Welcome speech at ECN2030 Gathering

On the evening of Wednesday 15th March 2023, at Eastbourne Town Hall, there was a gathering of many of the organisations involved in the Eastbourne Carbon Neutral 2030 campaign. The event was opened with a welcome speech from Andrew Durling, the Executive Director of the Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC:

 

Welcome everybody and thank you so much for coming along this evening. It’s so good to see you all. I do hope you find this evening both productive and enjoyable. My thanks go to Eastbourne Borough Council, and Councillor James Murray in particular, as well as the town hall staff, for helping to set up this evening, and to Energise Sussex Coast for co-hosting and co-sponsoring this gathering. My gratitude also goes to Miles Berkely, my predecessor as Executive Director of the Eastbourne Eco Action Network Community Interest Company (EEAN CIC), who did so much to help lay firm foundations for the CIC and for the development of the Eastbourne Carbon Neutral 2030 Campaign (ECN2030) generally. I also want to thank Pauline von Hellerman and Adam Rose for their great contributions whilst they were fellow directors of the EEAN CIC, during which time we all worked together to help lay the foundations for new, independently constituted groups, such as EcoEd2030 and Treebourne.

Also, on behalf of the EEAN CIC, I want to thank you all for the hard work and dedication you have shown in the ECN2030 campaign so far. You have all done amazing things and I know that you will do even more amazing things over the coming years. I look forward to hearing tonight about some of the inspiring projects and the achievements of the various groups and partners within the ECN2030 campaign. However, not every single group and partner in the ECN2030 campaign is represented tonight. To have updates from them all would take too long. But I do hope that this gathering tonight is just the first of regular such gatherings from now on, and that each time we can highlight different aspects of the strategy and the work of any groups and partners not able to be here tonight.

To put the ECN2030 strategy into context, it aims to reduce the carbon emissions of the borough as much as possible by 2030, with whatever emissions still occurring in 2030 offset by carbon capture of those emissions (such as by planting trees), ideally all within the borough itself, creating a Net Zero result. It is a highly ambitious target, but it reflects the fierce urgency of the Climate Emergency we are now well into. The 2030 target was unanimously agreed by all borough councillors in 2019, so there is a settled political consensus around it, backed up by the enthusiastic participation of many volunteers from across the local community in the campaign to try and reach the target. The EEAN CIC was established in September 2019 as a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating the ECN2030 campaign in any way possible and has developed strong working relationships with Eastbourne Borough Council, local community groups, and local businesses to support cross-community collaboration within the campaign.

But what is the scale of the challenge? The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester says that, in order for Eastbourne to do its fair share under the UN Paris Agreement, then it should achieve an 82% reduction of emissions relative to the 2015 baseline for the borough. By my calculation that equates to a total of emissions in 2030 of just 64 ktCo2. To put that in perspective, the borough’s emissions in 2020 were 276 ktCO2.

But reducing the borough’s emissions has to be done sustainably, as part of an overall strategy to create a truly sustainable town that lives within the ecological boundaries of our one planet. UK emissions fell significantly in 2020, but primarily because of the pandemic lockdown. But that fall could not be sustained because lockdown had to end at some point in order to get the economy going again. A truly sustainable reduction requires systemic, enduring  change across all sectors of the local economy, and in all aspects of our own lifestyles, so that we end up with a town in 2030 where the quality of life is such that it is an even better place to live and work in than in 2020. We can call that a One Planet Eastbourne.

An interactive mindmap of One Planet Eastbourne can be found on a new Community Ecosystem platform on OnePlanet.com that the EEAN CIC has created, and I invite everybody to have a look at it and see what they think. I hope some of you tonight may be interested in becoming part of the team that develops this platform and also provides support for any community group or business that wishes to create its own sustainability plan and connect it to this new platform. In that way we can create a visually engaging, interactive map of all the actions being undertaken within the ECN2030 campaign, joining up all the dots to see where the challenges and opportunities are for scaling up collaboration across the campaign, as well as monitoring the progress made.

The EEAN CIC collaborated intensively with Eastbourne Borough Council and the Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce to mount a Sustainable Business & Solar Summit at the Welcome Building last November, which was adjudged a great success by most who attended, forging much closer links between local businesses, councillors, and community energy cooperatives, as well as creating a much greater awareness of the huge potential for renewable energy installations and energy efficiency retrofits throughout Eastbourne, which would result in significant savings on energy bills, make warmer homes, and create more green jobs. Similar summits are now planned for each year of the ECN2030 campaign. I would like to thank my fellow directors, Jill Shacklock and Rob McGowan, in particular for the huge amount of work they put into organising the summit.

