My first impressions of Kent were formed several years before I ever imagined I should move here to live. Speeding through the county from Essex to Sussex, I emerged from the Dartford Crossing relieved to be South of the Thames and out of heavy traffic. The immediate sight of the undulating, wooded landscape opening up before me felt like a familiar one, coming as I do from the land of drumlins and forests across the Irish sea.
Yet this county offers a very different land, underlaid with chalk and sprouting a very individual vegetation. The richness of the county's heritage was attested to by the tourist signs to historic places of interest en route to any town and seasonal roadside fruit sellers plied their produce as ancestors had done for eons.
It is this natural heritage that brought about my recent relocation. Working for the Old Chalk New Downs Project has been a natural career progression, another new page from which to learn. Chalk Grassland is a rare habitat, so those of us not of Kentish origin generally have little chance of gaining knowledge of it. I was shocked to learn that it has been referred to as “Europe’s equivalent of the Rainforest”, greatly diminished in area, both across this county and the continent and constantly under further threat.
The UK holds 50% of the world’s surviving old chalk grassland resource, of which Kent has a significant 5%. However, since the 1950s, 85% of Kent’s chalk grasslands have disappeared, the victim of mankind’s activities, changes in management and development pressures. In response to this dire situation, the Old Chalk New Downs project aims to revive the remaining fragments of this precious habitat, connect them to create a corridor for the rare species which depend on it for survival and create added areas nearby to bolster the protected areas.
As a newcomer to both Kent and the Downlands, it has been fascinating to discover the heritage of this landscape as well as the beautiful species dependant on it. I have been fortunate to receive a gift of Dan Tuson’s book The Kent Downs, which celebrates rich culture of history, art, legend and custom as well as the natural wonders of this scenic land. One cannot help but fall in love with this county and if one enjoys getting out into the fresh air and appreciates nature, protecting the Kent Downs is a campaign one would naturally want to support.
Over the coming four years, the Old Chalk New Downs project will inspire many to do more than just admire the beauty of the Chalklands. Our educational schemes will introduce the wonders of this habitat to local school children, we’ll encourage families to have fun in the country parks, guided walks will inspire adults to get out into the Downs with improvements to Public Rights of Way helping to make this possible.
Anyone wishing to help with the work to be done will be warmly welcomed. While we aim to connect with and support the work of our local community action groups working on the land, it’s not all mucky wellingtons and chainsaws! We are offering training courses in several practical skills but also in identification of species, management of sites for pollinating insects and survey and monitoring techniques. Nothing can compare with the sense of awe one feels when one first picks up an eye glass to scrutinise the magnified miracle of a wildflower or tiny insect.
As the project plan is still evolving, we hope to connect with new audiences, partners and organisations along the way. New ideas are always interesting, so no doubt we shall explore more than a few of those and develop new strands to the project over the coming years. I look forward to meeting many of you along the way and hope you will join us in becoming Chalkland Champions.