The above principles of the Ecosystem Approach are evident (light green) or significant (dark green) within this case study

South Downs Nature Improvement Area (NIA)

What is this case study about?

This case study is about assessing and demonstrating the benefits of ecosystem services to society. The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) overall provides mechanisms and pilot projects to value the ecosystem services and resources generated by the chalk landscape. This case study focuses on ‘The Town to Down’ objective of the South Downs NIA which aims to assess and demonstrate the benefits of ecosystem services to urban populations; particularly drawing on the ‘Chalking up the Benefits’ project led by the Lewes & Ouse Valley economics Group (L&OVe). This project works with the local community to explore and record the benefits that the local environment affords the people of Lewes in terms of human and economic wellbeing.

What is its contextual setting?

The South Downs Way and the chalk scarp lie less than five kilometres from town centres on the coastal strip. The coastal plain to the south of the Downs is one of the most densely populated coastal areas in Northern Europe and the downland landscape has strongly influenced the character of many of these settlements. The South Downs chalk is a managed landscape which provides enormous benefits to a wide range of people (over 46 million day visits recorded in 2012). Chalk grassland is the defining landscape and habitat of the Downs and constitutes an estimated 4% of the area of the South Downs National Park.

The NIA project provides habitat enhancement, restoration and reconnection to develop a bigger, better, more joined up ecological network across the NIA with attention to the flora, fauna, soils, geology and hydrology of the chalk. The work programme builds on existing recreation, education and volunteering initiatives to deliver involvement, education and cultural services across the NIA. The NIA also aims to connect local communities, businesses and other key stakeholders with the chalk landscapes of the Downs. This includes a comprehensive stakeholder engagement programme to enable better understanding of the relevance and value of the vital ecosystem services provided by the chalk in order to conserve and manage this iconic landscape.

How has the Ecosystem Approach been used?

The NIA provides engagement opportunities to enhance the understanding of the value, benefits and importance of conserving and restoring chalk habitats. It includes mechanisms and pilot projects to value the ecosystem services and resources generated by the chalk. For example, the ‘Chalking up the Benefits’ project works with the community to explore, document and map local stakeholder perceptions of the benefits to wellbeing in Lewes from the local environment (with a focus on the chalk downs) and to raise and spread awareness of the current and potential gains for the local economy from locally provided ecosystem services.

What has happened?

A range of Ecosystem Approach based mechanisms and (pilot) projects are being delivered under the ‘South Downs Way Ahead’ NIA ‘Town to Down’ objective which aims to assess and demonstrate the benefits of ecosystem services to urban populations. To provide a specific example, the ‘Chalking up the Benefits’ project is documenting which local landscapes and habitats provide ecosystem services and to what degree, within a 5 km square around Lewes to gain an understanding of the area’s ecosystem services and has looked to the National Character Areas (NCAs) profile to help decide how they can set about improving the value of some, especially key ecosystem services, via Strategic Environmental Opportunities (see below). This information will be supplemented by detailed ecosystem service mapping carried out by Sussex Wildlife Trust and the South Downs National Park using the EcoServe product.

What is the added value of using the Ecosystem Approach?

The process has encouraged communities and business providers alike to begin to recognise the wealth of benefits that they receive from the environment which can often be overlooked. Through linking the project to the National Character Areas (NCA) framework, it could give the project wider credibility and there are opportunities to explicitly demonstrate how ecosystem services at a national level can be transferred into local community action; i.e. the relevant ‘opportunities‘ section within South Downs National Park NCA could be directly linked to actions within the Valuing Ecosystem Services for Lewes (VESL) process for identifying future ecosystem services projects in Lewes.

What are the key barriers to progress/mainstreaming?

Key barriers to progress relate to time, human and financial resources.

  • L&OVe being a community group has meant that human resources and time are limited and at times unreliable with negative consequences for this ambitious project. L&OVe’s engagement with planning and organising public events has been extremely good, but more strategic engagement by the group with professionals and publics has relied heavily on those within the group with suitable professional skills and experience. This raises a tricky issue of voluntary versus professional engagement – something with which the Group is still grappling.
  • Time availability for key stakeholders affects progress and mainstreaming – particularly for potential business stakeholders, in what have been tough economic times. To date, it has proved easier and faster to engage with community and public service bodies than with business-oriented bodies (particularly SMEs which have been the Group’s focus). However, public service bodies are also ‘spread thin’ and time is a real issue for educators, health professionals, planners, etc.
  • Financial resources have severely limited the potential input from the one paid Project Officer for Chalking up the Benefits (resulting in the officer contributing a considerable amount of voluntary time which is unsustainable and limits projects activities/outcomes).

What are the lessons learnt?

  • The need to acknowledge that a wide range of stakeholders within the community is not necessarily familiar with the ecosystem services terminology, requiring considerable simplification and ‘translation’.
  • Finding appropriately targeted messages to help engage different stakeholder groups is important.
  • Partnership working has been invaluable in achieving what has been undertaken by the Chalking up the Benefits project to date.
  • The ‘Naturegain Going Local’ workshop process has proved effective and useful in raising awareness amidst those already linked professionally (or as NGOs) with the environmental, conservation and/or sustainability agenda. Trialling with ley audiences has, to date, been limited but effective when linked to a key issue.
  • Tools to raise awareness of the Ecosystem Approach and ecosystem service agenda is a means to an end – a community group is a valuable way of ensuring the tools are appropriate for that community, but professional and skilled input is also proving vital.
  • It is questionable whether L&OVe’s rather strategic mission is appropriate for a community group in all settings at the current stage of public awareness of ecosystem services and the ecosystem approach. The group is still struggling with this issue in terms of bringing additional new people from a wide range of backgrounds into L&OVe to help carry out its ambitious programme.

What next?

  • As the ‘Chalking up the Benefits’ project progresses, L&OVe is aiming to show the how the value of some local goods are measured and how these goods relate to specific local ecosystem services and the management processes needed to allow those services to flow from the local landscape.
  • Work on ‘Valuing Ecosystem Services for Lewes (VESL) is underway, identifying the services from different habitats/areas and drawing up criteria for their valuation. The aim is to undertake detailed case study of at least one habitat for valuation and at least one enterprise to investigate their valuation of the benefits they receive. Work on a case study of the Lewes Railway Land Nature Reserve is underway. L&OVe is planning to work with businesses within the Lewes community and, amongst other things, to introduce them to the ‘invisible economy’. The aim is to develop a local integrated land management project to bring ecosystem service producers and beneficiaries together to seek win-win-win solutions for the environment, human community and economy.
  • Brighton and Hove City Council and a host of local partners, including Natural England, are submitting a bid to UNESCO in September 2013, proposing that the Brighton & Hove and Lewes Downs become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, as an international best-practice area, bringing people and nature closer together and aspiring to be ‘world class by nature’.
  • Proposals under the Biosphere bid have a strong link to the landscape’s ecosystem services and the South Downs NCA Profile has served as a foundation for discussion with partners, helping them to evaluate the role of each ecosystem service within the proposed biosphere reserve. The resulting bid makes a strong reference to how the South Downs NCA’s Strategic Environmental Opportunities (SEOs) are likely to benefit the value of ecosystem services within the proposed biosphere. If the bid is successful, it is intended that the profile’s SEO’s will be at the core of implementation work within the Biosphere Reserve.
  • Ecosystem service mapping in Sussex is starting in the NIA and the L&OVE Project area and lessons learnt in this work will inform ecosystem services mapping through the rest of Sussex.

Case study authors: N Davies and C Carter