An ambitious multi-million pound four year project based in Sussex will connect economically-deprived local people with nature, history and love of the land.

The Changing Chalk partnership, led by the National Trust and supported by a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, is focused on a 458 sq km area at the eastern end of the South Downs. 

Three quarters of a million people live close to the Sussex Downs in multi-cultural towns and cities like bustling Brighton & Hove, charming Lewes and historic Eastbourne.

Part of what makes the Sussex Downs area so special is its rare nutrient-rich chalk grassland, which is often referred to as ‘Europe’s tropical rainforest’ due to it supporting such a rich and diverse range of plants and insects.

Once home to unusual wildflowers and butterflies, the habitat has been sucked dry and decimated by intensive agricultural practices and technology. Loss of traditional grazing has resulted in it plunging by over 80% in recent decades, threatening biodiversity and wildlife.

Usually, up to 40 species of flowering plants can be found in one square metre of chalk grassland.

The once lush habitat still has incredible chalk drawings set in the landscape, such as the 6-ton 93 foot long, 65 feet high Litlington White Horse, and wild meadows in the South Downs National Park.

The unique National Trust partnership ‘Changing Chalk’ is made up of ten core partners, including a food charity and will carry out a dynamic programme of restoration and repair to the once rich chalk grassland. Working with local communities, farmers and landowners, the partnership will train scores of unemployed and low earners and around 2,500 volunteers in Brighton, Hove, and Eastbourne in vital new “green” skills.

Jobs, apprenticeships and even vineyards will make up the scheme, bringing together some of the poorest people in the local community. The scheme will uniquely use nature to “heal” and boost mental and physical health issues.

The long-term vision is to reverse the decline in chalk grassland and build a sustainable future for the Downs.

The project is so determined to make its own contribution to climate change that a whopping 60 hectares of Golf course is being returned from the ‘Birdie’ back to chalk downland. 

Unique to this partnership is its focus on urban communities, economically deprived people, and those recently affected by Covid and facing an uncertain financial future. Changing Chalk intends to improve health and wellbeing through green spaces, and the inspiration of local nature. 

Stuart McLeod, Director London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Investing in projects that support nature is a key priority for us and now, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, a wider range of people will be able to enjoy this area so rich in biodiversity, while benefiting from both a mental health and wellbeing perspective”

As part of the project, the ‘Downs’ will come to the towns – with new chalk grassland planting on twelve city sites. Additionally, a Community Grants Scheme will award £150,000 to local communities for community-led initiatives.

The long-term aim is a fantastic one: to reverse the decline in chalk grassland and build a sustainable future for the Downs. Working in partnership with others is always key with such ambitious hopes. For information on the Changing Chalk Project and to learn about the organisations involved, visit the National Trust website

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