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Surrey Wildlife Trust's success story at Nower Wood

PUBLISHED: 15:18 24 June 2019

Ranmore nature trail 1967

Ranmore nature trail 1967

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Surrey Wildlife Trust has been revealing the wonders of nature for 60 years. Here we take a look at one of its many success stories, Nower Wood

As well as working tirelessly to conserve species and natural habitat across the county, Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) has always had education at its heart. In the very first years of the trust, its founders reached out to local schools, encouraging them to take trips to local nature sites, and organised nature trails to educate people of all ages about wildlife. These were a huge success - in 1966 a trail on Ranmore Common attracted more than 7,000 schoolchildren and 2,000 adults in seven days.

But nature trails alone were not enough. Oleg Polunin, chair of the trust, wrote in 1963: "I am very anxious that an extensive educational nature reserve […] should be available in Surrey. More is required than just good countryside, which we are still lucky enough to have some of in Surrey. We require a centre which can be set up permanently."

In 1971, the founders of the trust became aware that 83 acres of forest near Leatherhead called Nower Wood were being auctioned off. An ancient woodland which is mentioned in the Domesday Book, it was the perfect place for an education centre. It was already a haven for much woodland wildlife, with wonderful flora and ponds for dipping. School parties and groups could enjoy the reserve with minimal strain on nature.

Trust members decided to act. They pulled together funds and submitted the highest bid at auction, saving Nower Wood, which included 1,000 oak trees and a forest floor carpeted by wildflowers. But this win for wildlife came at a cost. The trust had offered £15,000 (about £208,000 in today's money), most of which it raised from a bank loan. If it was unable to pay this debt, it risked losing its new education reserve altogether.

An ambitious fundraising campaign was launched, using the characteristic woodcock, a resident of Nower Wood, as its emblem. Hundreds of donations came in from around Surrey, and as far afield as Canada and the US. It took until 1975 to pay off all the loans needed to buy the site; but the ancient woodland had been saved for generations to come.


Building a pioneering education centre

Having taken one major risk, trust founders then took another. In 1977 they entrusted Doug Hulyer, a 25-year-old student from London, with the job of turning the wood into an education resource within a year. "Essentially they were saying'bring the kids in and you'll have a job," explains Doug. "It was the job description from heaven, really. That first year was all about making the reserve self-sufficient." Doug lived in a cottage nearby, on the land of Humphrey Mackworth-Praed, one of the trust's founders. Working with volunteers, he started to move away from static nature trails to experiment with more interactive activities.

"By the end of the year, we had done it - we'd filled the place, and we'd filled it for the following year too," says Doug. "So then we had the idea of building a classroom - by which I mean somewhere to shelter from the rain. All sorts of great people helped build the place in the winter of 1978. The classroom really a shed, which we got second-hand from the county council, held together with sticky-back plastic.

"The whole thing was done on a shoestring, but there was quality in the thinking. I had the most amazing freedom to push the boundaries of what was possible. A lot of the concepts we developed went towards the creation of the London Wetland Centre and even projects in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere. Nower Wood was a place where ideas were pioneered."


An exciting new era

By 2012 the buildings at Nower Wood were showing their age. The roofs were leaky and the toilets froze in the winter. An ambitious fundraising campaign was launched to build a new education centre. It was boosted by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations from individual supporters and local businesses, eventually raising £1.1million.

In such an ecologically sensitive setting, the construction project had to be carried out with great care. The woodland is blessed with a precious seedbank and in April the forest floor is carpeted with the cobalt hues of thousands of bluebells. When building began in 2016, the seedbank was removed and reptiles carefully relocated.

After months of mud, hard hats and diggers, the brand-new, fully accessible education centre was completed and the seedbank re-laid. HRH The Countess of Wessex joined schoolchildren to officially open it in April 2017.

With three spacious classrooms and cutting-edge technology, the centre is equipped to educate people about wildlife for many years to come.

"Nower Wood is amazing. Just being in the ancient woodlands through the seasons is incredible and the centre is fabulous," says Liz Edwardes, who has been an education volunteer with the trust for two years. "Having the video microscopes is a brilliant end to pond-dipping or minibeast hunting because the children can see what they've caught blown up huge.

"Volunteering at Nower Wood has been just the best experience, it's the excitement and enthusiasm and the children go back to school buzzing - you never know what kind of little sparks you might be igniting. It's been two years of loveliness." 

With courses including Wild Tots, Forest School training, Holiday Clubs and art and photography lessons, Surrey Wildlife Trust has a range of exciting education activities for all ages. To find out more about learning or volunteeting with the Trust, visit surreywildlifetrust.org

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