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Celebrating Earth Day with Sussex Nature Heroes

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and to help celebrate the Booth Museum of Natural History has interviewed some of Sussex’s incredible ‘Nature Heroes’.

These are people who work tirelessly to help protect wildlife and connect people to nature in our area. Each week, we will focus on a different Nature Hero to highlight the projects they have worked on and find out how they have had a positive impact on our environment. We also asked them for some friendly advice on how we can all do our bit to help wildlife in Sussex, both during and after lockdown.

Devil’s_Dyke_mattbuck (category) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dr Rachel White

We start our series with Dr Rachel White who is a senior lecturer in ecology and conservation at the University of Brighton. Her research interests include avian ecology and conservation, human-nature interactions, citizen science, and patterns and drivers of extinction risk. She’s passionate about sharing her sense of wonder and excitement about the natural world, including finding effective ways to connect the public, particularly young people, with nature. This has led her to enter the Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere into the annual City Nature Challenge, which will run on the 24th to 27th April.

What do you love about the wildlife in Sussex?

Before going to university, I grew up in Crowborough in East Sussex with my parents and younger sister. I have countless fond memories exploring the varied natural wonders that Sussex has to offer – Ashdown Forest’s heathland, Cuckmere Haven’s coastal flood plain, the rolling hills and valleys of the South Downs National Park. Sussex is where my curiosity for the natural world was sparked. It is fantastic that within Sussex we have an internationally recognised UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – Brighton and Lewes Downs Biosphere (The Living Coast) – which celebrates and promotes a positive and sustainable relationship between people and nature.

What Sussex wildlife project have you worked on that you are most proud?

I’ve been involved in a number of Sussex-focused wildlife and engagement projects since 2014. One that I am particularly proud of is “Bird Buddies” (part-funded by the Sussex Ornithological Society), which engaged more than 200 primary school children in feeding and monitoring birds within their playgrounds. This was my first attempt at developing an environmental education intervention and the results showed enhanced awareness of local biodiversity, alongside significant gains in bird identification knowledge and attitudes, which were greatest for children with little prior exposure to nature. This project introduced me to the fantastic work by Katie Eberstein and BHee. Being able to help (re)connect people with nature and inspire the next generation of naturalists/conservationists is the main reason I do the job I do.

How are you connecting to nature during lockdown? Can you offer any advice to people?

Fire crest, Regulus_ignicapilla_Arundel, Jacob Arnold from sutton surrey, england, CC BY /2.0

I feel fortunate to have a decent-sized garden at my home in Uckfield, which I have been enjoying and appreciating more than ever since the lockdown. I started a “lockdown” bird list, which so far has over 20 species that I have seen or heard from home – highlights include grey heron, kestrel, buzzard and firecrest. The list has now expanded to include other wildlife as well, and I am trying my best to encourage my partner, Cristiano to get involved and help me. If you don’t have your own outside space and you are able to do so, then discover and explore a nature route for your daily exercise. Last weekend, on a walk from home, I stumbled across a beautiful patch of woodland – the bluebells and wood anemones were stunning. Evidence is overwhelming now for the varied health and wellbeing benefits we derive from connecting with nature – especially if we engage all of our senses.

City Nature Challenge 2020: Take part in this fun, educational and worldwide effort to record local wildlife from the comfort of your home. Anyone who lives within The Living Coast region can join in by taking photos of wildlife discovered at or close to home between the 24th and 27th April and uploading them for free to iNaturalist. Anyone can join in, from experienced naturalist to curious beginner, young, old and families. It is a great way to get involved in biological recording and it will help build your confidence and experience in wildlife identification.

To find out more visit the City Nature Challenge in The Living Coast.

To find out more about biological recording in Sussex visit the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre

What project are you most excited to get back to when you leave lockdown?

European_white_stork, Manuelia318 / CC BY-SA 4.0

I am fortunate as quite a lot of my research is desk-based and I am able to continue with that. However, I recently obtained a grant to start exploring the potential for species reintroductions to reconnect people with local nature and landscapes. It will focus on the reintroduction of the charismatic migratory white stork to Southern England. Working with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Knepp Estate, one of my first tasks is to establish baseline perceptions of local communities towards the species – a task which will be much easier to achieve once we leave lockdown.

What one thing would you recommend people can do to support Sussex wildlife?

My recommendation is to start from home and (re)wild it. My garden is definitely a wild garden – we made the decision to take a step back and let nature do its thing for the majority of the area it covers. Some people might say it is a messy garden which needs taming but taking a largely unmanaged approach means it is a wildlife haven. The more variety you have in your habitats and their structure, the more biodiverse the area will be – bare ground, dead wood, temporary pond(s), unmown grass, native flowers, shrubs and trees. Start off by making just a corner of your garden wild and see where it takes you. If you only have a yard or window sill, you can still wild these; for example, by creating a bug hotel and/or bird feeders and attaching it to a wall/fence, and planting the favourite wild flowers of pollinators in pots or a window box. Finally, don’t forget to pass the word on about the importance of small-scale (re)wilding to your family and friends – the more people that do it the bigger the impact.

Dr Rachel White is contactable on Twitter  @Rach_L_White or via email

You can see a white stork on display at the Booth Museum of Natural History when we re-open. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the City Nature Challenge to see what wildlife you can spot just outside your doorstep.

European White Stork case, Booth Museum of Natural History

Check out our next Nature Hero in our blog next week.

Grace Brindle, Collections Assistant