2016 General Meeting Transcript and Review of the Group Origin

Michael Nailard, Chairman

The Chairman reported that 2015 had been a tortuous one with many difficulties to overcome. It had also been a rewarding one with our years of effort and achievement being recognised by Sussex Living Magazine in July 2014 by presenting our work as their main feature and by CPRE Sussex in October when we were presented with their CPRE Countryside Award for the value our work was contributing to the Mid Sussex countryside.

CPRE Sussex had also asked the Chairman, Michael Nailard, to give a presentation about our work at their conference in February this year. The photograph above was taken at this event.

This was the culmination of all the years of hard work which has reaped rewards for our local natural environment as well as the group.

The Chairman felt a reflection on the group’s origin and our passage to this moment would be appropriate as many people were not aware of it. He pointed out that this was to highlight the difficulties of group creation and was not to illuminate the effort of any individual.

He explained that he had always been concerned with the welfare of the countryside and had campaigned fiercely for its interests at every opportunity.

For these reasons in 2004 he had been invited to a meeting with others to meet Mid Sussex District Council and Hurstpierpoint & Sayers Common Parish Council representatives for a countryside group to be formed to undertake a biodiversity study of our parish. MSDC hoped that a few leading parishes could do this to identify parts of the countryside that required protection from the mounting development threats. So the group began under the umbrella of the Parish Council.

Michael Nailard had been elected chairman. He accepted with great reluctance as he was very busy with managing a local old people’s residential home and had many other commitments. A committee was subsequently formed from the other attendees.

To assist his effort he immediately began a 2 year Sussex University landscape & ecology course so that he could make informed decisions.

The first task had been to hold a public meeting and gather together all like-minded people to achieve it. There was great support for this initially and many joined in a wave of enthusiasm to protect our countryside. This initial public enthusiasm quickly dispelled however, when realisation of the continuous hard work required dawned on them and the number of volunteers dropped dramatically.

The anticipated time this would take to complete also had to be drastically modified as the difficulty involved with the obtaining of landowner consent and creating a process to achieve it became evident.

The enthusiasm of his fellow committee members also evaporated with the realisation of the enormity of the task and their help dwindled to virtually nothing. The number present at committee meetings was mostly Michael and one other, with lots of apologies received. He was chairman, secretary and treasurer throughout this period and found that nothing happened unless he personally organised and led all activities.

Many of these fellow committee members still wanted their names linked to the group effort in their absence but did not want to participate in its achievement. Michael had a growing feeling that he had been saddled with an impossible task and felt extremely demoralised by the lack of commitment of others. He admitted he could have easily walked away at that point and was very tempted, but after due consideration he chose not to as by that time he’d already created a biodiversity study process and had started the task to visit and gain the consent of nearly 200 landowners.

Gaining landowner consent proved extremely difficult with many suspicious of Michael’s motives and resentful of any mention of any council involvement. Some had to be pursued relentlessly to get consent and this took up to 2 years to achieve in some instances. Despite these difficulties he battled on until 2006 until it became increasingly clear that it was in the group’s interest to become an independent organisation with a clear set of objectives. He subsequently agreed to form this new group specifically dedicated to countryside interests with its own constitution and insurance. This proved a good opportunity for him to recruit some focused people onto the committee to give him some assistance. It also allowed the group to address all areas of parish countryside need as it became known to them.

It was obvious by then that if this group was to succeed it required total commitment with him as Chairman applying group direction and co-ordination to ensure that every activity linked together. This was perceived to be the only way to ensure the group achieved steady progress and success with strong central leadership to harness the willingness of others to help in the achievement of group goals. For this it needed to have clear objectives and ensure positive results for the local countryside.

He needed a focused committee to support him in this mission and that is what he got with the formation of the fresh one.

The biodiversity study had two great benefits for all its difficulties which extended it from an estimated 18 month activity to one that took 6 years to complete. It was well-supported by some enthusiastic teams of surveyors who became very skillful in this task. It also allowed Michael to form a good relationship with all the landowners in the parish and identified where our attention was required to improve the prospects of our countryside and wildlife.

The purpose of the group was determined to be solely a project group to achieve these improvements. It was deemed that it would not try to emulate larger organisations like the Sussex Wildlife Trust with wide-ranging general or educational interest activities but to focus instead on identifying and rectifying specific local areas of countryside concern and raising its overall value. The resulting group achievements in this respect are regularly publicised through the group news sheet, the annual public talk and the Supporters Evening. This ideal has been maintained and has resulted in the group’s recent widely acclaimed success.

To achieve these project initiatives each one is researched meticulously, listening to all advice from experts before beginning, and where such advice differed, applying common sense to determine the right policy for our situation. This has been a major factor for attaining success and we now, through our own experiences, have experts in their own right on group projects.

