Heathland Connections Nature Recovery Project launches

20th July 2023

Natural England Press Release:

  • Heathland Connections Nature Recovery Project, covering 16,000 hectares, will create wildlife-rich habitats, improve climate security, and offer opportunities for the local communities
  • Project part of six nature recovery projects launched, backed by £7.4 million funding, to support government target to halt and then reverse the decline in nature
  • Rare Natterjack toads set to be first species to benefit, along with habitats that are home to rare, bird, reptile, dragonfly and plant species

An area bigger than the size of Hertfordshire is to be dedicated to fast tracking nature recovery, as six new landscape-scale nature recovery projects are launched by Natural England and the government.

The Heathlands Connections in Surrey is one of the six Nature Recovery Projects supported by £7.4 million funding from Defra and Natural England. It is a new, ambitious project working with partners to enhance, restore and connect the special habitats found in the western most section of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) landscape.

This project will connect designated sites, such as Thursley, Hankley and Frensham Commons SPA, with surrounding heathlands, owned by partners who are keen to work more closely together. Collectively, the project will find innovative solutions to management challenges such as habitat degradation, disturbance to ground nesting birds, and the emerging threat of more frequent and more devastating wildfires.

The Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) currently sees approximately 30 million visitors annually due to its proximity to London and other significant urban areas. This project will produce and deliver a ‘gold standard’ sustainable recreation plan to encourage those visiting the landscape to use active travel, improve access and therefore create a better connection to nature.

Funded by Natural England and led by the Heathland Connections partnership, the project aims to restore natural processes and make the landscape more resilient. These unique habitats are hotspots for important, and rare, bird, reptile, dragonfly and plant species and are an iconic landscape for the local community to enjoy.

Allison Potts, Thames Solent Area Manager, Natural England said:

“We’re really excited to launch our Nature Recovery Project here across the iconic heathland of West Surrey, a rare and important landscape and habitat.

“This project is all about connections. It’s connecting the heathlands together, so they have a more certain future. It also connects the landscape with the people that live or visit here; connecting partners that work here to achieve a bigger impact together and connecting in the exciting, new ways to fund biodiversity and green infrastructure improvements. Doing so will help us achieve ambitious nature recovery progress in a place that matters for people and wildlife.”


Matt Cusack, Lead Ranger, Natural Trust said:

“Heathlands are home to some of our most precious plants and wildlife, and we need to do everything we can to not only protect them but give them the best chance of recovering. We’re excited to be working alongside these partners to help achieve that.”


Rob Fairbanks, Director, Surrey Hills National Landscape said:

“Heathland Connections will help us really engage with the local community and visitors on the importance of thriving with nature. The better connected they feel to the landscape and the nature with in it, the better chance we have to safeguard and enhance it for generations to come.”

The project will empower local communities, generating long-term sustainable funding opportunities while providing sustainable recreation that improves peoples’ health and wellbeing as well as their understanding and appreciation of this unique landscape.

The six multi-partnership collaborative projects covering 176,000 hectares of land across England – from the Tees Estuary to the South Downs – will create improved and better-connected habitats for wildlife and improve public access to nature. The projects will strengthen the national Nature Recovery Network and showcase delivering nature recovery at scale.

All the projects, announced today (20 July), will help to manage flooding and wildfire risks, improve carbon stores and build diverse habitats for wildlife such as the endangered wart biter cricket and the elusive twite.



  • Partners in the Heathland Connections project include National Trust, The Surrey Hills board, Surrey County Council, Waverley Borough Council, Surrey Wildlife Trust, RSPB, MOD, Forestry England and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC).
  • The Nature Recovery Projects will make a major contribution to the Nature Recovery Network and help deliver on the commitments set out in the government’s Environmental Improvement Plan to halt the decline in nature and support thriving plants and wildlife.
  • This announcement builds on the G7 legacy project in Cornwall and the five Nature Recovery Projects launched in 2022 which are improving and connecting wildlife rich sites and restoring degraded areas for nature across the West Midlands, the Peak District, Somerset, Norfolk and Cambridge. The new projects extend this landmark commitment across the country to include uplands, coastal and marine areas, and will demonstrate how blended public and private finance can support the Nature Recovery Network. The funding will support the twelve projects across the three-year period of the comprehensive spending review.
  • Improving and connecting existing strongholds for wildlife, creating new habitats and investing in collaborative action for nature at scale will help achieve our pledge to protect 30% of our land and sea for nature by 2030, and create a sustainable future for people and the planet.


Other projects across England include:

  • East of Eden, Cumbria – Based in the upland regions of Cumbria, this project stretches over 100,000ha from fertile farmland of the eastern Eden Valley to the western slopes of the North Pennines and the moorlands above. The project will support land managers to create habitats for species such as the curlew, black grouse and the Teesdale Violet. Natural flood management techniques will reduce flood risk and improve the absorption of carbon by rewetting peat.
  • The Lost Wetlands, Cheshire to Lancashire – Extending over 5,000ha the project will reclaim, restore and rewet a mosaic of wetland habitats in South Greater Manchester and North Cheshire, previously lost to historic industrialisation, urbanisation and agricultural intensification of the landscape. A network of wetland habitats will be restored to improve connectivity for wildlife, creating habitats where dragonflies, Great Crested Newts and Water Voles can thrive. The project will also engage young people and communities, providing greater connection to the wetlands on their doorstep and opportunities to celebrate the natural heritage of the area. This work will help support the government’s commitment to bring people closer to nature, with everyone living no more than 15 minutes from a green space.
  • Tees Estuary Recovering Nature, Northumbria – Covering over 11,000ha, the TERN Project will work with partners to improve, create and restore coastal, estuarine and land-based habitats. Steeped in industrial history, this area is home to a well-loved colony of Common Seals and assemblages of roosting waders and wildfowl including the little tern, wintering knot, ringed plover and redshank. Action will create bigger and better connected habitats that increase climate resilience and offer a sustainable future for these cherished species. New footpath links will also bring the community closer to nature, strengthening Teesside’s vision as a place for people and nature.
  • Bradford and South Pennines, Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire – Spanning 30,000ha, this partnership will restore and enhance the condition of the upland peat landscapes in the South Pennines, restoring habitats for moorland birds such as the endangered twite. Natural Flood Management techniques will benefit communities at risk of flooding in the Calder Valley with the creation of intertwining mosaics of wetland habitats. Green corridors will also be created, linking upland sites to the urban environment and industrial heartlands and allowing wildlife to move freely. The project will work closely with community groups, and the NHS, providing opportunities to connect the people of Bradford and West Yorkshire with nature on their doorstep. Working with Bradford City of Culture 2025, the project will encourage sustainable access to nature and highlight the environmental links between the industrial heartlands of West Yorkshire and the moors which define them.
  • Seaford to Eastbourne, Sussex and Kent – Traversing 12,000 ha of the iconic land and seascape of the South Downs, the project builds on key partnerships with South East Water, local authorities, farmers and fishers. The project will build on research into chalk aquifers in the area which confirms the importance of using healthy chalk grass and chalk heath habitats to deliver clean and plentiful water. The work to integrate habitat and natural flood management schemes will create clean water supplies for nearby towns and benefit species, such as the rare Wart-biter Cricket. Ambitions further extend out to sea where the project partners will seek to boost Short Snouted Seahorse populations found near Beachy Head. The project is also researching how NHS staff who work in complex mental health can be trained in nature-based interventions, supporting the communities within Seaford to Eastbourne.


Defra Group press office: Communications_SE@environment-agency.gov.uk / 0800 141 2743