Finally, the EEAN CIC has entered into a long-term partnership with the Eastbourne Climate Coalition to develop a Climate Hub for Eastbourne, which will facilitate positive engagement with the local community about how they can become involved in creating a more sustainable and resilient zero carbon town and how they can make changes in their own lives that fit in with One Planet Living as well as increasing their quality of life at the same time. Two pop-up hubs last year  – at the E-Festival and in the Beacon shopping centre – have already taken place, their success proving that the Climate Hub concept can work, thanks to the commitment and creativity of so many local volunteers and community groups.

 

The following groups made slideshow presentations during the gathering, which can be accessed in the links below:

Treebourne

EcoTransport Group

Energy & Housing Group

Eastbourne Borough Council

Energise Sussex Coast

 

Mapping wildlife habitats in and around Eastbourne

This blog post is by Sarah Brotherton, a member of Wild Bourne, a new nature conservation group within the Eastbourne Eco Action Network:

 

Eastbourne is known as seaside town, and the eastern entry point to the South Downs National Park. On one side Eastbourne has the chalk grasslands of the Downs, one of the most species diverse habitats in England. And, on the other side, the wetlands of the Eastbourne and Pevensey levels. Wetlands being globally the most valuable habitats for the services they provide to us – known as ecosystem services.

There is probably far more variety of wildlife habitats than you realised in and around Eastbourne, including: good quality semi-improved grassland, chalk grassland, lowland meadows, lowland heathland, coastal and floodplain grassland, traditional orchards, ancient semi-natural woodland, lowland fens, reedbeds, deciduous woodland, and marine cliffs and slopes. Many important habitats are already mapped, especially those referred to as ‘priority’ habitats. These are considered to be the most threatened habitats, and often requiring appropriate management to restore and enhance them. An easy way to get to grips with the types of habitats in and surrounding Eastbourne, is to look on at the publicly available habitat mapping data provided by Defra (department for environment, food and rural affairs) MAGIC (defra.gov.uk) As an ecologist, the first thing I always do when asked about a particular site is to check these maps and find out, which if any priority habitats are at a particular site.

The map below shows many, but not all, of the priority habitats in and around Eastbourne. Each colour is a different habitat type. For example, the blue is grazing marsh – and that is why it is found around the wetlands of Eastbourne levels and Cuckmere Haven area. The Khaki colour is chalk (calcareous) grassland, naturally this is found on the chalk downland to the west of Eastbourne.

It is worth noting that, there are many important sites that are not on ‘priority’ habitat maps, therefore it is best to treat this data as indicative only, but it certainly gives a good overview. The map also does not indicate the condition of the habitat. Some sites may be thriving habitats, whilst other sites may be in desperate need of appropriate management to restore them back to a good condition.

Priority habitats are different however from statutory protection. There can often be some overlap, but many many priority habitat sites have no legal protection. In and around Eastbourne, there are a couple of national nature reserves – Lullington heath, and the Pevensey levels, and a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) surrounding Eastbourne. SSSI sites have the highest level of national protection, and generally best represent our national heritage either in flora and fauna or geology. This includes the chalk grassland at Willingdon Down found on the Downs behind Willingdon village, and the chalk cliffs which start at the Meads end of the town. Some of the SSSIs are in good condition, whilst others are sadly in a declining in condition, and need urgent appropriate management to help restore them back to the highly valuable habitat they are. This unfortunately includes much of the chalk grassland on the Downs directly above Meads. Whilst the Pevensey levels are generally regarded to be recovering back to good condition.

Statutory sites are also mapped and publicly available from Defra Magic Map Application (defra.gov.uk), and the maps can be used very quickly to assess whether a site has any protection and often what condition the site it is in. The map below shows a variety of conservation designations, from the turquoise stripes of SSSI sites, to the lime green national nature reserves. Of course, every site that should be protected isn’t, and if you compare this map to the one above, you will immediately see quite the discrepancy in priority habitat sites and actual protected sites. But this does not mean these sites are any less valuable for the wildlife that lives there.

If you have the time, I encourage anyone interested to take a look at these maps if not already familiar with them. They are a great resource that are used by professional ecologists and conservationists all the time, and luckily happen to be available to all.

Is One Planet Living possible in Eastbourne?

