Lookwild: Biodiversity success in the South Downs

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With its abundance of iconic birds, mammals, fish, plants, invertebrates and internationally-important habitats, the South Downs National Park is a haven for wildlife in the busiest part of the UK.

The creation of a National Park in the South Downs was first mooted in the 1920s when public concern was mounting about the threats to the downland.

It would take decades before calls for a National Park along the ever-expanding south coast conurbation gathered pace and, following two major public inquiries, hundreds of meetings and passionate campaigning from local communities, the South Downs National Park finally came into being on 31 March, 2010.

As we celebrate the 14th birthday of the South Downs National Park, we look at three biodiversity success stories.

Wildlife bouncing back

There’s been some incredible stories of birds, mammals, invertebrate and plant species bouncing back. It’s largely down to improvements in habitat, more nature-friendly farming, creation of new habitat, some re-introductions and a concerted effort between rangers, local communities and partners. Just some examples include otters returning and water voles thriving after reintroduction on the River Meon, farmer-led projects to support farmland birds such as the grey partridge, the return of short-eared owls to Seven Sisters Country Park, and pearl bordered fritillaries returning to downland hotspots.

The Pyramidal Orchid is a chalk grassland favourite that’s in recovery since the National Park was created. Scrub management by volunteers, staff and contractors takes place during the winter months and has helped increase numbers of this beautiful flower.

There’s still a long way to go to tackle biodiversity loss, but there are the green shoots of recovery in many places.

Restoring lowland heaths

It’s a wildlife oasis rarer than the rainforest and home to some of Britain’s most endangered reptile, amphibian and bird species. The Heathlands Reunited project has conserved and enhanced 23,825 hectares – or 18,000 football pitches – of lowland heath. An independent scientific assessment revealed the initiative was “significant” in restoring the ecological condition of the habitat. The work to protect heathlands continues and is helping a range of species, including sand lizards, natterjack toads and the elusive nightjar.


The SDNPA launched its pioneering ReNature initiative in 2021, aimed at creating new wildlife havens and improving existing wildlife habitats.

The initiative has already helped to create over 400 hectares of new wildlife habitat – or almost 1,000 football pitches – such as new ponds, grasslands and wildflower meadows, to help nature flourish.

In addition to newly-created wildlife havens, 4,312 hectares of existing habitat has been improved for nature – an area bigger than the city of Portsmouth. One strand of ReNature is “Trees for the Downs” and, so far, well over 60,000 new trees have been planted across 114 different sites. The National Park’s pioneering green finance work, launched in 2023, is dedicating swathes of land for Biodiversity Net Gain provision and has already signed over 31 hectares – almost 100 football pitches – to nature recovery on the Iford Estate, near Lewes.

Tim Slaney, Chief Executive (Interim) of the National Park Authority, said: “Fourteen years is a comparatively short time and we’re still a young National Park, so there’s rightly a lot of pride in what’s been achieved so far for both nature and people. None of it would have been possible without the goodwill, dedication and support from local communities, farmers, volunteers and partners who have all worked with us to ensure this treasured landscape can continue being special and also evolve.”

Pearl bordered fritillary © Nigel Symington
Pearl bordered fritillary © Nigel Symington


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