People’s Postcode Lottery – Grant funding award!

Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers have been granted a generous award by the People’s Postcode Lottery, as part of their Postcode Local Trust.

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SNCV applied to the Postcode Local Trust to undertake work with heavy horses at Sutton Common Paddock, a newly designated Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC). Although the meadow area (about 1.7ha) has an amount of wildflowers and grasses, the SNCV and Sutton’s Biodiversity Team are very keen on enhancing the variety of flora and fauna on this site.

Lowland meadows like this are very scarce in the local area and we want as many people as possible to engage with the joys natural grasslands can bring. The UK’s lowland meadows are also thought to have declined by 97% from pre-World War II numbers, mainly through agricultural changes. As such, this work contributes to wider meadow restoration objectives.

The Postcode Local Trust is a grant-giving charity funded entirely by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Our project has received a massive £9,650 from the Trust to use heavy horses from Operation Centaur to mow and till the paddock area, so that lots of bare ground is created. Once we have bare ground, we can seed with a mix of wildflowers and grasses specially adapted to the challenging conditions of heavy clay.

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Heavy horses from Operation Centaur

Because the site is on clay, it is very wet during the winter months and dry and cracked during the summer months.

Over the last few years, the SNCV and Biodiversity Team have tried a variety of management techniques, to increase the number and variety of wildflowers. Unfortunately, these haven’t worked as well as we would have wished, mainly, we think, because one species of grass, creeping bent Agrostis stolonifera creates a ‘blanket effect’ of grass, which prevents seed from making contact with the soil and growing. By creating bare ground, we can ensure the desired seed species get a good start, without being smothered by creeping bent.

Using heavy horses is a new venture for nature conservation in Sutton. Because the site is often so wet, tractors get stuck, whereas the horses can work in wetter conditions, without damaging the site and compacting the soil.

Once we have seeded the site, we will be asking for volunteers to come and help us plant lots of new wildflower plugs. These are pre-grown and provide greater structure than  from seed alone, as well as flowering more quickly.

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Hay rattle

One species we are keen to encourage is hay rattle Rhinanthus minor, a hemiparisite wildflower, which, as well as undertaking photosynthesis, steals nutrient from grasses. In high numbers, it can help to reduce grass vigour, enabling other wildflowers greater opportunity to thrive.

 

If you want to see the horses in action, head down to Sutton Common Paddock tomorrow (Tuesday 4th September) or Wednesday (5th September) between 10am and 2pm. Tom and the guys are happy to chat (at least whilst giving the horses a rest!). The entrance to the Paddock area is just off Morden Way: https://goo.gl/maps/fQouZoXy9322

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Our National Pollinators

Good lord, we’re well into March already. And after a balmy winter, Friday (4th) brought about the years first grass cut in my garden. After blowing out the cobwebs, cleaning the air filter and checking the oil and petrol, off we went on our quest to neaten the garden. However, unlike previous years, I noticed that I was far less gung-ho and far more slow-mow. Being more ecologically minded, I would peer over the mower, observe the forthcoming grass patch and grind to a halt, if I feared I would slice through the dreaded, detested and despised dandelion Taraxacum officinale. But why so cautious, in particular for a plant that when searching into Google ‘removing dandelion’, brings about 197,000 results and solutions?

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Marbled White butterfly feeding off Common Knapweed. Joined by a hoverfly.

Now that I’m an esteemed ‘Biodiversity Assistant’ with Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers and Sutton Council, I can ask whether I can tag along to events such as DEFRA’s ‘National Pollinator Strategy: Urban Knowledge Exchange Workshop’. This event attracted the nations leading Doctors and Professors,  key policy makers, top ecologists, respected biodiversity officers and of course, an esteemed biodiversity assistant.

The day brought to my attention the value and necessity of our urban landscape to our national pollinators. Bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and beetles, provide critical ecosystem services, i.e. benefits to humans from the environment. These include food production, as through transporting pollen from one plant to another, the production of British crops is ensured. The National Audit Office, estimate that the value of honey bees alone (in the UK) is worth around £200 million, based on pollinating strawberries, apples, pears and oil seed rape,  while the retail value of what they pollinate is considered to be around £1 billion. Yet, this doesn’t earn a mention in George’s illustrious budget review. A shame.