This blog post is by Andrew Durling, Executive Director of the Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC. The views he expresses here are his alone and not the official view of the Eastbourne Eco Action Network as a whole:

Eastbourne is striving to become a Carbon Neutral town by 2030 so it can do its fair share of dealing with the Climate Emergency. This does, of course, involve reducing the town’s carbon emissions significantly and quickly, but in a sustainable way that doesn’t damage the town’s economy. The town’s carbon emissions fell dramatically in 2020 due to economic activity dramatically falling during the lockdown restrictions. That kind of unplanned carbon reduction was not sustainable and the lockdown caused much economic hardship despite saving many lives and preventing the NHS from collapsing. As soon as lockdown restrictions were removed, economic activity bounced back and carbon emissions rose again sharply.

But what does it mean to have a ‘sustainable’ town anyway? And what do we end up with if Eastbourne does become Carbon Neutral in a sustainable way? In short, what is the big picture, and how do we communicate that in a way which engages all parts of our local community and ensures a truly communal response to the ultimate communal challenge of climate change? These are the sorts of questions that I have been grappling with since a Climate Emergency was declared by Eastbourne Borough Council in July 2019.

I think part of the answer lies in creating a story about what ‘sustainability’ really means and telling that story in a way that is simple, clear, and easy to understand.  Now I’m not clever enough to create such a story, but I know some people who are. They created the One Planet Living framework to explain what sustainability really means and how it can be achieved.

Furthermore that framework can be visually explored through an interactive mindmap – created on the oneplanet.com platform – that shows all the interconnections and interdependencies between the different kinds of actions that together lead to a town that sustainably lives within the ecological boundaries of this planetary home of ours.

I have started to create such a mindmap for the Eastbourne Carbon Neutral 2030 campaign, which can be interacted with online, but a screengrab of the current state of the mindmap is here:

The mindmap is composed of nodes representing outcomes, actions, and indicators for monitoring progress. The lines between various nodes represent the ways in which the nodes are related to each other in a web of complementary  and mutually reinforcing interactions. Clicking on any one of the nodes opens up access to information and data about that node. I have created this mindmap using a free account on oneplanet.com, but my plan is to scale up the mindmap with a subscription to a much better featured account so I can put a lot more detail on the mindmap and transform it into a powerful way of monitoring progress towards the 2030 target. I also hope that other individuals or groups in Eastbourne will be interested in creating their own mindmaps and linking them up with each other so that we can all see what is being done in Eastbourne and how they contribute towards the ultimate goal of a town that lives within the limits of this one planet

I did this to demonstrate how the campaign could be presented in a clear, engaging way that shows how the 10 principles of One Planet Living need to be combined and applied in a joined-up way to effectively deliver a town that is not only Carbon Neutral in the narrow sense of the word (ie. emitting no more carbon that it can offset within its own boundaries) but also truly sustainable as an economy and society that can live within planetary boundaries (which is the only way to ensure that the town can stay carbon neutral over the long-term anyway).

Furthermore, these 10 principles also demonstrate how achieving genuine sustainability results in a much better quality of life for all, with very welcome outcomes such as cleaner air, adequate supplies of clean water, flourishing local wildlife, growing numbers of green jobs and businesses, etc. These outcomes are the practical results of actions that increase sustainability and are desirable outcomes regardless of where people stand with regards to the Climate Emergency in particular. In other words, the One Planet Living framework provides a story within which the mechanics of meeting the 2030 carbon neutral target can be embedded within a much wider, more inspirational vision of creating the kind of sustainable yet prosperous society we’d all like to live in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of 2022: a personal perspective from our Executive Director

The Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC that I’m proud to be part of is a tiny social enterprise entirely run by volunteers and receiving very little funding, yet it continued to punch way above its weight throughout 2022 by continuing its mission to facilitate cross-community efforts to deliver a carbon neutral Eastbourne by 2030. How did it do this? Let’s see…

We participated actively in the development of the Eastbourne Climate Coalition, a new grouping of over 40 local organisations formed in the wake of the COP26 climate talks. The coalition agreed to pursue the goal of creating a Climate Emergency Centre in central Eastbourne in order to maximise engagement with local people about the key environmental issues of our time and showcase the opportunities to become involved in positive ways with those issues. We organised and managed, on behalf of the Eastbourne Climate Coalition,  a crowdfunding campaign for the Eastbourne Climate Hub project that successfully raised over £5,000 to help fund it.

