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All in a day's volunteering with Changing Chalk

Volunteers clear the scrub saplings on Southwick Hill
Conservation work on Southwick Hill | © Natalie Barb

Changing Chalk volunteers play a vital role in protecting the chalk grassland and heritage of the South Downs.  When it comes to volunteering with us, every day is different. Many of our Changing Chalk projects are supported by volunteers who cover tasks ranging from conservation, to archaeology to scientific surveying. Here is what two of our teams did this May on our regular Changing Chalk volunteer days.

Volunteers survey the chalk grassland
Volunteers surveying the chalk grassland | © Natalie Barb

Tackling the scrub at Southwick Hill

Southwick Hill is a designated local wildlife site with beautiful and rare habitats including chalk grassland, which is home to many species found almost nowhere else. Over recent years, the condition of these habitats has been in decline on Southwick Hill due to lack of grazing and management.

After gathering at the meeting point on the edge of the town, volunteers went out to the northern edge of the hill and began the day with some surveying practice. There is some remaining chalk grassland in that area and Chalk Life Ranger, Kim Greaves, showed how to set out a quadrat and spot the many different species growing there. The closer you look, the more you see. Volunteers learned how to identify plants such as cowslips, common spotted orchids, birdsfoot trefoil and common milkwort. There were a lot of different grassland plants to see, which was reassuring. Kim also explained which plant species to look out for that show the general health and state of the chalk grassland. Later in the summer this type of surveying will help Kim and the team to monitor the quality of the chalk grassland around Southwick Hill to see how their work is affecting the land.

Next, it was time for some physical work. The chalk grassland on Southwick Hill is being encroached upon by scrub plants, especially hawthorn and brambles. As the scrubland trees and bushes emerge from the ground, with a little skill and a special tool, the young plants can be taken up at the base together with their roots. This stops them from growing back too quickly. The volunteer team split between uprooting these new shoots and cutting back the more established brambles and larger plants.

There was, of course, plenty of breaks for nature spotting – butterflies, bees, birds and flowers – and stopping to take in the view on a sunny day. Today was a successful day.

A common milkwort flower in chalk grassland
Common milkwort in the chalk grassland of Southwick Hill | © Natalie Barb
Volunteers build a gate at Gayles Farm
Volunteers building a gate at Gayles Farm | © Natalie Barb

Protecting the wild flowers at Gayles Farm

Based at Gayles Farm, formerly RAF Friston, volunteers have been working with NT Chalk Life Ranger, Thyone Outram, to create 11 hectares of meadow areas on what were once WW2 airstrips. The aim is to remember the history of Friston Airfield and to create more biodiversity on the existing farm, providing areas for wildlife to nest and feed. What were once runways for hurricanes and spitfires will, in time, become green runways for insects and birds, helping to connect existing chalk grassland areas on the Downs.

We need to track the evolution of the newly-seeded meadow areas which are currently protected by fencing. The trouble is that these areas are huge and getting in to survey them currently involves a long walk around. So volunteers came to Gayles Farm to install some gates that will allow surveying teams easier access to the meadows.

After a quick pause to admire some newts and dragonfly nymphs in a water trough, the team made their way across the field to the far corner where there were a few wildflowers beginning to bloom and some in bud including corncockles, cornflowers and ox-eye daisies.

Having the field fenced off means that the local skylarks were delighted to have some safe ground on which to nest and the volunteers' work was accompanied by their song as they danced above the grass and soared up into the sky. The birdsong was only interrupted by the sound of post bashing and the odd hum of a drill as the team put up new structures for the wire fences. Labour was neatly divided between fixing the posts and adding detachable wires to the new fixings.

At lunch the team paused to admire the view across the Downs to the sea, then it was back to the grindstone to fit two more gates. Now access is easier, it won't be long before the survey team come in to see what plants and wildlife are living on the newly-sown meadow strips and their progress can be scientifically measured.

The volunteering team comes to this spot every two weeks, and with midsummer fast approaching, they should be greeted by even more flowers bursting out next time they come.

A view across wildflower planting to Newhaven from Gayles Farm
The view from Gayles Farm | © Natalie Barb

There's a wide range of opportunities across the partnership's 18 projects covering habitat and conservation, history and archaeology, community support, and administration.

If you see a role you're interested in, or to find out more about any of these Changing Chalk volunteer roles, email us at

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