Simon Thompson reported that the project was currently fully staffed, with 4.4 FTE Wardens, an Education and Communication Officer, and Project Manager. As the necessary approvals for the recruitment of the ten seasonal wardens were now in place, it was anticipated they would be in post by March 2016. Three of the posts would be hosted externally, by Hampshire County Council, Surrey Wildlife Trust and Horsell Common Preservation Society, under a grant funding agreement with Natural England. The remaining seven would be employed directly by Natural England as short-term appointments.
The project was currently looking at options for alternative accommodation which would be suitable for the number of staff the project would have in 2016. DEFRA approval to rent a non-DEFRA estate office had been granted in principle, and discussions with a number of organisations regarding potential accommodation were proceeding. Further information would be provided to Members at the next meeting.
The Wardens and the Education and Communication Officer have met with each of the land managers of the particular areas of the SPA to highlight the locations on the site with highest visitor pressures, and agree any specific messages they wish the wardens to impart, prior to the commencement of wardening. Agreements for access licenses were, either in place or being finalised with a number of organisations. In all cases, other than the Crown Estate, it was expected that licenses would be in place ahead of the 2016 bird breeding season.
The warden output per month over the 2015 breeding bird season had been 295 on-site warden hours, 1110 people engaged and 176 leaflets issued. These figures were averages for the period from July to September inclusive, which was the period during which the warden team had been at full strength.
The Education and Communication Officer had focussed on communications for this first year as it was felt that it was very important to get the project identity established and to maximise public awareness of the project. The Education and Communication Officer, and the Wardens had also undertaken a programme of visits to all of the SANGs in the Thames Basin Heaths area. This programme included written details and photographs for each site which would be used to produce a SANGs directory and a series of SANGs leaflets, as well as be published on the internet.
It was reported that DEFRA rules effectively prevented the Natural England from having a website as it allowed a zero spend for this purpose. However Horsell Common Preservation Society had offered to host a website on behalf of the project. This was still in the early stages of development but should be on-line by the end of March. It was intended that the site be used to promote the project’s key messages and also to promote all the SANGs sites. It was intended that whilst the site was technically hosted alongside the Horsell Common Preservation Society site, it would have its own distinctive identity and contain links to the relevant pages on all the authorities websites. The project had also launched a Facebook page and a Twitter feed which were updated daily.
Project partners had identified that commercial dog walkers were a significant cause of disturbance on the SPA, this had been reinforced by the experiences of the SAMM wardens. The SAMM project was therefore coordinating an SPA wide approach to the licensing of commercial dog walkers. A licensing pilot was being planned, with the Crown Estate and Horsell Common Preservation Society due to trial the approach from Spring 2016.
The licence would cover all land holdings of the licensing organisations, including SPA, SANGs and other nonspecific open space. Concerns about legitimising dog walking on the SPA were raised. It was reported that this had been the subject of much discussion but that the majority view had been these activities were already going on on the SPA without control or guidance and it had been felt therefore that a licence together with a Code of Conduct which limited the maximum number of dogs an individual could have would be much better than currently, although it was except that licensing an activity on the SPA had inherent risks.
Doubts were also expressed in relation to how the licence conditions would be enforced and how the penalties would be applied. It was recognised that the effect of licensing commercial dog walkers was unknown and could require additional resources to enforce the licence conditions. However it was recognised that the potential effects of licensing commercial dog walkers would be evaluated as part of the trial.
With regard to the bird numbers, the monitoring report for this year had not been yet been received and would present to the next meeting. Last year’s report showed that there was a healthy increase in the bird population across the SPA. Early indications of the data for this year showed a continuing increase generally. It was acknowledged that protection of the Habitats was the main concern of the JSPB rather than fluctuations in bird numbers.
The automatic people counter sensors had now been installed on all land, except Ministry of Defence. The project was currently in advanced discussion with the Ministry of Defence and it was expected that the remaining sensors would be installed by March 2016. Throughout 2015 the project had been calibrating and resolving various unexpected issues with the sensors. All problems had now been resolved ahead of the 2016 bird breeding season and a complete data set for next year would therefore be available.
The SAMM project had now reached a staffing level to enable car park counts to be undertaken in-house. This would facilitate a move to a more robust methodology of undertaking one set of transects on a monthly basis. It was recognised that car park counts only provided data on the number of visitors who travelled to the SPAs by car. However it was comparatively cheap to collect the data which would provide information on trends on visitation rates over time.
It was suggested that the proposed website should contain information showing footpaths links to the SANGS to encourage visitors to use the SANGS as part of a longer walk. It was also suggested that, with the permission of the landowners, notices could be displayed at the SPAs directing visitors to the nearest SANG or other non designated open space. It was also proposed to provide the wardens with leaflets to distribute to SPA visitors identifying the nearest SANGs.
It considered that the content of the website should be agreed following consideration by the JSPB. Natural England agreed to provide a report to the next meeting on the detailed content of the website provide this did not result in delays to the launch.
The expected SAMM project expenditure for the 2015/16 and 2016/17 year were received. It was noted that salary costs had been based on June 2014 Natural England pay scales and so were likely to increase in line with future pay agreements. It was noted that Non Pay Running costs in both table should read Travel and Subsistence and Non Pay Running costs.
Indicative SAMM project activity for the next six months was detailed and set out the main delivery elements of the project over this period.
(i) the SAMM project update be noted;
(ii) Natural England be asked to provide a report on the detailed content of the project’s website to be hosted by the Horsell Common Preservation Society and that this report be considered at the additional meeting referred to in Paragraph 3.10 above