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CVLLP 19: RSPB Coombes Valley - Improving the experience

Project Objective

The project will provide an improved welcome and learning experience for the local community and visitors to North Staffordshire and the Churnet Valley. 

It will increase the number of people appreciating and learning about the natural heritage of the Churnet Valley and how to manage it. 

Improved interpretation and an extended trail network (joining together two Public Rights of Way) will substantially improve the experience and ability to engage with the site, facilitating an improved connection with nature. 

It will also provide an all year round learning environment with the immediacy of a nature reserve context.  Through the Outdoor Learning Centre, it will focus on encouraging learning, training and skills development. 

The Outdoor Learning Centre will enhance an existing structure to allow the facility to be used all year round.  It will be the only building within the CVLLP that is dedicated to learning and people engagement focussed on the Living Landscape.  The building itself will be a learning and people engagement opportunity. 

As a demonstration site of woodland management for biodiversity, the facility will be integral to the CVLLP 1 Sustainable Woodland Project.  It will also provide a resource for engaging with the CVLLP 2 Grassland Advisor Project, interpreting the CVLLP 3 Headwaters Project and engaging with other land managers including farmers as part of the CVLLP 12 Land Based Advisor Project . 

It is recognised in the CVLLP 13 Youth Engagement Project and CVLLP 22 Accredited training that there is a need for facilities to allow youth engagement and training within the Churnet Valley Living Landscape Partnership and this facility will be an integral component of these projects.  Coombes Valley already has school visits from the local area as part of the RSPB’s Living Classrooms but this will expand the ability to deliver for schools outside the spring and summer months.   

The immediacy of the appropriate natural environment to the Outdoor Learning Facility has been identified as a specific benefit to CVLLP 1, 2, 3, 4, 13 and 17 projects.

The project as a whole has the major objective of increasing the number of people within the CVLLP area that engage with the natural environment and learn from it.

Fit existing strategies and objectives

Coombes Valley has been identified within the Hotspot Audit and the Statement of Significance as a wildlife site of importance in the Churnet Valley Living Landscape Partnership area that is sufficiently robust to cater for a greater numbers of visitors.  It is the key biodiversity ‘hotspot’ identified in the CVLLP.  It is also one of the key ‘gateways’ to the Churnet Valley identified by the CVLLP 17 Churnet Valley Interpretation Plan.    

It is a significant land-holding with some concessionary paths and Rights of Way, that enable engagement of audiences with SSSI woodland and grassland.  It is an ideal location in which to engage the community, visitors and land-owners with other biodiversity projects in the CVLLP i.e. the CVLLP 1 Sustainable Woodland Project and CVLLP 2 Grassland Conservation Advisor Project. All the key species and management strategies identified as part of the Sustainable Woodland Project can be illustrated at this site as can many of those identified in the Grassland Conservation Advisor Project.  This will enable the site to be used for communicating messages about wider conservation issues that fit into the European Union’s (EU) ‘Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 and beyond’.  Messages from two main targets from the European Commission’s ambitious new strategy “Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2020” can also be shared from this site:   

(2) Better protection of ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure

(3) More sustainable agriculture and forestry.

In relation to good woodland and grassland management, The Forestry Commission and  Natural England support Coombes Valley through the English Woodland Grant Scheme and SW Peak ESA (proposed Higher Level Stewardship).  Both HLS and Woodland Grant Schemes are mechanisms that both NE and FC want to proactively encourage within the CVLLP.

The provision of facilities that allow training in boundary features means that strategies outlined in the CVLLP 4 Boundary Project are relevant including CRC (June 2010) ‘Securing a positive future for England’s upland communities’ and Staffordshire Moorlands Local Plan: Policies N23 boundary walls and N25 hedgerows.

Also, as a location at which to advise people about land management, other strategies relating to Land Advice as part of CVLLP 12 are relevant, indicating the importance of diversifying and innovating rural businesses and farms through training.  

 In the context of the RSPB, Coombes Valley has already been identified as a demonstration site for sustainable woodland management.  Management strategies are already in place in the current Management Plan cycle with large-scale works planned in 2012 (SITA funded).  The site will be an example of best practice in sustainable woodland management for biodiversity and an exemplar as part of the Sustainable Woodland Project. 

The RSPB has a national campaign to try and ensure that all school children connect with the outdoors in their ‘Every Child Outdoors’.  There are also national and reserve based targets to increase the number of school children that connect with nature at RSPB sites.  The facility improvements are in line with these policies. 

The RSPB’s developing strategy for the period 2012-2017 places an emphasis on ‘Saving Nature’ and ‘All Nature’.  The regional Visitor Services Advisor (one of a team of RSPB staff that advise on improving the visitor experience on reserves and promotion of them) has indicated that there is support from the organisation at a strategic level for increased provision of facilities at Coombes Valley.  Whilst the bird spectacle is limited and focussed in the spring and early summer, there is a realisation that the site could deliver more in terms of engaging people with wider biodiversity issues.