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Buzzzzzzzzz. A bee enjoying the riches of a red clover Trifolium pratense late in the season (17/09/2015)

Conservationally speaking, as well as their economic importance, pollinators ensure the functionality of a healthy ecosystem. Simply put, by pollinating flowers, flora diversity is maintained and this enables all the essential interactions between flowers and animals (i.e. food, nesting and breeding resources) to take place. When considering the health and well-being properties of the natural landscape and how pollinators positively impact this, the conservation of our national pollinators is most certainly in our interest.

Despite their relevance, it is understood that pollinator diversity and abundance is declining, due to a number of environmental pressures. Use of herbicides/pesticides, intensive land use and habitat loss are all believed to be contributing factors to their decline. However, urban environments, such as Sutton, have the potential to be incredibly important habitats for our pollinator species.

Research suggests that across farmlands, nature reserves and urban areas there was no significant differences between pollinator species diversity and flower visitor abundance. Additionally, bee species diversity was higher in urban areas than farmland! Importantly, this suggests that urban landscapes are becoming an increasingly important habitat, so how can we improve them?

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Cuddington Meadows. An SNCV site that is fantastic for pollinators

Typical features of an urban landscape include: road verges, recreation grounds, parks, school ground, offices, gardens and churchyards. These can all be managed sympathetically towards the needs of pollinators. Ultimately, providing structural heterogeneity and improving floral diversity is essential. By improving these components, the habitat will provide suitable conditions for pollinators at different stages of their life cycle and provide pollen and nectar resources throughout the Spring and Summer months. Where appropriate, methods that are encouraged include the sowing of seed mixes and plug plants, followed by a reduced mowing regime, which will allow the plants to set seed and provide resources throughout the desired months. See here to learn more about methods of improving the urban landscape.

At the SNCV, we aim to provide suitable conditions that will enable pollinators to thrive. During my time here, I’ve learnt a variety of methods that aim to improve plant abundance and diversity; green-haying and cattle grazing at Roundshaw Downs, plug planting across our sites, Sheep grazing at Cuddington Meadows, while scrapes have been created at Therapia Lane Rough in order to remove undesirable species and promote the growth of chalk grassland species. In essence, our grasslands are managed in a way that seeks to promote plant diversity and abundance, that will in turn, provide valuable resources for bees, moths, butterflies, hoverflies, beetles etc.

Clearly pollinators are fundamental to our existence and therefore, we should be doing everything in our power to help them. With this in mind, the SNCV have a couple of exciting projects coming up this month! Through community conservation days, we aim to improve pollinator conditions by  plug planting at Roundshaw Woods and Carew Manor Wetland. At these sites, we will be planting suitable native plants, that have the most likely chance of surviving and thriving in these chosen habitats. For the SNCV, our main aim is to improve the conservation value of sites throughout Sutton, and by providing richer  pollen and nectar resources throughout the seasons, we hope we can achieve this.  In the years to come, through this work, we hope to develop areas that can be enjoyed by all things natural, including humans. So, if you have the time, do please come along to one of these community planting days.

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Carew Manor Wetlands. On the 30th March, the SNCV will be aiming to improve the surrounding wet meadow through plug planting. Please do come and join us!

Oh, and in regards to those dandelions, a study in Canada found that this plant species had one of the highest diversities of bee visitors, when compared with other present plant species. In the early Spring months (such as now) the dandelion provides a valuable nectar source for the early and opportunistic pollinators! So leave them be, for now anyway.

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CMW Planting Poster-2

 

 

Trees

I’m sure there have been many an iconic verse throughout the annals of history, dedicated to trees. Keats, possibly, Wordsworth, inevitably and Shakespeare almost certainly. I’ll be honest, I did think about searching ‘trees and Wordsworth’ in Google in order to bestow a deceitful intelligence upon myself and provide a nice opening sentence for this blog post on trees. But I haven’t, and I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.