We provided crucial back-office support for two pop-up Climate Emergency Centres this year, in collaboration with our partners in the Eastbourne Climate Coalition. The first was an E-Hive marquee at the inaugural E-Festival in Princes Park in July, which provided a rich and varied programme of community-run events that engaged festival-goers with a wide range of issues concerning the climate and nature emergencies.

The second was an E-Hive hub in The Beacon shopping centre that was open 7 days a week for 6 weeks, from November 1st to December 13th.

Both E-Hives were a great success, buzzing with activities about all things eco, and all entirely run by local volunteers on a skeleton budget. The learnings gained from these two pop-ups will help planning for whatever permanent premises are eventually acquired, hopefully in 2023.

Logo with orange and yellow circle and the words, Eastbourne Carbon Neutral 2030. Sustainable Business and Solar Summit 2022

Our team put in hundreds of hours of work organising the Sustainable Business & Solar Summit at the Welcome Building in November, bringing together probably the largest gathering of local experts, installers, and funders in renewable energy and sustainability ever seen in Eastbourne. We worked in partnership with Eastbourne Borough Council and the Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce, plus some key local sponsors, to ensure that the summit was indeed a great success, opening up opportunities for a scaling up of the green tech sector in Eastbourne, crucial to reducing carbon emissions within Eastbourne as well as creating new green, well-paid jobs in the local economy and saving local businesses a lot of money on their energy bills. The collection of videos and slideshows of the great presentations made at this event are well worth watching.

We formed a partnership with Energise Sussex Coast, a local community energy enterprise, to facilitate the scaling up of energy advice to Eastbourne residents in 2023. Now more than ever people need help to find out how to reduce the size of their energy bills and how to keep their homes warm enough in winter. But every household’s circumstances are unique and there’s no better way to deliver energy advice than through in-person conversations in local settings with local energy advisors who have been trained up by fully qualified energy experts. We will be working with local organisations to help recruit volunteers willing to be trained up as energy advisors, and the training will begin next February.

 

We also provided assistance to the Eastbourne Food Partnership (which to a large extent grew out of our original Food Working Group)  to help secure significant grant funding to employ a paid coordinator to scale up the work of the food partnership, now a fully independent social enterprise in its own right. This partnership is, amongst its other aims, about creating a coherent local food system that is climate-resilient and ensures a sustainable and accessible supply of fresh, healthy food to all local residents, food moreover that is grown locally as much as possible and grown in ways that promote soil health & local biodiversity rather than damage it, thereby reducing carbon emissions from inappropriate land use.

Our two working groups, the Housing & Energy, and the EcoTransport Group, have continued to be very active with their own initiatives, feeding informed comments into various council consultations and liaising with local councillors about how to reduce local carbon emissions in a variety of local sectors and projects. In a time when all local councils have such financial constraints that keeping up with all the many eco issues is now difficult for them, the input of well-informed and dedicated local volunteers into council initiatives on carbon neutrality is crucial and much appreciated by most councillors.

 

The good news is that, overall, carbon emissions are falling in Eastbourne year by year, but the bad news is that the fall is not yet fast enough to meet the 2030 target of meaningful carbon neutrality. We will be working hard in 2030 to help speed up that fall, especially as we have no time to lose now that the impacts of climate change are becoming ever more apparent even in the UK, which experienced its hottest ever summer in 2022. I would like to thank all those who volunteered their time and energy in all the projects we have been part of, and all those groups who have partnered with us. There has been nothing more rewarding for me than working with so many people dedicated to making Eastbourne a cleaner, healthier, greener place that contributes its fair share towards ensuring a safe enough climate future for our families and for all future generations.

Best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Andrew Durling, Executive Director, Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC

An Eastbourne summer buzzing with hope: a personal perspective

The CEO of the Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC, Andrew Durling, presents here his personal take on the local eco events of this eventful summer:

This summer has seen some dramatic developments in the Eastbourne Carbon Neutral 2030 campaign. The Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC collaborated with its partners in the Eastbourne Climate Coalition and with Eastbourne Borough Council to put on a 3-day programme of community-led events in the E-Hive marquee in Princes Park during the first ever E-Festival that ran from July 29th to 31st.

This E-Hive was, in effect, a pop-up Climate Emergency Centre, and hopefully it will be a regular feature of the E-Festival in years to come, as well as contributing towards the establishment of a permanent home for such a centre somewhere in central Eastbourne. I pay tribute to the enormous effort put in by a fantastic group of local volunteers to organise and deliver such a varied programme that certainly created a buzz of excitement. Special thanks go to the High Sheriff of East Sussex, Jane King, for kindly officiating at the formal opening of the E-Hive. The feedback I received about the E-Hive indicated that it was a great success and that it drew in many local people to engage with a wide range of perspectives on the big environmental issues of our time.

