, a bird person and a hymenopterist.’

In 1987, thanks in large part to the efforts of Mary Adler and other local people, Brentmoor Heath was saved from being sold by the MOD for housing. A huge success for the Trust, as lowland heathland is rarer than rainforest and as Britain holds twenty percent of this European resource, we have a real responsibility to look after it.

Brentmoor was our first reserve with full public access and Mary’s years of tireless work as volunteer warden have helped preserve and improve this vital heathland habitat for indicator species such as the nightjar and Dartford warbler. By 2018 Surrey Wildlife Trust had improved or restored 2,700 hectares of heathland habitat in Surrey.

Simon Humphreys and a handful of colleagues from Beecham Group, the pharmaceutical company that owned Dawcombe reserve, located between Reigate and Leatherhead, started volunteering to clear scrub in 1982. As their efforts began to bear fruit, Simon became more involved and started recruiting volunteers from outside the company. The ecology bug took over and he even worked full-time for the Trust for five years as a project officer.

Throughout, he has continued to volunteer at Dawcombe and knew that one thing above all would secure the future of the reserve: “Every year we had to wait and see if the management agreement would be renewed, so I used to ring Beecham (and then Pfizer, who took it over) every year to try to persuade them to give us the freehold. Eventually, I wore them down.” In 2000, thanks to Simon’s persistence and some helpful planning regulations, Pfizer handed Dawcombe over to Surrey Wildlife Trust for the sum of £1. Getting the freehold basically assured its long-term management. Now the site is abundant with butterflies, invertebrates and more than 50 species of bird.

In 2018 we were thrilled that our 1,500 volunteers were recognised with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service (equivalent to an MBE) for contributing 44,000 hours of conservation work, restoring 1,200m of river and 350m of hedgerow.

New Leadership for a Wilder Future

Paul Wickham, a retired banker, was a member of the Trust and with an interest in bird watching and botany, became a volunteer. In 1997, he applied for the position of chief executive and to his surprise was offered the position to help the Trust transition from a voluntary organisation managing 25 reserves and 750 acres to one with paid staff.

Paul Wickham’s leadership coincided with the County Council looking to outsource the management of its countryside estate in and he said: ‘We were the only organisation that said to them, “we’ll take on the whole lot.” Their estate was 6,500 acres and was managed by nearly 30 staff.’

In 2002 the Trust signed a unique partnership agreement with Surrey County Council to manage the council’s countryside estate. Suddenly, it was operating right across the county and looking after large reserves, such as Chobham Common, Norbury Park, Wisley and Ockham Common, Rodborough Common and Whitmoor Common.

Surrey Wildlife Trust manages 8,000 hectares of Surrey, which is five per cent of the land in Surrey, which receives 1.3 million visits per year.  In 2018 thanks to the skill and dedication of our staff and volunteers, 98 per cent of the SSSIs we manage are now in favourable or recovering condition.  The Trust has also developed one of the largest conservation grazing operations in the UK, with Belted Galloway cows, red deer and goats grazing over 3,200 hectares.

In 2013, the Trust had the unique opportunity to create a completely new reserve called Priest Hill by working with developers to clear 1000 tons of tarmac from abandoned playing fields. This was a big step forward in creating a living landscape in Surrey, providing rich grassland habitat and a stepping stone between Howell Hill and the Epsom Downs. Butterfly counts in recent years have revealed an explosion of small blue butterflies.

Our professional services teams have been hard at work since launching in early 2018, SWT Ecology Services has doubled its revenue. As well as bringing financial sustainability, it provides a powerful voice for wildlife in the development process. Our planning team has also contributed to more than 1,000 applications, advising people how to make a space for nature.

2019 marks a new milestone for the Trust. We begin a new chapter with a new CEO, Sarah Jane Chimbwandira, and a new strategy to reconnect the landscape with nature recovery networks across the Thames Basin Heaths, The North Downs and Holmesdale Wetlands. The Surrey landscape has become fragmented over many years and lost its green corridors for wildlife.  So landscape features such as healthy and well-managed hedgerows, rivers, nature reserves and green spaces across the county will help wildlife and people to flourish.

Sarah Jane said: ‘If we all take action now, in 60 years’ time wildlife could be thriving and at the heart of everyday life. If not, we may not even notice that wildlife has disappeared from Surrey’s precious landscape, being replaced by litter and pollution.  And all because we think it’s someone else’s job to look after it; It isn’t. We all have to take action and we all have to look after Surrey’s landscape like our early founders and volunteers. We welcome everyone to get involved. Anyone can be the next leading environmentalist in Surrey. Could it be you?’

Surrey Wildlife Trust is offering a range of 60th anniversary events, walks and talks:

60th Anniversary events

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