“You’re so beautiful….like a tree” – Flight of the Concords (2007). As the esteemed musical icons suggest, trees are beautiful. As I stare into my garden on a drizzly Sunday, I see the dainty pink blossom that has erupted from the cherry plum Prunus cerasiferathe elegant white petals of a neighbors blackthorn Prunus spinosa and a shower of  plump yellow catkins, dangling on the hazel Corylus avellana. Though remarkably early, these features remind us that Spring is near and the days are getting longer. Wonderful.

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London’s largest plane tree Platanus spp. Or is it?

http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/9386804.When_trees_go_to_war___debate_rages_over_the_tallest/

 

Ecosystem Services

Trees are not just lovely to look at of course, they provide numerous functions that are absolutely essential to our existence, functions termed ‘Ecosystem Services’. Of course, trees absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, generate sugars for growth, and as a by-product release oxygen, oxygen that we can use to breath.

Additionally, in light of the recent flooding, there’s been a plethora of column inches dedicated to the roles trees can play in flood prevention, which is also backed by science. If this isn’t enough, studies have also suggested that trees can reduce the amount of harmful toxic particles in the air, (such as the one produced from our exhausts) as a result of their large porous surfaces. Still not enough? How about their role as natural air conditioners? Through providing areas of shade and the process of evapotranspiration (the equivalent of trees sweating), there is a thought that trees have the potential to cool our surroundings. Further still, as well as cooling our bodies, trees can also cool our minds. According to a study carried out by the Forestry Commission, there was a significant difference in the mean ‘mental wellbeing’ of tenants with high tree cover, when compared with tenants from a negligible tree cover. Similarly, patients recovering in hospital, recovered on average a day faster when their ward had a tree visible to them. And of course, trees play a critical role for wildlife, providing sources of foraging, nesting, breeding and shelter. Moreover, it seems fair to suggest that trees are important.

Trees and the SNCV

As of late trees have constantly preoccupied my mind. In fact, I think I have been directly involved with trees almost daily in 2016, whether that be with the SNCV, or practicing Vrksasana on Tuesday and Friday evenings .

With the SNCV, we began the year hedge laying at Anton Crescent Wetland (ACW). From a conservation point of view, hedgerow is an incredibly important habitat, and is essential for 47 species of conservation concern in the UK. Hedgerows act as corridors for the movement of populations and have the potential to increase the connectivity of populations from one habitat to another. Further still, creating hedgerow improves the structural heterogeneity at ACW. As a result, there is greater niche, resource and shelter availability, which should in theory attract a greater scope of wildlife. Resource and niche availability is further improved through hedge laying, as reducing the canopy cover will allow more sunlight to penetrate the understorey, which may benefit a greater diversity of ground flora.

By jove hedge laying is a skill! Thankfully, we had our hedgemaster, Sutton’s Biodiversity Officer Dave at hand. Our hedgerow consisted of a range of native species, hazel Corylus avellana, field maple Acer campestre, blackthorn Prunus spinosa,  ash Fraxinus excelsior and hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. Once ‘pleached’ (carefully thinning the tree to an angle where it will lay flat, yet not tear away from the trunk), our trees were delicately laid as we completed a fantastic, native hedge.

With hedge laying over, we have moved into the woodlands, Oueen Mary’s and Ruffett and Bigwood.  Thinning trees plays a vital role in conservation. Where areas are too shaded as a result of dense canopy cover, trees have been selectively thinned in order allow greater light to radiate the woodland floor. It is hoped, the this extra sunlight will benefit the wildflowers in the understorey, in particular species such as dog violet Viola riviniana, dog’s mercury  Mercurialis perennis and bluebells  Hyacinthoides non-scripta. In these woodlands, there is an abundance of ash Fraxnius excelsior and sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus, which is where most of our thinning was focused. Within the years to come, it will be fascinating the monitor the process of the extra sunlight!

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Winters day at Ruffett and Bigwood

Having enjoyed this work greatly, it has dawned on me that my tree identification is relatively embarrassing, especially with a title of ‘Biodiversity Assistant’ entrusted upon me. And so, with this woeful knowledge and with the help of two other SNCV volunteers (Adam and Alison), we have been tasked with mapping the trees of Sutton. We are literally putting trees on the map.

