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Did You Know Guildford’s Countryside Team Manages 2.5% Of Entire Borough Land Area?

Published on: 18 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 22 Nov, 2020

Hugh Coakley meets Guildford Borough Council’s countryside ‘outdoors’ team and hears about the often unsung work they do behind the scenes in the borough’s open spaces.

Guildford Borough Council’s countryside “outdoors” team. From left: countryside warden Nick Rowe, assistant wardens Sophie Wilkinson, Verity Foster and John Andrews, at the Riverside Nature Reserve near Burpham.

“Our work here is not for now, it’s for our kids,” said countryside warden Nick Rowe.

He was talking about the Riverside Nature Reserve next to the A3 near Burpham. He said: “If we didn’t look after it, it would return to scrub, willow, gorse and birch. But it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.”

He has worked for Guildford Borough Council for 27 years, 12 of which have been with the countryside team.

Countryside warden Nick Rowe.

What’s the attraction then?

Assistant warden Sophie Wilkinson, with a degree in wildlife conservation, summed it up saying: “I love it, being out and seeing the change in the land we manage over time is wonderful.”

Assistant warden Sophie Wilkinson.

Guildford’s countryside estate is huge, around 700 hectares in more than 50 sites. That works out at about 2.5% of the entire land area in the borough of Guildford and it has some very special sites to look after.

Two sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) – Ash to Brookwood Heaths and Shalford Water Meadows, which is part of the Wey Valley Meadows SSSI, are on the list. And also two heathland sites, Bullswater Common and Pirbright Common, which are part of the Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area (SPA), as well as five local nature reserves.

One of the less glamorous jobs. John Andrews and Verity Foster installing signage at the Riverside Nature Park, summer 2020.

A tiny staff of eight including two tree inspectors manage that huge estate. I was meeting with the four person “outdoors” team. Their work includes looking after the infrastructure, the benches, gates and signs as well the nature conservation side of things and the calls from the public looking for information or reporting a problem. Some of the work, about 80 projects last year, is carried out by contractors supplementing the work of the in-house team.

Grazing cattle on Pirbright Common do “an amazing job”.

They have some interesting helpers and not just the many volunteers from businesses, schools and charities such as Butterfly Conservation. Around 100 cattle graze on the land reducing the need for tractors.

Assistant warden John Andrews explained the cattle selectively graze to different lengths of sward leaving a mosaic of mini-habitats, remove nutrients which is good for wildflowers and do minimal damage to the soil. “Cows do amazing work,” he said.

Assistant warden John Andrews.

John has a degree in politics and worked in a bank and as a teaching assistant before working at The Wildlife Trusts and now with Guildford Borough Council. He confirmed how sought after the countryside warden jobs are. Most of the team had spent time volunteering before applying. John added: “I always wanted to do this.”

Assistant warden Verity Foster said she was one of many attracted to this type of work. She has a diploma in environmental conservation. She said: “It’s not just a job.”

Assistant warden Verity Foster.

The glamorous side of the work depends on who was telling me. For Nick, it’s the variety with everything from using a tractor to tree planting. He said he had been involved in planting most of the trees in the Onslow Arboretum.

Verity loved doing the nightlife surveys on the estate, seeing things that you never normally experience. Sophie said she loved working with the volunteers and John said he felt coppice work gave him a link to the past, doing something that has been practised for centuries.

Covid hasn’t been easy for the team. There has been more litter and vandalism as people sought out open spaces during lockdown. The nesting platform for common terns in the middle of the Riverside Nature reserve’s Stoke Lake was damaged beyond repair as people used it as a diving platform. The team is reluctant to replace it until Covid measures are a bit clearer. They also had to suspend grazing because people weren’t closing the gates.

Volunteers cutting back willow which encroaches on the rare fen habitat in the Riverside Nature Reserve.

The work they do is important for wildlife in the borough and for the quality of life for residents. But only the work on the nationally designated areas such as the SSSIs are statutory, everything else is at the discretion of the council and there will be pressure on that as the money is squeezed.

Members of the small team are dedicated to their work and adding more to our borough than can be easily measured in pounds and pence and I, for one, think we are lucky to have them.

A stunning display of bluebells in the Chantries, April 2020.

See also Guildford Parks Team and Oscar the dog scoop top awards and Spotlight on Guildford’s waste operations services.

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