It had to be remembered that all our work is on land in private ownership and is dependent on landowner consent. Most landowners are now, through the biodiversity study, aware of the group and a mutual trust between most of them and Michael has resulted through his insurance that all their wishes and access caveats are fully respected by all who venture on to their property. Without this trust none of the group’s work would proceed. He personally takes responsibility for all work on their land and ensures any problems are quickly addressed.

The group has made some tremendous improvements to wildlife and countryside in our local area due to this relationship with landowners, the majority of whom share our countryside values and are very supportive. In fact many of the landowners he now regards as friends due to his long association with them over the last 12 years.

The projects the group has undertaken have created specialisms within it. The projects fall into two categories. These are large multi-volunteer initiatives like the SNCI meadow restoration at Pond Lye and the restoration of the woodland pond at Sayers Common and the smaller specialist team activities like bat and owl conservation, dormouse and water vole investigation etc. These specialist conservation activities require small teams of knowledgeable people to undertake the work, and meet the preferred wishes of the majority of landowners for a limited number of known people to undertake them.

Therefore, the same teams that have endured the adverse weather conditions during winter maintenance visits return to reap the rewards of their labours with the resulting discovery of breeding wildlife species in the summer. This builds a specialised detailed knowledge of the history and occupancy success of every fitted box and location.

The bigger initiatives were to a large degree commenced by the desire expressed by many volunteer supporters at group functions, to have projects that they could become involved with. Generally, this widely expressed volunteer support had been disappointing, with the flurry of initial enthusiasm quickly waning and the group being left with a commitment to complete large tasks with the work mostly being achieved by a smaller dedicated team of regular people.

The large tasks require personal organisation from Michael as attempts to recruit project leadership from others had mainly been unsuccessful. This had often required him to be on site for the whole day on the project days to meet all who are able to attend at differing times and intervals. This had on many occasions involved him in spending 3 weekdays out of 5 on site to capture the volunteer’s varying attendance availabilities. Weekend project days were poorly supported.

The success now reaped by the group had required a determined, professional approach being applied to all activities and for it to be run like a business. This allowed day to day decisions to be taken to quickly deal with all enquiries and resulting actions to ensure continuous group momentum. This Michael achieved in harmony with the similar decisions needed in his role as manager of a local old people’s residential home to ensure the welfare of the residents.

All projects have an established start date and steadily progress to a conclusion in a measured time frame. Most landowners would not tolerate open-ended access to their land if progress wasn’t being continuously achieved. The group was indebted to the dedication of all regular volunteers for without their hard work and commitment the success achieved would not have been possible.

There is a strict timetable for group activities which is dictated by seasonal requirements and funding providers and this necessitates continuous momentum to be applied to each to meet it. For example, the group initially had to complete installation of bat and owl nesting and hibernation boxes in a specific time frame set by the grant funding provider to ensure their requirements were met to achieve a positive outcome for their funding.

Similarly, the owl boxes have to be maintained in the winter and inspected in the summer to investigate breeding owls at specific times according to the progression of their breeding season.

Bats also have similar inspection and maintenance activity windows according to their breeding season.

Pond Lye SNCI meadow clearance work has to be undertaken in the winter months and cease in the spring to allow plants to flourish and wildlife breeding to take place during the summer. The work required to clear the Sayers Common woodland pond follows immediately afterwards and continues until autumn.

Dormice investigation is undertaken regularly throughout the summer between April and November.

All these activities are conducted over vast areas of local countryside. Consequently, each of these projects has to be fitted into our seasonal timetable to meet their requirements. This makes the group’s yearly task programme continuous with one activity slotting into another like a jig-saw puzzle. If one is delayed it impacts detrimentally on the next and the volunteers have to work relentlessly to catch up.

The bat and owl projects we undertake have become similar to the work undertaken by dedicated owl conservation organisations and bat groups and are unique conservation specialisms in their own right. This is another reason for us creating specialist teams to undertake them as they take a personal pride in the resulting success of their work. Any delay or inability to carry out these tasks would result in problems for the species and therefore must be achieved at all costs.

This conservation work is the purpose of our group and is regarded as our prime consideration. The committee is there to support this effort. Committee meetings and other group activities often have to take second place to our project work in times of congestion when task achievement has to dictate proceedings.

This makes us starkly different in this respect to many other groups who operate with committee decisions directing activities. Our group’s achievement is largely dependent on the committed volunteers who undertake the work during both the summer and the winter months. Their opinions, requirements and availability therefore determines our agenda.

The committee is there to support this and to discuss progress and submit ideas that may assist. This group approach and its resulting success have created our reputation for achievement and is why we have come to the attention of other bodies with our results now being widely recognised.

Michael concluded that this had been a tremendously hard task but had significantly benefitted our local natural environment. He thanked all the dedicated volunteers who supported him with this work.