Comprehensive description of the project

A major element of the project is to provide a weather-proof, all year-round facility at Coombes Valley for a range of audiences i.e. an Outdoor Learning Centre.  Work will build on the current open structure with environmental building materials, including straw bales.  As well as weather-proofing the building, there will be provision of basic utilities such as running water and electricity. Whilst will be an emphasis on sourcing a local contractor to deliver the building it is important that they possess expertise on ecological building techniques.  Project management support will ensure a high quality environmental building standard.  It is also anticipated that project management support would allow the use of volunteers in the process and the delivery of training courses on specific fields of environmental building.  During the building appraisal process Leek College were consulted and expressed interested in involvement in the build process.  

Strawbales Ltd (formerly Amazonails) are the leading experts on strawbale building in the UK and having undertaken the options appraisal and costings exercise, would be ideally placed to support the process.  They also have expertise in how to involve volunteers in the building process.  

Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and the Staffordshire Rural Hub support use of an improved building.  The Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust have also indicated some limited use for events.  Britannia employees undertake volunteer days at the site.  They have indicated their support for the provision of an improved building, which would enhance their volunteer days (the current provision is poor and can only cater for small groups).  Britannia also highlighted its potential to be used by businesses in the local area, thereby creating another opportunity to engage the community.  

Staffordshire Wildlife Trust have already indicated that it is an ideal site for engaging young people as part of CVLLP 13 and also through training as part of the CVLLP 22.  With the previously proposed building redevelopment at Lafarge having been removed from the current CVLLP initiative, the Outdoor Learning Centre now offers a focal point dedicated to conveying messages about the natural heritage of the CVLLP and how to manage and enhance it.  This will provide learning/training opportunities with an ability to connect people quickly to a site that typifies the natural and built heritage of the broader Churnet Valley.

The facility will provide:

  • an all year round class learning space including access to boundary structure training features within minutes of the building
  • a space for talks/training as part of demonstrations to woodland and grassland land managers
  • a space to allow a general welcome to visitors to the site including family activities/events
  • a community space that will facilitate improved connection with nature and the site;
  • a space for volunteer events, talks and work planning

The Outdoor Learning Centre will be located at the northern end of Coombes Valley close to the current car park and reserve office complex.  It will be part of the overall Welcome Experience for people arriving at the site.       

Whilst developing the hub for learning and immediate engagement, both the RSPB and the Hotspots Audit identified the potential of extending the trail network at the site.  Only the northern third of the site is currently accessible easily by the general public.  The proposed trail extension as part of the project will connect two Right of Ways together.  The northern Right of Way links to RSPB concessionary paths and is part of the promoted RSPB trail.  However, the southern Right of Way does not currently connect with the rest of the reserve path network and has relatively little use.  Connecting these together will allow people to experience much more of the reserve and connect with more varied woodland structure types.  It will also allow the general public and land managers to experience the habitat management on the site more effectively.  The trail extension will also be incorporated into a northern Churnet Valley Geotrail.  The trail extension will cover 1860 m and require some step creation, revetment, surfacing in places, post-and-rail, tree safety work and signage for safety and orientation.

The final element of the programmed works is small scale interpretation around the site.      As the bird interest is limited to a window in the spring and early summer, there is a need for interpretation to facilitate recognition of the ‘hidden depths’ of woodland biodiversity.  For some of the visiting audience there is clear feedback that people feel they have not seen anything if they haven’t seen birds! “We didn’t see anything”.  Woodlands can be particularly difficult sites to engage with bird spectacles.  Coombes Valley offers a different experience from many of the more typical RSPB wetland sites.  There is a clear need to connect people with broader biodiversity though small-scale interpretation.  The interpretation will raise awareness of trees, insects, geology and the two major built heritage features in the site i.e. Clough Meadow Cottage, a Grade 2 listed building in the heart of the reserve and the plateway.  It represents part of the work that the RSPB aims to undertake to steer local perception away from Coombes Valley being seen as a niche ‘reserve’ to a learning ‘resource’ open to all, with interest beyond birds.

The essence of the whole project is to facilitate a greater connection with the natural heritage (and to a lesser extent the built heritage) of the site through an improved experience that involves participation, learning, inspiration, fun and enjoyment. 

Who will benefit?

The local community

It is anticipated that volunteers from the local community and Leek College will  participate in the construction of the building. As a learning/training/interpretation space the building will cater for a wide range of audiences, for example:

  • young people in an informal context (as part of the Youth Engagement Project)
  • local individuals wishing to train in outdoor skills e.g. maintaining boundary structures
  •  school groups
  • local families on fun events
  • Volunteers from the local community who participate in site work will use it as a hub.  Current work is constantly increasing the need for local volunteers

Britannia has indicated their interest in the site for volunteer days and corporate meetings.  They have indicated its wider potential for this kind of use, linking local businesses to the natural heritage and raising awareness of the CVLLP.