 

A particular highlight of the E-Hive programme for me was the talk by Ben Cross of the British Flowers Rock campaign about the need to grow flowers locally and sustainably for the floristry industry rather than incurring the huge carbon footprint from importing flowers by air from far-flung parts of the world.

Ben Cross of Crosslands Flower Nursery with his crop of British alstroemeria in Sussex Thursday Nov. 04 2021. Picture by Christopher Pledger

Another highlight for me was listening to marine biologist Gonzalo Alvarez from the United Nations Climate and Oceans team, who gave a very detailed and sobering presentation about the current state of climate science research and the climate negotiations based on it. He also talked about the newly established United Nations Ecosystem Restoration and #GenerationRestoration campaign and explained how we can all be part of it.

But the greatest spectacle for me was seeing so many local people participating in, and watching, the Eco Fashion Show put on by Eco Fashion Eastbourne, a real testament to how  clothes and fabrics that are recycled/upcycled/repurposed can be very beautiful and how necessary sustainable fashion is given the huge carbon and water footprint of the fashion industry worldwide.

 

Earlier in July I had gone to Westminster to represent the Eastbourne Food Partnership (which my colleagues and I in the Eastbourne Eco Action Network work closely with) at a Sustainable Food Places Day of Action and Celebration at Parliament (a recording of some of the day is here). It was a wonderful chance to meet up with representatives from many other local food partnerships around the UK and share learnings and inspiration.

SFP Day of Celebration and Action

It was also a chance for me to meet up with Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne, to discuss in depth some of the local food issues that impact the town and to explore how important it is to create a local food system that is sustainable and resilient enough to ensure food security for all local residents and which can withstand the many damaging impacts of climate change.

SFP Day of Celebration and Action

The Eastbourne Food Partnership is now recruiting for a part-time co-ordinator to scale up its work in developing this urgently needed local food system.

 

Now the work of the Eastbourne Eco Action Network CIC is currently focussed on collaborating with Eastbourne Borough Council to deliver a Solar and Sustainable Business Summit in October at the Welcome Building.

This gathering is intended to help kickstart a drive to massively scale up the installation of solar and other forms of renewable energy, as well as energy efficiency measures, in Eastbourne, particularly for local businesses, many of which are very exposed to the rising costs of energy, driven mainly by the massive rise in gas prices due primarily to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Eastbourne – one of the sunniest places in the UK – has an especially huge potential for more solar energy installations as there is so much roof space available on large warehouses, retail units, etc, as well as so many large car parks. A particular piece of good news is that Eastbourne DGH has recently submitted plans for a large solar car park on its premises, together with charging points for EVs. This would provide much needed renewable energy for the hospital and help stop the DGH from any longer being the biggest single point source of CO2 in the town.

 

Winter may be coming, and it may be hard for all of us in many ways, but this summer has given me some hope that the transition to a zero carbon society may be unstoppable, locally as well as globally, and that we’ll all be the better for it, especially if we can move away as quickly as possible from the increasingly expensive fossil fuels we have been overdependent on for far too long.

 

The Eastbourne Climate Coalition is creating a new buzz in town

The Eastbourne Eco Action Network is collaborating with the Eastbourne Climate Coalition to curate and manage an ambitious programme of community-run events in the E-Hive Marquee in Princes Park during the E-Festival on Eastbourne’s seafront that runs from July 29th to 31st. All the events in the E-Hive Marquee will be free to the public and are all organised by volunteers, showcasing what local people are doing – or could do – to help save our planet as a viable home for humanity. For example, there’ll be an Eco Fashion Show with local people modelling their beautifully upcycled/recycled clothes, with a guest appearance from a local seamstress who featured on the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee. There’ll also be a Sussex flower grower, who was a CPRE Countryside Award Winner in 2020, talking about how cut flowers flown in from abroad have a huge carbon footprint and why it’s best to buy sustainably grown British flowers.

The E-Hive Marquee will be open from 11am to 6pm on each of the three days of the festival, requiring many volunteers to ensure that the events within the marquee run smoothly. If you’d like to volunteer, please email: eastbourne@cop26coalition.org

But what is the Eastbourne Climate Coalition? The most recent conference of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel, on Climate Change, COP26, took place in Glasgow in November 2021. During that momentous event there were innumerable rallies and demonstrations throughout the world organised by civic groups determined to send a message to governments everywhere that urgent action is needed to avert the threat of catastrophic climate change. Eastbourne was no exception, as a large march and rally in the town was organised by the Eastbourne COP26 Coalition, co-ordinating a wide range of local organisations together under one banner to demand urgent climate action.

