Linking Landscape and Community

The Arun and Rother Connections (ARC) project has just won our 2016 Park Protector Award. Rachel Carless, project manager from the RSPB describes the fantastic work being done to protect these rivers.  

The River Rother runs west to east through the South Downs National Park joining the river Arun near Pulborough, and then runs south, leaving the National Park at Arundel. Together the rivers link woodland, wetland and farmland, including nationally and internationally important wildlife sites.

However, this area was at risk, with rivers disconnected from floodplains, leading to poor flood management. Fragmented habitats meant that species, such as water vole, were physically and genetically isolated. Soil erosion and agricultural run-off was causing problems for farmers and reducing water quality. Fish populations struggled, while thriving non-native invasive plants were causing erosion, flooding and threatening wildlife.

The River Arun from Amberley © Photographer Sussex

With 1.2 million people relying on water from the South Downs’ chalk aquifers, this was an opportunity to raise awareness about the role these rivers play in the National Park’s landscapes, the services they provide and to reconnect local people with the nature on their doorsteps.

Working with landowners the project has helped bring 240 hectares of farmland into conservation management and restored or created floodplain meadow, wet heath, woodland, fen, chalk streams and 250,000m2 of habitat for wading birds. Our invasive non-native species programme has focussed on controlling nine problematic species. Achievements include clearing 9ha of Himalayan balsam and 11km giant hogweed and developing a strategy for ongoing management. We also removed or bypassed manmade barriers in the river to allow fish and eels to travel upstream. In its first season our eel pass at Hardham Weir recorded 1826 elvers using it to swim upstream. Early indications also suggest improved movement of barbel and lamprey.

Through activities such as river field trips, taster sessions and workshops we have directly engaged 2391 adults and 740 young people. A further 1119 have volunteered their time to the project, building a stronger connection with the landscape as well as increased skills and confidence to tackle serious issues like flooding and invasive non-native species.

The project also enhanced the visitor experience at three nature reserves. At RSPB Pulborough Brooks, improvements included: construction of an outdoor education shelter and a welfare facility for volunteers, creation of an outdoor education area and bringing opportunities to view wildlife such as birds, lizards, bees and butterflies closer to the trails and hides.

ARC Volunteers © b-photos

We hope that many of our volunteers will continue to take part in conservation activities in the future. For example, 28 volunteers are monitoring the health of the rivers and submitting important data as part of the Arun and Rother Riverfly scheme, which will now be managed by the Arun and Rother Rivers Trust.

A legacy of coordinated control of invasive non-native species will be continued by a partnership of organisations, led by the South Downs National Park Authority.

Harvest mouse © Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Four organisations will continue to deliver river based field trips at the four sites that we have developed and the case studies and resource pack produced by ARC will also support teachers to lead field trips here. Nine local teachers have gained Forest School accreditation through the project, enabling them to deliver outdoor play and learning in a woodland environment.

ARC has brought together a group of partners that had never worked so collaboratively before. Building understanding between conservation organisations and farming, angling and other recreational groups has paved the way for an exciting future for conservation in the region.