Well over 100 delegates attended the North Wessex Downs AONB’s Annual Forum which this year was hosted by Mr Richard Benyon at the historic Englefield House on Friday 15th November.
The sold-out event saw the launch of the new five-year AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) Management Plan and gave the wider community an opportunity to consider the future of the North Wessex Downs in an era of great environmental change and challenge.
Speakers included Richard Benyon and Lord Cameron of Dillington who declared that the North Wessex Downs AONB was as important to the nation as the Lake District.
Speaking to the packed Long Gallery, Richard Benyon explained that it was the desire to protect the AONB that had first got him into politics and that he wanted the North Wessex Downs to be as well-known as Dartmoor. He believed there should be road signs as you enter the AONB.
Mr Benyon praised the work the AONB team had done in facilitating farmer clusters (groups of neighbouring farmers who have linked up to develop conservation opportunities in their area), in particular the Southern Streams group and said he hoped the Englefield Estate could be involved in a similar farmer-led local initiative.
The former MP spoke of the many environmental conservation opportunities in the North Wessex Downs that exist along linear features such as the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Ridgeway National Trail which he described as one of the “crown jewels of the South of England”.
He also noted that 85% of the world’s chalk streams were located in England - a large proportion of which run through the North Wessex Downs - and declared that “their degradation is a national disgrace”.
Delegates then heard from Lord Cameron who, as a member of the Designated Landscapes Review panel led by Julian Glover, discussed the vision of the Glover Review and what implications that may have for the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Lord Cameron emphasised that “the North Wessex Downs is as important as the Lake District” and reiterated that fact that people find both spiritual and physical enrichment in our countryside.
He said that the way AONBs across the country had engaged with their communities was inspirational but, he said, “they need more money and it needs to be paid up front.”
The Glover review proposes that AONBs are re-named National Landscapes and Lord Cameron hoped the Review would re-energise the system and provide the teams who look after these landscapes with more resources so that they could “focus hard on making our national landscapes our biodiversity gems”.
Henry Oliver, Director of the North Wessex Downs AONB, presented the new Management Plan and there then followed a series of masterclasses which gave delegates the chance to discuss how they could get involved in the future of the AONB – from restoring wildflowers to improving the economy through tourism partnerships.
Lunch was followed by a walking tour of the land and facilities around Englefield House led by members of staff from the estate team.
Henry Oliver, Director, said, “We are extremely grateful to Richard Benyon and all the team here at Englefield Estate for supporting the North Wessex Downs AONB as well as to all those who came to today’s Forum. It was an inspiring event that has motivated us all to grasp the exciting opportunities the Glover Review presents.”