Since then, the Eastbourne COP26 Coalition has morphed into the Eastbourne Climate Coalition (ECC) and now has a membership of over 40 local organisations, and later articles in this column will showcase some of those organisations, such as Bespoke and Just Stop Oil. The ECC is following up on COP26 with a project to create Eastbourne’s very own Climate Emergency Centre, a hub for climate action where local people and community groups can gather to collaborate on climate-related issues in the local area and beyond. The ECC has recently completed a successful crowdfunding appeal to raise its first pot of funds for the Climate Hub project and is busy searching for suitable premises in central Eastbourne. But the ECC is not waiting for premises before engaging with local people about climate action. Hence its involvement with the E-Hive Marquee, which is in effect a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the kinds of activities that can take place in a local Climate Hub.

COP26 revealed how far the world still has to go to prevent climate breakdown, and Eastbourne is very much in the front line of climate change, especially as regards the increased flooding risks that are a consequence of the rising sea levels and stronger storm surges of a rapidly warming world. The climate news may seem grim, but the good news is that pretty much all the actions needed to alleviate the climate crisis have a huge range of co-benefits that actually make life easier, cleaner, healthier, safer, and ultimately happier – such as cleaner air and water, better walking and cycling infrastructure, more urban trees to provide cool shade in heatwaves, more wildlife returning to the countryside, and so on.

Moreover, just engaging in climate actions can be fun too, as the events in the E-Hive will demonstrate, with songs, music, dance, creative workshops, poetry, fashion shows, and much more. Yes, the Eastbourne Climate Coalition is buzzing around town, as you can discover for yourself when you fly into the E-Hive Marquee and see what’s pollinating there!

 

 

Restoring Eastbourne’s miniature rainforest

One of the things I love about living in Eastbourne is access straight up onto the South Downs. I enjoy walking on the Downs, taking in the views, especially those that look out to sea, but one of the most enjoyable aspects for me is the chalk grassland. Chalk grasslands are found in northwest Europe, and are some of the most species rich habitats we have, in fact they have even been called the European equivalent to tropical rainforests because they are so species rich. They are particularly rich in plants with up to 45 different species in one square metre on the best sites. You can find many species of orchids, wild thyme and other herbs, tiny eye-brights, milkworts, and fairy flax, bold knap-weeds, and fine grasses as well as the County flower the blue and spikey round-headed rampion. They are also known for their invertebrates, with numerous species beetle, butterfly, moth and grasshopper found exclusively on chalk grasslands.

You would be forgiven for thinking that as we live at the foot of the South Downs – a chalk ridge that runs all the way to Winchester in Hampshire – and that for the most part in the open landscape of the eastern end of the Downs, that chalk grassland is the dominant habitat. Unfortunately like many other habitats in England our abysmal lost of biodiversity has reduced the amount of chalk grassland across the South Downs to just 4 % of its original cover. But before digging into why we have so little left, lets get into what exactly chalk grasslands are.

 

 

Chalk grasslands are often referred to as calcareous grasslands. This is a fancier way of saying something is rich in calcium carbonate. In this case it is the chalk bedrock under the soil. However, this is really important as it affects the pH of the soil. That scale of acid to alkaline. And because the bedrock of the South Downs is chalk, the soils here are alkaline. It is worth pointing out that another feature of these soils is that they are generally shallow and very nutrient poor. Sometimes the plants that grow on places like the South Downs are referred to as calcicoles. A calcicole is a botanical word which simply means a chalk loving plant. So, the chalk grasslands on the South Downs are a suit of plants adapted to the alkaline soils which overlay the chalk bedrock, many of which are restricted to growing only in places where chalk or limestone underlay the soil. And despite what may sound contrary, these plants thrive on the thin nutrient poor soils, indeed it is these very conditions that make chalk grasslands so species rich because it stimulates competition between species.

