Almost one hundred people gathered at Marlborough Golf Club to mark the occasion at the 50th Anniversary Annual Forum last Friday (25th November) and consider the challenges presented by the next 50 years: biodiversity loss, food security, human access to green spaces and climate change. The North Wessex Downs gained its protected status back in 1972 when it was recognised as one of the UK’s finest landscapes, worthy of the highest level of protection in law.

Speakers included: Nicola Chester, award-winning local author; Natalie Ganpatsingh, founding Director of Nature Nurture CIC; Roger Kerr, CEO of Organic Farmers and Growers CIC; and Professor Tom Oliver from the University of Reading.

Tom Oliver spoke of the devastating loss of biodiversity recorded over the last 50 years, pointing out that protected species are still declining and that we only have 40% of the biodiversity we had 50 years ago. He said that protected areas, such as the AONB, meant that there were important controls over development but that agri-environment schemes hadn’t delivered the desired conservation of our habitats and species. He spoke of his concern that the approach the government was taking might have unintended negative consequences, whereby ‘doing the right thing’ would become merely a transactional process and lead to ‘an ebay for ecosystems services’.

Natalie Ganpatsingh talked about access to green spaces and asked, ‘are we all invited?’ She highlighted a recent successful project working with Henry Scutt, who wanted to see a more diverse audience accessing his Sulham Estate near Reading on the eastern edge of the AONB. The project, in partnership with the British Islamic Gardens and Reading Refugee Support, resulted in a diverse group of women experiencing the health and wellbeing benefits of being in a beautiful green space.

Roger Kerr’s presentation focussed on food – our methods of production and our food security – stating that ‘there was something fundamentally wrong with our food system’ which is a driving force for dangerous climate change, nature loss and societal inequality.

Nicola Chester celebrated the beauty of the landscape with her presentation, speaking lyrically about wildlife and landscape and also reading from her book On Gallows Down.

A woman is cutting a celebratory cake while three men stand beside her and look at the camera

Chair of the Council of Partners Sarah Nichols cuts the 50th anniversary cake watched by Ted Hiscocks (former Chair) and Byron Carron (former Chair) – left – and Danny Kruger MP – right

After a thought-provoking afternoon Danny Kruger MP for Devizes proposed a toast to the North Wessex Downs followed by the Chair of the North Wessex Downs AONB Partnership, Sarah Nichols, cutting an anniversary cake emblazoned with the AONB logo. Many delegates then took the opportunity to go outside for a stargazing session with local astronomer and Director of Marlborough’s Blackett Observatory, Gavin James.