Farmers along the South Downs have clubbed together to co-ordinate landscape-scale conservation across the Arun and Adur valleys.
Twenty-four farms and estates have already agreed to work together under the umbrella of the new “Arun to Adur Farmers’ Group”, covering more than 8,000ha (20,000 acres).
The group, which has been formed thanks to European rural development funding, is the only one of its kind in the South East.
It will work to enhance many aspects of the environment, including farmland birds such as lapwing and grey partridge, improving water quality, uncommon plants of arable fields such as cornflower, flower-rich chalk grassland and, within the river valleys, water voles.
Earlier this year, Defra and Natural England launched a new national Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund to encourage groups of farmers to work together and so achieve a higher standard and scale of conservation management than would be possible on individual holdings.
The scheme is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and is part of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE). It is competitive, with only 19 bids being successful in the 2015 round, and the Arun to Adur Farmers Group is the only project to be granted funding in the South East.
Farmer meetings and walks will allow knowledge to be shared. An annual farm walk is also planned to allow residents to visit some of the project area and enjoy the diverse countryside cared for by the group.
The funding has allowed Colin Hedley, an experienced farmer and local conservation adviser, to be given a part-time post of facilitator as well as paying for specialist training.
Mr Hedley said: “There is a feeling of great excitement about what we can do by delivering conservation on a landscape scale, by providing ideal conditions for wildlife in a locality even if this is across several farms, by creating habitat links and stepping stones across the area, and by thinking strategically as to how soil and water management can be improved to benefit local residents.
“Our job now is to deliver and we are looking forward to the inaugural farmer meeting in October to get started.”