Referred to as the ‘Barc de Treeumph’, the three of us walk around Sutton, recording any tree species in a public space. With the information, Sutton Council’s Tree team can place some sort of value on their sites, whilst the SNCV have a greater understanding of the diversity, and conservation attributes of areas across Sutton. And most importantly, we’re learning how to successfully identify trees. Black buds, most definitely ash. Large green buds, sycamore. Hmmmmm, very small buds, black in colour, small hairs, blooming hec is that an elm, Ulmus spp.?  I think so. What about this one, quite a corky bark, small hairs, very small buds, black in colour. Oh, is it in an another elm?

I scored 8/10. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/01/can-you-identify-the-uks-most-common-trees

Importantly, Sutton’s Biodiversity Officer Dave, is hosting a Winter Id tree training day (which he’s probably put on for me), and promises to be an excellent and knowledgeable event! So do book on, and get identifying.

 

 

 

 

Brown Hairstreak

According to the authors of ‘Butterflies of Surrey Revisited‘, “finding an adult brown hairstreak is one of the most difficult tasks for a butterfly enthusiast”. As a fond admirer of the fluttering jewels, I must count myself very fortunate then, for in the Summer months I managed to catch a glimpse of two females, both by chance.

The UK status 

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The underside of a  female brown hairstreak, balancing on a yew ‘aril’ at Cuddington Cemetery

Sadly, these sightings are becoming rarer and rarer, as data collected by Butterfly Conservation suggests that their population has decreased by 40% from the period between 1995 – 2009. For this reason, the brown hairstreak was recognised as a (now archived) UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species. In other words,  it is a species experiencing rapid population declines and faces a high risk of regional extinction.

Reasons for this decline can be attributed to the loss of British hedgerow. Nationally, since 1945 over 121,000 km has been lost to make way for larger fields for agriculture and development. Importantly, blackthorn Prunus spinosa, a scrub species largely associated with hedgerows, is the main larval host plant for the brown hairstreak. Therefore, as blackthorn availability decreases, the opportunity for egg laying diminishes.

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The upperside of a female brown hairstreak

Research carried out by Merckx et al., (2010) highlighted the preferences of young blackthorn  growth for brown hairstreak egg laying. Additionally, their study suggests that altering the landscape structure from a linear to a scalloped pattern will create sheltered mirco-climates that will benefit the development of ecotothermic species. Therefore, by cutting mature stands of blackthorn in a rotational pattern to create these ‘scallops’, this will encourage young growth and provide conditions that are suitable for egg laying. Moreover, it seems that the brown hairstreak requires a habitat that is continuing to decline, and within that habitat, needs specific conditions for optimum growth. To create these conditions therefore requires sensitive management.

Curiously, adult brown hairstreaks will congregate around the ‘master tree’. A master tree serves the purpose of providing aphid honeydew, on which the adults feed on, and as a breeding site. I say curious, as research cannot determine why certain  trees are chosen as the master, for observations have recorded various ages and conditions of chosen trees. Most typically, these master trees are Ash Fraxinus excelsior (though they will use oak Quercus robur), and as these trees are critical for breeding, ash dieback Chalara fraxinea is an ongoing concern for the species . Moreover, the current condition of our UK ash, may also be contributing to the loss of brown hairstreak.

SNCV and the brown hairstreak

At the SNCV, a number  of sites that we work on are under the ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ (HLS) scheme. The HLS is a mechanism whereby land owners (such as Sutton Council) can apply for funding that will go towards restoring and/or conserving priority habitats and species. The government’s adviser to the natural environment, Natural England, will assess the site for suitability, i.e. whether they feel the site can successfully restore/conserve priority species and habitats. Moreover, on a number of our HLS sites, specific habitat management for the brown hairstreak  is ongoing and proving to be a great success.

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A female brown hairstreak egg laying on young blackthorn

Encouragingly, in the summer at Carshalton Road Pastures (CRP), we witnessed our first sighting of the brown hairstreak on site. This location hosts an extensive amount of blackthorn, which we have been scalloping since 2009. As well as a hot spot for blackthorn though, CRP appeared to be a Mecca for fly-tippers and a home for smashed sinks and disused armchairs. Thus, it was a very welcomed reward to see the brown hairstreak after shifting this mass of dross and comforting to know that despite these inconveniences, our target species was able to exist on site.

