Nature Near Me grew from discussions we had, internally and with local volunteer groups, following two recent contradictory events.
The first was the voluntary assessment of a high-quality grassland habitat adjacent to Dick Clough SBI in Oldham, and its subsequent inclusion in the SBI. It started with a group of people who regularly enjoyed a neighbourhood SBI being empowered to help measure the site’s value, through advice from our ecologists on our SBI guidelines and review process.
Encouragingly this led to more locals getting involved, undertaking further wildlife recording and taking an active interest in caring for and maintaining Dick Clough, ensuring its future.
The second event was the 2018 ‘State of Local Wildlife Sites’ report by the Wildlife Trusts. It’s a thorough 22-page review, and well worth a read. These words offer a useful summary:
“Local Wildlife Sites are vitally important for wildlife and people alike… Many studies have shown how they add value to local communities and contribute significantly to our quality of life, health, well-being and education… Collectively they play a critical role in the conservation of the UK’s natural heritage by providing essential wildlife refuges… and by acting as stepping stones, corridors and buffer zones to link and protect other site networks… In the five years between 2013 and 2017, 843 sites were lost, partially lost or damaged [nationally] and 353 of these occurred in 2017. The biggest perceived threats to Local Wildlife Sites are lack of management and inappropriate management… These issues are aggravated by a lack of information about Local Wildlife Sites and the underpinning lack of resources needed to ensure their identification, protection and management.” - Wildlife Trusts 2018
Regretfully we know this to be true locally – a number of our sites in Greater Manchester are in a state of decline, with our ecologists reluctantly deselecting a few SBIs each year. Species-rich grassland habitats are often most at risk through lack of management.
The Dick Clough story bucks this trend, but with development pressure greater than ever, it made us question how many other potential heritage sites there are in need of protection? What could we put in place to encourage similar stories to happen in the future?
Through projects like From Grey to Green (2012-15) we have been able to train and support many new volunteer recorders in Greater Manchester. A network of established recording organisations and volunteers now provide local conservation organisations with access to more up-to-date biological records than ever before.
However despite all these efforts, we often feel we are merely documenting the decline of habitats and loss of species across the region. It is clear that just publishing such information does relatively little to raise awareness of local wildlife sites, and even less to engage people and motivate them to value and care for sites. We want to do more with our expertise, our records and the local volunteer network, to actively conserve and enhance our natural heritage.
There are several well-established voluntary groups that would like more support than our existing resources allow. They have enthusiasm and goodwill, but often lack the knowledge and confidence needed. Better access to local experts across the network and our ecologists’ expertise would help them survey sites, develop appropriate management plans and deliver suitable improvement works.
Nature Near Me is an evolution; from publishing information and administering biological records to nurturing, supporting and connecting a network of local people and voluntary organisations – working together to better understand, value and care for their local SBIs.
A dedicated full-time Project Officer will facilitate the journey, alongside a part-time system development and project support officer. The following activities will be delivered:
All sites look equal on our SBI register, appearing as thin red boundaries plotted on a map. We have no mechanism at present to raise awareness of SBIs and promote their qualities, to publish our data insight or objectively assess their status and vulnerability.
Nature Near Me will deliver a new online wiki-style SBI register, using colours and symbols so information on site grade, key features and vulnerability can be more easily interpreted. By wiki-style we mean that if you can read it, you can contribute (with admin moderation).
As well as basic information on each site such as its location, public accessibility and SBI habitat/species selection criteria, the project aims to populate the Wiki with habitat management plans and species recording or monitoring opportunites, with help from associated groups.
Across the county many Friends groups, wildlife community forums, conservation organisations and knowledgeable individuals are involved in monitoring and managing SBIs, but they often operate in silos.
Several groups with a range of perspectives will be identified via survey consultation, and invited to assist in designing the Nature Near Me wildlife site directory and the information it provides. Once up and running, the Project Officer will engage with all interested groups through workshops – to cast the net wide and embed lasting change.
In year one the Project Officer will work with 3 or 4 existing local groups connected to SBIs; to inform them about the SBI selection and review process, and help them understand the qualifying features for their sites. These 'Pioneer groups' will then work collaboratively with land owners to develop site monitoring schedules and appropriate, costed, habitat management plans.
The outputs from this work will be stored and openly shared via the new SBI wiki. We also aim to deliver practical habitat management at these sites, to act as case studies for local groups discussing similar enhancement works. The experience gained working with these groups will advise our training courses and across Greater Manchester in years two & three.
These achievements will be documented on video and made available via the website and YouTube to provide an additional legacy for the project.
The work in year one will reveal more clearly the biggest challenges groups associated with SBI sites face, and their most regular needs regarding advice, expertise and training. The SBI register will also identify a number of publicly accessible sites which are considered to be in decline, with little or no current local group involvement.
Site management training workshops will be held across Greater Manchester covering the range of priority habitats found on SBI sites, planned so they are accessible for all districts but also advised by the insight and experience gained from Pioneer sites and Wiki engagements during year one.
Many voluntary groups we work with were formed in response to a threat to local green spaces. Knowing which sites are at risk, and where data gaps are, will help the Project Officer prioritise engagements, acting as a motivator for nearby individuals and groups.
Follow-on engagements will include workshops targeting particular sites/areas, and attendance of appropriate partnership events e.g. museum events, community-focused wildlife fun days, university action groups etc.
Another aim will be to organise and run Bioblitzes on a few sites during each of years two and three; to promote interest in the sites, raise awareness of the SBI process and forum, and encourage the formation of a voluntary group for each site. The information obtained at Bioblitzes will be a major factor in forming subsequent site management plans.
We want to establish an umbrella forum to unite the silos around valuing and enhancing natural heritage. A memorable name for this forum will be defined as part of the project. The Project Officer will organise and facilitate a number of Umbrella Forum events, including a Nature Near Me sustainability conference in the second year of the project. These will encourage ongoing communication, sharing of resources and experiences, and facilitate collaborative working across the county, ensuring the sustainability of the project.
There will also be a regular marketing and social media project communications schedule.
We recognise that ongoing support for groups is currently highly labour-intensive, so the creation of new technologies during the project – such as the wiki and umbrella forum – is designed to facilitate long-lasting mutual support.
Whilst online elements will be moderated by professional ecologists to ensure authenticity, community ownership and sustained interest in local natural heritage lie at the heart of this project. By 2023 we will have established and embedded a new framework for sustaining an engaged, well-informed and well-connected community of volunteers, groups, land owners, land managers and conservation organisations. All will be equipped with knowledge of the SBI selection and review process, monitoring skills and practical site management advice.
This will secure and enhance the future of our SBIs, and the wildlife that depend on them, for the enjoyment of local people across Greater Manchester.Consultation survey closed