Written by Dr Adrian Cooper
On 11 May, Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve celebrated its fifth anniversary. This article picks out some of the big lessons which we’ve learned, so they might help and encourage other community-based conservation groups.
Developing the project
Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve began life in May 2015 when it became clear to a small group of friends in our town that mainstream national and local politicians were not taking the decline in British wildlife as seriously as they should. In Felixstowe, we decided that “something should be done”. But what, exactly? Lots of good ideas were discussed as our circle of interested local people grew. The first lesson I can offer you, from those early months, is that most everyday people would love to have the opportunity to take part in conservation work. However, it has to be at their pace, and on their terms. The second lesson is that when developing a ‘community’ project, it is a very good idea to spend as much time as possible just listening and talking with as many people as possible about what they want to see happening. Listen first. Take action later.
By October 2015, we realised that with no money, it was impossible to have any kind of urban nature reserve like the city of Bristol pioneered in 1985. So we decided that instead of having a single nature reserve, we would build a networked nature reserve, composed of small pieces of local people’s back gardens, allotments and window boxes. So that became the founding concept of what was to become Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve.
Also in October 2015, we started our Facebook page, and began to publish all sorts of ideas which people could adapt for the wildlife-friendly sections of their ‘green areas’. We asked people to try and devote at least 3 square yards of their garden, but to fill that area with any kind of wildlife-friendly feature which they wished. So that included many kinds of pollinator-friendly plants as well as hedgehog homes, insect lodges, wildlife ponds, bird feeders etc.
By the end of 2015, we extended our publicity through home-made posters which we posted on just about every community board in town. We had members interviewed on Felixstowe Radio and TV. So another lesson I can offer to other community-based conservation groups is that every kind of media should be used to share your message. Never place too much emphasis on social media because many people, particularly the elderly, do not use it.
Another big lesson – and a major key to our success – is that our growing numbers have mostly been developed through neighbours encouraging and helping each other. That is, through conversations over the garden fence, or round the kitchen table, people tell their family, friends and neighbours about the work we are doing, and why we are doing it. The message was therefore shared right across the Felixstowe area: that participation is open to just about anyone; and there are no strict requirements requiring conformity to any master plan. Just a celebration of everything that a richly diverse, community nature reserve can be.
Today, we have over 1600 active members. Their average allocation is 3.65 square yards. That means that if you added together all the new green spaces which have been created since the start of our work, we have an area equivalent in size to a full-sized football pitch – and we’re growing just about every month of the year!
We have always believed that a true ‘community’ nature reserve should reflect the full richness of the Felixstowe community. So it was a total joy when several local artists shared paintings which had been inspired by our work. Naturally, we were delighted to put that work onto our Facebook page. Then photographers began to share their responses to our work. Again, their creativity was also shared on Facebook. Local musicians have also composed and recorded original music to accompany our films.
By the early months of 2017, our Facebook content began to attract recognition from people in six continents. So it was always a joy to share examples of Felixstowe music, painting and photography with our growing international audience. Many of those people were very encouraging in their feedback concerning our work in general, and our art in particular.
We also wanted to encourage local young people to respond to our work in their way. We therefore appointed Luke Smout as our Youth Representative. His remit was to talk to other local young people and engage their active participation in our work in any way they liked.
One of the most enjoyable outputs to those youth-led projects was when a group of Digital Media Production students from the University of Suffolk made us a brilliant documentary about our aims. You can see the results of that work for yourself if you look on YouTube, and search for Nature and Community: Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve.
By the early months of 2018, we were growing in an encouraging way. We had lots of anecdotal feedback from members telling us how they were seeing a growth in biodiversity in their gardens. But we needed to be able to express that growth in numbers, maps and diagrams. Consequently, in April 2018, we started the Felixstowe Citizen Science Group. Their aim was simply to collect and analyse data about the work of the Community Nature Reserve. Right from the start, we encouraged the Citizen Science Group to develop their own questions and projects. And they’ve never disappointed!
In their first project, they used QGIS software to create a map featuring sightings of hedgehogs in the Felixstowe area as far north as Kirton. Other projects have included the use of R software to produce raster block heat maps of areas in local gardens which attract the most bird sightings across single or multiple days. In other words, a lot of information is crunched down into a single heat map – making it very clear where individual gardeners are particularly successful at attracting local birds. To see more examples of this citizen science, please visit the Facebook page of the Felixstowe Citizen Science Group.
It has always been a great pleasure to receive reports when a new community nature reserve is established elsewhere, but which is modelled on the pioneering work in Felixstowe. In April for example, we learned that Pontos + Vida in Portugal has been inspired by our work and is now encouraging its members to use their terraces and balcony spaces to grow wildlife-friendly plants in pots. In the previous month, we were excited to learn that we inspired the Brightlingsea Nature Network. Woodbridge has recently started its own community nature reserve and the Ipswich Community Nature Reserve has been established too. I have also had discussions with representatives from other Suffolk towns.
Despite the presence of COVID-19 in all our lives, the growth of Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve has been largely unaffected. Our Citizen Science Group completed an analysis on 22 April showing that 72% of interviewees had not stopped their active participation in our work since the pandemic began. It also showed that 91% continued to encourage their neighbours “over the garden fence”, while 23% kept their support going by engaging in our plant swap scheme with their neighbours. 8% also took part in our pot swap scheme. When asked why they continued to take part in our work, 65% said they liked being a part of the legacy of good conservation practice which we are establishing in Felixstowe.
Our work therefore continues. Hopefully, these words will encourage others to establish something similar in their community!