Chair’s blog – December 2020

 In National Landscape updates
Bruce Payne, management group chair

Bruce Payne, management group chair

What a year! What would be your choice for the most frequently heard new phrase, social distancing, self-isolate, shielding, test and trace, Zoom? When I look back over the year and reflect on the work of the Blackdown Hills AONB team and partnership I find a wholly different number of terms comes to mind, such as resilience, flexibility, dedication, collaboration, co-creation, innovation – all evident in a team effort like never before.

The team has, against all the odds, continued to deliver outstanding work and maintain momentum across a broad range of projects and initiatives. I have personally experienced the introduction of innovative online communications and collaboration techniques, such as MURAL. These have enabled many people and partners to contribute their experience and information to support the delivery of each stage of project work in our major project Connecting the Culm. I would encourage you to delve a little deeper into the Blackdown Hills website and the various links in the AONB newsletter to get a feel for what has been achieved, what is planned and, most importantly, how you can get involved.

Collaboration is a key facet of all our work, whether leading or supporting an initiative. It is fundamental to a major new project which has just launched. Somerset Nature Connections is a project, led by Somerset Wildlife Trust and supported by three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the Blackdown Hills. The project aims to help support local communities and individuals most vulnerable to mental health issues by helping people to gain better access to natural spaces and encouraging connections for the benefit of mental and physical health and wellbeing. I cannot think of a more appropriate project for the present situation that we all find ourselves in and I’m delighted to have been invited to chair the steering group.

At the outset of the pandemic it seemed improbable that we would be able to continue work with volunteers but, as soon as rules permitted, our volunteer coordinator was on the case and volunteers were soon back in the river surveying the crayfish population. In addition, a number of online and ongoing training sessions have been arranged with partners such as Plantlife. Until I tuned in to one of their sessions, I did not appreciate that there are 60 or so species of fern in the UK and some 14 or so in Atlantic woodlands that are found in south-west England.

In addition to our locally-focussed work, I have been delighted to see the important role that our small team has played in supporting national initiatives lead by the National Association of AONBs. Covering a range of topics including those derived from the 25 Year Environment Plan to improve biodiversity and nature recovery and the Agricultural Bill which addresses implications for the farming community, now that the UK has left the European Union. The team certainly can punch above its weight!

Like everyone, I suspect, I am looking forward to a brighter 2021, another oft-repeated phrase springs to mind – light at the end of the tunnel! There will be ongoing challenges undoubtedly but from what I have seen and experienced this year I know that our AONB team is well placed to meet them head on.

It just remains for me to wish you all the best for the coming holiday season and a healthy and happy 2021.

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