But why is there so little of it, and what is growing on the South Downs if it’s not chalk grassland? There used to be far more chalk grassland on the Downs than there is now and that is due to former land use. Some form of management is required to maintain chalk grasslands. Livestock grazing, on the higher and steeper slopes, especially with sheep is the traditional use of the South Downs. Sheep grazing has been active on much of the Downs since before the Roman times, but was dominant from the medieval period onwards until World War II. The soils on the Downs are shallow and nutrient poor, and often dry because rainwater percolates away quickly through chalk. Conditions that meant that until more recently this land was unsuitable for arable (crop) production, which was confined to the foot of the Downs, although some of the south facing more gentle slopes have been ploughed since the 1700’s. Post-World War II saw the advancement of technology in agriculture through machinery, biocides, fertilizers and resistant crop strains which lead to land that had previously been considered unsuitable for crop production being ploughed up on the South Downs. This greatly affected the way the South Downs were farmed; with only the steepest slopes left unploughed.

The reality is that most of it has been lost. What remains of good quality chalk grassland on the South Downs make up less than 30% of the calcareous grassland in the whole of the southeast of England- other areas include the Surrey Hills and the Kent Downs. Most areas of chalk grassland are confined almost exclusively to highly fragmented patches on the steep north facing slopes called the scarp slope. This becomes really evident if you ever look at the location of protected sites known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) across the eastern half of the Downs. They are predominately found on the northern facing slopes. Fragmentation, or the breaking up of large areas of chalk grassland into smaller isolated patches leads to the rapid loss of calcicole plant species from remaining chalk grassland, and associated invertebrates. The good news was that the steeper slopes provided an environment more resistant to change for chalk grasslands, because the soil can be especially thin on these slopes, which in turn favours the calcicole species. However, farming practices are continuing to change, a new problem has arisen as the steeper slopes are abandoned from livestock grazing or indeed any management at all, which has led to the encroachment of scrub and ‘secondary’ woodland. This smothers the grassland and has meant the gradual loss of calcareous grassland on even these steeper north facing slopes as well.

Restoration of chalk grassland often involves the removal of scrub, trees and shrubs and the reintroduction of grazing to maintain its characteristic short grass. If an area can’t be grazed then it can be cut, although the cuttings need to be removed, this is because as cuttings rot down, they return nutrients to the soil and this allows plant species that we wouldn’t normally see gain a foothold into these plant communities, such as nettles. The little calcicoles cannot compete with the likes of quick growing and tall nettles and soon disappear.

Eastbourne is no exception in having lost some of the steep scarp slope to secondary woodland, which more recently has been devastated by ash die-back disease. However, we are also fortunate in Eastbourne as we do still have some really good south facing chalk grassland particularly between Holywell and Cow Gap.

Fortunately chalk grassland is now designated a ‘priority habitat’. This means it is a habitat that has been identified as threatened with loss and requiring conservation action, something that the South Downs National Park is working hard on. There is another important grassland on the chalk slopes around Eastbourne, known as good quality ‘semi-improved grassland’. Good quality semi-improved grassland is the grassland best placed for restoration to chalk grassland, as it contains many of the calcicole species. But what sets it apart from chalk grassland is that it is likely to have been victim to agricultural ‘improvement’ at some point, or other poor management from which it is now recovering from.

If you want to see exactly where chalk and semi-improved grasslands can be found in and around Eastbourne, it is worth first looking at Defra’s Magic Map Application (defra.gov.uk), an open resource that maps all of England’s designated protected sites and areas as well as priority habitats. Below is a snapshot to illustrate all of the priority grasslands found in and around Eastbourne.

 

I couldn’t write this blog without talking about carbon, because this is the Eastbourne EcoAction website right? Well chalk grassland (and indeed all other species rich grasslands) are a huge source of carbon stores in their soils. In fact, carbon stores in grassland soils are, in some cases are as good as the stores in woodland soils. However, disturbance of the soil, such as ploughing or digging up releases that stored carbon back into the atmosphere and it can take a long-time to restore what has been lost. We also now know that the more species diverse grasslands hold more carbon that species poor grasslands – another great reason to love chalk grasslands, and see them being restored.There are four priority grassland habitats: calcareous grassland (khaki), coastal and floodplain grazing marsh (blue), lowland meadow (lime), and good quality semi-improved grasslands (purple). The map shows how lucky we are to have so much south facing chalk grassland, a rarity indeed. Likewise, we can see how much of the scarp slope facing Eastbourne is good quality semi-improved grassland, ideal for restoration to chalk grassland.

So, although much has been lost, chalk grassland is recognised as one of the most biodiverse habitats we have in this country, and here in Eastbourne have it on our doorstep – our own rainforest in miniature! Restoration projects help enhance and restore it to its former glory and that in turn supports a host of other species, many of which are also in decline that are dependant on it. So next time you are out on the Downs, I encourage you to try and find some of the places the chalk and semi-improved grassland exists, take or download a plant I.D. guide and see what you can find.

