You don’t need to own vast acres to create a nature reserve. Adrian Cooper reports on his local community initiative.
The idea behind Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve was born out of my frustration with politicians during the 2015 general election. None of them even mentioned the catastrophic decline in bees and other wildlife. Clearly, action from local grass roots was needed.
After the election, I started talking with people from local government, as well as the wider Felixstowe community, listening and learning about what might be possible, and gathering a small team of volunteers. Most people understood that local wildlife populations were falling. They wanted to help, but simply did not know how.
It also became clear that getting hold of a single plot of land for any kind of nature reserve project in the Felixstowe area would take too long, and would be too complicated. So I decided to make participation in this initiative as simple as possible.
First, I redefined what a nature reserve could be. Instead of it being one area of land, I suggested to local people that each of them only had to allocate three square yards of their garden and/or allotment for wildlife-friendly plants, ponds and insect lodges, and that we would aim for 1,666 people to take part. That combination would give us a total area of 5,000 square yards – the area of a football pitch, an image everyone could grasp. In this way, we would develop a ‘community nature reserve’ composed of many pieces of private land, between which insects, birds and other wildlife could develop sustainable biodiversity. Smaller areas could also contribute. Even window box owners were encouraged to take part. After all, they could grow herbs, crocuses, snowdrops and much else. No one was excluded.
By the end of October 2015, I was certain that enough local people understood what I was trying to do. The next step was to start a Facebook page with my partner, Dawn Holden, to advise local people about wildlife-friendly plants. Three times each week, a new plant was advised to our rapidly growing readership. The list comprised rowan, barberry, firethorn, foxglove, thyme, sunflower, lavender, honeysuckle, ice plant, buddleia, evening primrose and purple loosestrife.
For the benefit of local people who didn’t have access to the internet, I wrote an article for one of our local advertiser magazines. I also did interviews for our community TV station and BBC Radio Suffolk. One of the volunteers took it upon herself to print off information posters about our work and aims. Those posters ended up on just about every community noticeboard in the town. Over the months leading up to Christmas, it was difficult to miss the name of Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve, and we received messages from nearly a hundred local people, saying they had bought and planted at least one of the plants we had recommended. We were thrilled.
Our work continued, highlighting plants that have berries and other seasonal fruit. Here the plant list was composed of hawthorn, yew, alder buckthorn, elder, barberry, holly, rowan, spindle, dogwood and wild privet.
By mid-March we’d had more than 200 messages from local people to tell us they were taking part. And the good news hasn’t stopped there.
In the Leicestershire villages of Cosby and Burbage, local people decided to copy our model to develop their own community nature reserves – all thanks to the internet. We’ve had enquiries from people across the UK, asking how we set ourselves up and how the initiative has developed.
The BBC television natural history presenter Chris Packham found out about us, again through the internet. Chris’s tweets to his 145,000 Twitter followers produced a small avalanche of enquiries about our work and achievements.
We’ve also started to work alongside Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Community Projects Officer, to help the Trust with their grass-roots conservation initiatives, and to raise our profile. In April we led a swift walk to highlight falling populations of swifts, and to show people what they can do to help. In September we will help the Trust raise awareness of hedgehog populations in the Felixstowe area.
In January we took part in a Green Forum organised by East Suffolk Greenprint Forum and representatives of Suffolk county council, Suffolk Coastal district council and Felixstowe town council. There was tremendous enthusiasm for our work – not only our aims, but also the results we have achieved. As a result we recruited many more volunteers. We also received some imaginative new ideas, such as organising a plant-swap event to keep the cost of buying and growing wildlife-friendly plants as low as possible. We met a local poet, Tim Gardiner, who hopes to organise a summer poetry competition on themes related to our work.
The most important lesson we can offer other groups who may wish to start their own community nature reserve is to listen to as many local people as possible. Don’t rush into the Facebook phase until your local community feels comfortable with what you plan to do.
The next lesson is to keep listening, so that fresh new ideas from the community can be fed into social media as often as possible. We like to use streetlife.com because it’s a great way to get discussions going among local people who otherwise might not get involved in community engagement.
That’s our story so far. Now, could it be your turn? To start a community nature reserve in your neighbourhood, simply visit our Facebook page and choose some of the wildlife-friendly plants we’ve featured, and then plant them. It’s that simple. Tell your family, friends and neighbours what you’re doing – starting a community nature reserve composed of small pieces of private land, which, together, can be used by wildlife as a collection of new green corridors where you live.