A vast area of almost 40,000 acres of precious heathland in the Thursley, Hankley and Frensham areas is to be ‘connected’ as part of a national government-backed £7.4 million nature recovery project.
Natural England has announced a dozen new nature recovery projects spanning 435,000 acres across the country – including a large chunk of the Surrey Hills between Farnham and Haslemere.
The interlinked projects aim to fast-track environmental protections in these areas and improve wildlife connections. It is hoped this will improve biodiversity and conserve important habitats and species.
The project is funded by Natural England and led by the Heathlands Connections partnership, with the scheme in the western-most region of the Surrey Hills receiving around a £400,000 share of the total £7.4 million pot over three years.
It will see partners including the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Surrey County Council, Waverley Borough Council, Surrey Wildlife Trust and National Trust work together to restore, enhance and connect rare lowland heathland habitats.
It will connect the designated sites of Thursley, Hankley and Frensham Commons Special Protected Area with surrounding heathlands – covering an area of almost 40,000 acres, more than one third the size of the New Forest – and create a “mosaic landscape” rich in habitats for wildlife.
Collectively, the project will seek innovative solutions to management challenges such as habitat degradation, disturbance to ground nesting birds, and the emerging threat of more frequent and more devastating wildfires.
Thursley Common was greatly affected by a devastating wildfire in 2020, with damage caused to approximately 150 hectares of land.
Similarly, fire damage caused great harm to nearby Hankley in July 2022, with 50 hectares of the much-loved common impacted.
In response, various volunteer groups have made great efforts to tackle fire threats and other environmental concerns, such as FriendsofThursleyCommon.org, of which the Heathlands Project will serve to further improve.
Improving connections between the environment and local community is yet another of the project’s core objectives.
There will be a strong focus on creating efficient and cost-effective transport links for visitors, to sustainably bring people closer to nature. This will include walking and cycling trails and improved bus connections.
The Surrey Hills AONB is already working in partnership with Stagecoach and the Community Rail Partnership to promote more sustainable travel. This includes a new Rail, Bus, Ramble route that will enable visitors to explore areas such as Frensham Ponds and RSPB Farnham Heath by leaving the car at home.
Currently, 46 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Surrey come from transport, the majority of which are private vehicle use.
The Heathlands Connections Nature Recovery Project hopes to develop more routes in the future and encourage people to think more sustainably where possible when accessing nature.
A 50-mile network of Cycle Surrey Hills loops has also been developed to offer a mostly off-road cycling experience to discover the unique landscape of the south-west Surrey Hills. These loops are undergoing a signage refresh to create an excellent countryside experience with the help of Surrey Hills conservation volunteers.
Sustainable links between people and the environment is a factor strongly supported by Rob Fairbanks, director of the Surrey Hills National Landscape.
He said: “Heathland Connections will help us really engage with the local community and visitors on the importance of thriving with nature.
“The better connected they feel to the landscape and the nature within it, the better chance we have to safeguard and enhance it for generations to come.”