To add to the successes of our first sighting, during an egg search in December, we managed to find 6 eggs, neatly placed on the underside of young blackthorn branches. To any passers by, I can’t help but think that this must have been an odd sight. A group of folk, consisting of various ages, delicately poised between sharp blackthorn bushes, studying the underside of a twig, in the rain, in quest of an object that is the size of a grain of quinoa. To further this, the search for brown hairstreak eggs is also known as ‘streaking’. When I mentioned to my mother that I had been streaking at Carshalton Road Pastures, in the rain, with my boss, she looked at me bemused and slightly stunned. To this day, I still don’t understand why*.

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Brown hairstreak egg at CRP

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Brown hairstreak egg at CRP

 

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Brown hairstreak egg at Roundshaw Down

But what ever my mother thinks, finding eggs is fantastic news and it does not stop there. We’ve also seen brown hairstreaks across other sites in Sutton this year, such as at Cuddington Cemetery and Anton Crescent Wetlands, whilst Dave (Sutton’s Biodiversity Officer) also managed to find eggs on Roundshaw Downs during a search on Christmas Eve. Clearly, Santa thought Dave had been a good boy in 2015. Importantly, this highlights that with careful management and understanding of good science, the SNCV and Biodiversity Team carry out conservation work that is actually making a difference for some of Britain’s rarer species. By managing areas of blackthorn across Sutton in the ‘scallop’ fashion advocated by Merckx et al, we are improving  the ability for brown hairstreaks to breed on these sites and when dispersing across the landscape, to find other, suitable habitats. This *may* be increasing their distribution and population across Sutton. Therefore, when I said earlier that I saw two brown hairstreaks by chance, I think this maybe  more down to the work that the SNCV undertake.

Keep an eye out on the SNCV events page  where we will be running a butterfly day course in the summer. Similarly, if you want to learn more about butterflies, I’d suggest Butterfly Conservation who provide comprehensive information about our British Butterflies and very enjoyable blogs. You may also be interested to know about the Surrey and South West London branch of Butterfly Conservation, who provide local news and events for all things butterfly.

*correction – the search for brown hairstreak eggs is not actually referred to as ‘streaking’ – that was a joke.

Green Hay

One of our main aims at the SNCV is the conservation and improvement of sites of wildlife value throughout the borough. On Thursday, the team headed over to Roundshaw Downs with the intent of doing just that through ‘sward enhancement’. This is a management technique that aims to increase the botanical diversity of a grassland and can be achieved through the use of ‘green hay’. With the loss of 97% of British species rich grasslands and meadows since the 1930’s (Fuller, 1987), the restoration of grassland is an absolute must!

Specifically, ‘green hay’ refers to the mowing of species rich grassland in order to attain wild-flower and grass seed. In conservation and restoration projects, ‘green hay’ cuttings are taken from a ‘donor’ site that is typically species rich in flowers. These cuttings are then transferred to a nearby ‘receptor’ site where species diversity is poorer. The main advantages of ‘green hay’ are that  it is considerably cheaper that buying commercial seeds and using fresh seed from a local source tends to enhance the success of wild-flower establishment, as site conditions (i.e. pH, moisture and soil texture) will be similar to that of the ‘donor’ site.

Sutton's Biodiversity Officer Dave on the flail collector, mowing the 'receptor' site.

Sutton’s Biodiversity Officer Dave on the flail collector, mowing the ‘receptor’ site.

For the ‘green hay’ process to be effective, preparation of the receptor site is crucial. This involves the mowing and raking of a site. The mowing process creates a short sward (the physical characteristic of the grass, such as patchy, dense, tall etc) structure and areas of bare ground that will enhance the establishment of ‘green hay’ seed. Once mowed, raking will break up areas of thatch that will make the areas of bare earth more accessible, while removing excess nutrients which would otherwise favour the growth of grasses, weeds and other invasive species. Once the ‘green hay’ is cut from the ‘donor’ site, it is immediately transferred and spread to the prepared ‘receptor’ site, otherwise the seeds will be left to shed, thereby not establishing themselves on the desired area. In modern agriculture, the use of hay bales are not conducive to the creation of wild-flower meadows as compaction forces the hay to heat up and decompose, causing death to the seed.

