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Conservation group launches bid to rewild Kingston nature reserve

A conservation group has announced its proposal to rewild Tolworth Court Farm, the largest nature reserve in Kingston.

Citizen Zoo’s rewilding project aims to tap into the ecological and social potential of the 50-hectare site, which has become a focal point of biodiversity running parallel to the Hogsmill River.

Despite being home to the elusive brown hairstreak butterfly along with other wildlife, a recent study by Kingston collective The Community Brain revealed that less than 5% of Tolworth residents had actually visited the reserve.

Citizen Zoo’s Urban Rewilding Officer Ben Stockwell described how the Tolworth Court Farm project could bring real benefits to not just the local wildlife, but to people in the community.

He said: “We really want to make sure we can raise its profile and make it a place where people can enjoy the wildlife on their doorstep. 

“The good thing about rewilding is that you put nature in the driving seat and you sit back and see what comes.

“You’re reintroducing species which once roamed the landscape. They help to shape that landscape and drive forward habitat creation and mixed-dynamic ecosystems.

“It’s not just rewilding the landscape but also rewilding people. If we can help people connect with the nature around them then it would be brilliant to bridge that gap.”

With many rewilding projects across the country focussed on large-scale rural sites, Stockwell spoke of his organisation’s eagerness to tackle an urban setting in Kingston.

 “It’s exciting from an urban perspective and it will be a fairly novel thing,” he added. 

“To see how you can apply those methods on a smaller scale will be really interesting, especially in an urban context because people often disregard urban areas as ecological deserts. 

“If we can prove that we can make these thriving ecosystems with dynamic habitats it will stake a claim in terms of what is possible in an urban context.”

Keeping a keen eye over the project is Kingston’s Biodiversity Officer Elliot Newton, who outlined just how significant Tolworth Court Farm may be for the borough’s ecological potential.

He said: “It’s part of a large ecological network on the banks of the Hogsmill. 

“The site already has these fantastic ancient hedgerows which provide corridors for species but also have lots of species in their own right integrated within. 

“It’s probably one of the best sites in the south east of England for brown hairstreak butterfly. We know there are bat roosts in some of the woodland and relatively strong floral communities in some of the meadows, but it’s definitely not reaching its potential. 

“So it’s great that Citizen Zoo are doing this initiative to engage some level of feasibility. It won’t just improve the biodiversity of the site locally but also have implications across the borough as wildlife moves out.

“We hope this won’t only protect it but enhance it at the same time.”

In order to capitalise on the social value of the site, Citizen Zoo will also involve the Tolworth community through education and engagement activities during the project’s development.

Stockwell said: “The key thing for us is to run a series of inclusive community consultations. 

“These will come in the form of education days, but also engagement days for community members to come along for guided tours and talks.

“These could be more generally about rewilding but also about the site to get people excited and more knowledgeable about what we’re going to do.” 

Kingston Council took feedback from almost 400 residents between August and December 2020 around its green spaces, and the community expressed a strong desire for more rewilding and greater biodiversity projects.

Councillor Hilary Gander, Kingston Council’s Portfolio Holder for Environment and Sustainable Transport said that the community’s feedback would help to focus efforts on ‘what matters most.’ 

She commented: “Our goal is clear: a cleaner, greener Kingston for people to live, work and visit alongside thriving wildlife populations. 

“We will continue to work closely with residents and our community groups to achieve this, building on the different approaches we have been trialling over the past couple of years, including introducing relaxed mowing regimes in parks, planting biobeds to increase urban pollinators, supporting the establishment of new community orchards and piloting traditional grassland grazing.”

Citizen Zoo are currently fundraising to match their Greater London Authority grant application, and with a large enough display of public support through shares, likes and donations, the Tolworth Court Farm project will get underway this summer.

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