As identified in CVLLP 13 this will bring specific benefits that apply both to the youth audience and equally to all members of the community by:

  • gaining an awareness of and an appreciation for the natural and built heritage of the Churnet Valley
  • gaining practical skills and experience that will be useful in further training they undertake, in future careers or simply in their everyday lives
  • improving self-confidence, self-esteem and transferable skills
  • improving physical and mental well-being
  • providing opportunities to try new and exciting activities

The associated extended trail and interpretation are primarily aimed at providing a resource for local people and encouraging a different, non-niche perception of their local RSPB reserve.  A pleasant walk in a peaceful escape that reveals more of the landscape will provide a more fulfilling day out in their local area.

Landowner / Managers

It will provide a focus for engaging land managers participating in the Sustainable Woodland Project before looking at practicalities on site.   It will be used as a resource for the Grassland Advisor Project and the Land based Advisor project.

Local contractors and businesses

The building works are likely to be undertaken, in part, by local contractors providing employment within the area.

Leisure visitors

The improvements will also benefit a wider audience from beyond the CVLLP which will increase their connection with natural heritage and RSPB messages.  This is likely to bring benefits to the local economy through increased tourism.

Visitors with disabilities

Access to the Outdoor Learning Centre area will be upgraded to allow better access for wheelchair users. 

Outputs and outcomes

Measuring Outputs

The outputs will be:

  • a re-developed ‘open-barn’ structure to form a weather proof, multi-purpose use building with essential utilities.  This will be adjacent to a hay meadow with boundary structures that will form part of a training area
  • a trail extension of 1,860m facilitating substantial increase in access to the site and connectivity of Rights of Way – a large circular route around the reserve;
  • interpretative material at regular intervals along the trail network


The outcomes will be:

  • c. 50-100 land managers understand woodland management for birds and biodiversity CVLLP 1, grassland management CVLLP 2 and direct compliance and regulation knowledge CVLLP 12
  • As part of CVLLP 13 Youth Engagement Project:

1 large youth event

40 activities or events

50-100 young people will take part

  • As part of CVLLP 22 Accredited training, this will be a local site that will be used to deliver training.  Approx 10-20 people will benefit
  • Some individuals trained in maintaining boundaries as part of CVLLP 4 (to be determined)
  • c. 30,000 general visitors/families/children have an enhanced experience of the site
  • c. 5000 children have an enhanced education experience
  • c. 1500 members of the local community benefit from  a uniquely located space


All the land within the project is RSPB freehold.

What happens when the project is finished?

All the facilities will be maintained by the RSPB far beyond the period of the CVLLP.  The extended trail, although a concessionary path, is likely to be retained in perpetuity.

Risks and constraints

Project delivery risk

Risk: Bad weather to deliver building/footpath works

Contingency planning: Both of these areas of work will be started at the outset of Stage 2 of the CVLLP.  If they are not completed immediately, there will be time within the lifetime of the bid to ensure completion.

Operational delivery risk

Risk: Difficulty in sourcing a local contractor with the knowledge/experience to deliver the environmental build standard.

Contingency planning: Project management support from specialised environmental building consultants to ensure a local contractor understands how/what to deliver e.g. Straw Bales Ltd.

Constraints, licences, permits etc

Planning permission will be required for the building.  Our advice is that this is likely to be granted.  The extended trail goes through a SSSI.  It is referred to in the reserve Management Plan which has approval from NE. However, NE will be involved in discussions to ensure they are happy with the entire length of the route on the ground.  There have already been detailed internal discussions with RSPB Reserves Ecology Department, with regards the potential of any ecological impact through the opening up of a new trail.  It is not anticipated that this will have a negative impact.  

Climate change

The building will be an example of good environmental building practice, using materials with low embedded energy and with high heat retaining properties.  This will ensure the building does not contribute a high carbon foot-print.

Invasive species

The RSPB has already built a partnership during the development of the CVLLP and has been the most pro-active organisation to date in delivering control of Himalayan balsam.  It is anticipated that the RSPB will continue to make a significant contribution to this programme of works.  The RSPB also has work programmed to deliver control of sycamore in the Churnet Valley, where it is invasive.


Our staff will maintain high levels of biosecurity during and whilst undertaking projects. We will also work with others to raise the awareness of biosecurity issues within the valley.  This is particularly pertinent for our team, as part of our land-holding in the Churnet Valley has a significant population of native crayfish.  Coombes Valley however, holds populations of signal crayfish.

Environmental Policy

Reduce travel: Most work will be site based and volunteers/contractors will be local.  However, RSPB Coombes and Churnet Reserves, like all sites in the RSPB, has a designated annual carbon budget which we have managed effectively to date.  

Efficient travel: Vehicles provided for the project staff will be low carbon emissions vehicles.

Discipline: Project Staff will be expected to comply with the RSPB’s Environmental Policies.