The 'receptor' site with piles of 'green hay' ready for scattering.

The ‘receptor’ site with piles of ‘green hay’ ready for scattering.

So, armed with a flail collector (a glorified lawn mower), rakes and the SNCV, we embarked on our green hay mission at Roundshaw Downs. Our receptor site was previously dominated by rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium and generally species poor. Over the past two years, the SNCV have regularly mowed the site and removed unwanted species (such as brambles Rubus fruiticosus) to allow grasses and wild-flowers to prosper. Encouragingly, this has proved incredibly effective as willowherb and bramble growth appears to have significantly reduced, while on Thursday, wild-flowers such as toadflax Linaria vulgaris and red bartsia Odontites vernus were plentiful. However, we’d still like to see more! So, after some hours of mowing and raking (rigorous, yet wholly satisfying), green hay was collected from a species rich area of Roundshaw about 100-200m away from the receptor site. As well as being species rich, our ‘green hay’ contains the desirable greater yellow rattle Rhinanthus angustifolius. As a hemi-parasite, this species partially restricts the growth of grasses, thus opening the sward and benefiting the development of wild-flowers. Further, greater yellow rattle is considered ‘nationally rare’ and Croydon/Sutton contains a large natural stronghold for this plant. Therefore our efforts on Roundshaw Downs are having numerous beneficial impacts for wild-flowers on a national scale as we are improving the coverage of nationally rare species, while encouraging wild-flower growth. Once collected, our ‘green hay’ was delicately scattered across the ‘receptor’ site and now we have to wait and see what happens!

Just one of the numerous common lizards (Zootoca vivipara) observed on our 'receptor' site. This is a priority species in the UK.

Just one of the numerous common lizards (Zootoca vivipara) observed on our ‘receptor’ site. This is a priority species in the UK.

This is the first time we have applied the technique of green hay, so it will be fascinating to see how well this method works. As previously mentioned, the loss of British grasslands and meadows is distressing, so it is vital that we develop and restore these habitats while monitoring our progress. We hope that with appropriate long term management, the restoration of grasslands can be achieved and that here in Sutton, we can help improve the conditions of our British grasslands.

Now recruiting!

Sutton Nature and the London Borough of Sutton Biodiversity Team are looking to recruit a new volunteer Biodiversity Assistant to assist in the day-to-day running of Sutton’s nature reserves, including chalk downland, woodland, open water and reedbed.

Cuddington Meadows

Cuddington Meadows chalk grassland

You will need to have a good grasp of ecology and conservation, some practical habitat management knowledge and skills, ID skills, excellent computer / ICT skills and a passion to work in the conservation / ecological sector.

All previous graduate volunteers have gone on to work in ecology / conservation or environmental sustainability, so if you think you have what it takes to fit in around a busy team and learn new skills, apply today!

For more information and to apply, please see the Biodiversity Assistant Job_Spec.

Carshalton Environmental Fair

This August bank holiday the SNCV braved the wet weather at the Environmental Fair at Carshalton Park. Despite the considerable support from volunteers at the SNCV stall, the weather was determined to keep the crowds away!

Nonetheless, the SNCV were on hand to help present the new Sutton Nature Explorer Map to visitors, which is a handy source of information on wildlife sites around Sutton. Regular volunteers were also at the stall, ready to talk to any potential new recruits about the work that the SNCV does, involving everything from hedgelaying to coppicing, scrub clearance and planting. We’re lucky enough to have a variety of different habitats in Sutton, including chalk grassland, woodland and wetlands, all of which the SNCV help to maintain and conserve for wildlife. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about nature sites near you, then check out the article below. And for anyone that didn’t get a chance to get down to the stall on Monday, if you want to find out more about our events or are interested in volunteering then do get in touch at sncvvolunteers@hotmail.co.uk!

Volunteer day at Anton Crescent Wetlands

Eleanor Kirby-Green

SNCV Biodiversity Assistant