Grassroots action for nature recovery
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
It is well-documented that nature is under increasing pressure, as humans continue to shape their environment to suit their needs in increasingly efficient ways. Much of our wildlife has already been lost from our landscapes, and many species are under threat of extinction as more and more natural habitats disappear every year. There is no doubt that the parish of Holcombe Burnell is incredibly beautiful, and on the face of it, all appears well in our 'green and pleasant land' but scratch a bit deeper habitat fragmentation and the move to the industrialization of agriculture driven by changing farming subsidy schemes has had an impact on our parish, as it has on many other rural parishes in Devon. Coupled to this a change in the social fabric to rural life, with less people going to church (and the associated networking opportunities this used to offer) as well as people working further from home and spending less time rooted to their communities; in the last 50 years life in the countryside has changed, with increased levels of loneliness and mental health issues . My great-grandmother who ran a small dairy herd here, would have known all of her neighbours as all lived locally, most went to church, attended harvest suppers were members of the Mother's Union or WI, sending their children to Sunday School and the local school, eating seasonal locally produced food often bartered and indeed attending each others baptisms, marriages and funerals.
In 2019 I approached our local Parish Council to see whether there was a parish wide map of who owned what land, and whether there was an easy way to engage with home owners and landowners so we could collectively take action in the face of the ecological crisis.
So we drafted an idea for a Parish Nature Warden role which would pull the strands together. After huge support from Holcombe Burnell Parish Council the Parish Nature Warden Scheme (PNWS) was born. The initial aim of the scheme was to work towards connecting habitats at landscape scale, to map the parish, and identify which wildlife species are doing well in our parish and which are in decline, and to talk to landowners about ways of creating ‘nature corridors’ to try and reverse the decline. Somehow along the way someone suggested that if I was going to be at Parish Council meetings to report on the PNWS I may as well become a Parish Councillor, this as it turns out has been really interesting and has given me a real insight into the multitude of social issues that face rural communities.
One of the focus indicator species for our parish are Hedgehogs which have suffered a catastrophic reduction in numbers in my lifetime, and are now classified as vulnerable to extinction . Last year, 5 hedgehogs were killed on just one short stretch of road outside our property in Longdown. If the residents of Holcombe Burnell parish reduced the amount of chemicals used in their gardens, checked bonfires for hedgehogs and created refuges in their garden where piles of sticks and leaves are seen as good habitat for wildlife, rather than a bit of a mess, and farmers changed their land use practices such as leaving larger field margins and looking at replacing some hedgerows, the parish could become a stronghold for hedgehogs. Hedgehogs can travel around a mile in a night, so making sure there are gaps in garden fences (about 13cm diameter – the size of a compact disc - is sufficient) would mean they can travel more freely to find food and a mate, and will help to improve connectivity for hedgehogs across the parish. It's somewhat ironic having visited Poland to see the impressive wildlife green bridges being used by wolves that we have been unable to get a small mammal road sign (the one with the hedgehog on) installed by Devon County Council. We've therefore created and installed ghost hedgehog signs whereby a white hedgehog is placed at the point where a hedgehog has died to raise awareness of the issue.... along with logging the casualty on the Big Hedgehog Map .
The parish also has some key habitats for nationally rare species such as the Hazel dormouse and the Glow-worm, so by working together to extend these areas, more people can experience these natural wonders in ‘our backyards’.
Sometimes small actions for nature may seem inconsequential, but the good work of every individual homeowner and landowner in the parish can be linked together to make a big difference for wildlife and our local environment. If this good work can then be replicated from parish to parish, we can create a real life ‘nature recovery network’ rather than just lines on a map, enhancing and restoring the natural environment and wildlife of Devon and in turn connecting people living in the parish to their surroundings, with the increasingly recognised benefits to mental and physical health that being more in touch with nature bring. Could we create a ribbon of 'advocates for nature' across the Haldon ridge, feeding into Devon Wildland with in-depth naturalised knowledge of their local patch?
Unbeknownst to me the people at Action for Climate Teignbridge (ACT) were also setting up a similar scheme, and they have worked hard to create the Wildlife Warden scheme and they have campaigned to get a Wildlife Warden in every parish in Teignbridge, and they are nearly there....  The Devon Local Nature Partnership now have a network of community groups that are taking action for nature across Devon. 
There are some great Citizen Science projects to get involved with. Every month I carry out the West Country Rivers Trust CSI  monitoring of 4 watercourses in the parish. This measures the phosphate levels, turbidity, total dissolved solids, temperature, depth, width record any wildlife seen and take fixed point photography at each site and over time it is hoped that this longitudinal study will provide information of whether or not our parish's watercourses are changing with climate change. It a wonderful project to be involved with and has enabled me to explore and deeply observe our parish, but also help me to understand the importance of 'water catchment thinking' and how land use and pollution upstream can greatly influence whole ecosystems downstream.
Similarly the Bats in Churches survey was a good opportunity to connect with our local church, and discover the bats use the trees in the churchyard extensively. 
We are planning some ‘Nature get-togethers’ and are also hoping we can tap into any local expertise to create a peer-support network so that landowners and others can visit sites within the parish and see what different ‘good for nature’ land management approaches look like, for example nature-friendly farming, meadows and species-rich grassland, native hedgerows and naturally regenerating or planted woodland. The recent Queen's Green Canopy tree planting initiative saw 70 individual homeowners plant Wild Service Trees across the parish.
We are also looking to organise nature enrichment walks for the mental health and well-being of the wider parish community, and we liaise with our local school to encourage children living in the parish to ‘get out into nature’ so that they learn to value their local natural environment. I was fortunate enough to create a Sensory Garden at the local Primary School and to take part in a 'Tree Assembly' where we talked about the importance of trees and the children planted a tree to commemorate the Queen's platinum jubilee.
We want to identify wildlife / human ‘pinch points’ within the parish and explore ways to mitigate these, such as the excellent work done by the Barn Owl Trust, so residents are encouraged to report wildlife road casualties so that trends can be measured and identify where action needs to be taken.
In the words of Dr Seuss in The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” I think one of the big challenges for the existing nature conservation charity sector model is that by giving 40 quid a year individuals feel that it's 'job done' and that someone else is going to solve the problem. This example of the 'bystander effect' has also been seen in people's response to action (or inaction) to the climate crisis .
There is much that we can all do to help nature to recover and flourish in the parish, in these times of increasing eco-anxiety it is important to empower our local communities to encourage them to take action as well as creating a new rural social movement to bring people together not only for the benefit of nature but for the very communities themselves.
Whilst I am not an ecologist, I am rooted in this place and have a passion for the wonders of nature, in our backyard.
 Long working hours and lone-working key factors leading to loneliness in farming, study shows. University of Exeter. Research News:
 The State of British Hedgehogs 2018 PHTS & PTES:
 Big Hedgehog Map:
 ACT Wildlife Warden scheme:
 Wild About Devon DLNP:
 Westcountry Rivers Trust CSI- Become a Citizen Scientist
 Bats in Churches
 How the bystander effect can explain inaction towards global warming