Author: Sarah Brotherton is an ecologist who lives in Eastbourne, currently working for the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Time to step off the gas

A crowdfunding appeal has just been launched to raise start-up funds for a Climate Hub in Eastbourne.

A crowdfunding appeal has just been launched to raise start-up funds for a Climate Hub in Eastbourne. The crowdfunder can be found here.

You might have two questions at this point:

  1. What is a Climate Hub?
  2. Why bother creating one when there’s so much else to deal with, like the cost of living crisis and the invasion of Ukraine?

Actually, the answer to the second question helps to answer the first one. Let me explain:

Burning gas fuels wars as well as warming

One of the fundamental reasons why we have both a cost of living crisis and a war in Ukraine is because of fossil fuels and our current excessive use of them throughout the world, including Eastbourne. Yes, the very same fossil fuels that are the predominant causes of global warming are also the predominant source of revenue for the Russian government’s ability to wage war in Ukraine on the scale it is able to, as well as ensuring that the gas supply to heat European homes is becoming eye-wateringly expensive.

About 40% of the carbon emissions generated in Eastbourne comes from the gas consumed to heat homes and businesses throughout the town. That is a huge dependence upon a fossil fuel that also helps to make climate change so much worse, making the town more vulnerable to flooding from the rising seas and stronger storm surges. Worse still, the steeply rising price of gas creates vast revenues for autocratic governments, revenues which can go into funding huge war machines.

The fierce urgency of now

On top of all this, in the last week the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its latest assessment report on climate change, with one of its authors giving us this chilling warning:

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of working group 2 of the IPCC. “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

Getting off the gas, one hub at a time

So, to deal with the cost of living crisis effectively, we need to shield ourselves from the rising price of gas. And to deal with the aggression of certain states we need to reduce our dependence on the gas they sell to fund their wars. What better solution than to reduce our consumption of gas or, better still, stop consuming it completely?

Can we do so? Yes. There are alternatives to gas for heating our homes and businesses. Which brings us to the point about creating a Climate Hub, for such a place will enable Eastbourne residents to learn about those alternatives, find out how to access funding for those alternatives, gain support to make any lifestyle and behaviour changes that may help reduce energy costs generally, collaborate on creating local climate actions that make a real difference to making the town far more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change impacts, and much, much more.

There are many Climate Hubs throughout the UK now, – including ones in Lewes, Seaford, and Guildford – all run by dedicated volunteers and all providing, amongst many other services, crucial energy advice and support to help local people deal with rising fuel bills. If you’d like to help Eastbourne get one, then please donate to the Eastbourne Climate Hub crowdfunder. Thank you.

Eastbourne Bandstand: facing the music?

The future of Eastbourne’s bandstand is highly symbolic, for we all have to face the music. That means facing up to the challenges of climate change and its inevitable impacts.

The bandstand on Eastbourne’s promenade is iconic, much loved by residents and visitors alike. It is a key part of the town’s tourist identity. Eastbourne Borough Council recently announced that it would spend £750,000 on urgently needed structural repairs to ensure it could continue to function safely.

But what about the long-term? Eastbourne – like coastal communities around the world – is a town literally in the front line of climate change, facing head-on the rising sea levels and stronger storm surges of a rapidly warming world. But the Bandstand is arguably beyond even that front line, jutting out at beach level into the no man’s land between high and low tides where the future of Eastbourne will be decided.

At present, at significant cost each year, the beach itself is replenished with fresh shingle and the groynes are maintained or renewed. Without that constant work, there would be no effective protection for the Bandstand, or indeed the promenade as a whole.

The Environment Agency is at present designing a new sea defence strategy for the coast between the Wish Tower and Pevensey Bay. It will cost at least £100 million to build and construction is due to start in 2025. Without this scheme, the town would be at the mercy of a sea level rise that would simply overwhelm the existing sea defences causing catastrophic, and possibly permanent, damage to the town.

So the Bandstand’s future is highly symbolic, for we all have to face the music. That means facing up to the challenges of climate change and its inevitable impacts.

The Bandstand can be saved for us and future generations to enjoy, but it may have to be remodelled completely as part of a general remodelling of the entire seafront promenade, which itself has to be integrated into a remodelled coastline beyond the town itself. But remodelling ourselves into a more resilient, sustainable community and a more localised economy is the essential complement to such physical remodelling.