The Goring family has owned the land which is now the Steyning Downland Scheme since 1743. For many years the land was farmed but during the 1980s, it became increasingly difficult to graze the ancient chalk grassland sward. Due to changing agricultural practices and increasing urban fringe issues, grazing became sporadic and then stopped altogether.
Rubbish and burnt-out cars began to define the landscape. The pond became overgrown and the chalk grassland was gradually replaced by scrub. There was also conflict between different interests. Mountain bikers had adopted part of the woodland and were using badger setts as jumps. A barn (later demolished) was being increasingly used by young people for raves, although it supported an important bat roost.
Then Harry and Pip Goring, the current Wiston Estate owners, met Peter Harris from the nature conservation charity, A Rocha. They were inspired by the A Rocha values: Community, cooperation, cross cultural, conservation and Christian, and wanted to find a place to put these into action on the Wiston Estate. The Steyning Downland seemed an obvious choice.
In March 2007 a public meeting was held in St Mary’s Church, Wiston to gauge local interest in a new conservation project. Fifty people attended – many more than expected! The aim, to bring together the needs of people and wildlife, was received very positively, and a steering group was formed of local people. The Steyning Downland Scheme (SDS) was born.
The SDS became a UK registered charity in 2009 and the project has since grown from strength to strength. There is now a calendar of community events, all run by volunteers. We host the best site in England to see the rare Brown Hairstreak butterfly and we have partnered with the National Park Authority, Butterfly Conservation and Wakehurst Place, Kew to attract the Duke of Burgundy butterfly back to Steyning. Mountain bikers have a designated area; teams of local people carry out botany, bird and butterfly surveys; school children enjoy creative ‘Discovery Days’ and ‘Bushcraft Days’ and conservation grazing has started again, through a partnership with a local grazier.
The Trustees oversee the overall development of the scheme and are responsible for charity policy, legal compliance and funding. The steering group, representing the local community, make decisions on the operational aspects of the scheme and put them into action.
Today there are well over 100 volunteers actively involved in the SDS in some capacity and many more people benefit from the scheme by attending our events. The Wiston Estate continues to invest in the scheme in many different ways, and the scheme has blossomed into a much bigger reality than was ever first conceived.