Fears for woodland's long-term future

PUBLISHED: 14:44 03 June 2008 | UPDATED: 21:53 15 June 2010

AN organisation, which has staunchly supported the development of a world-renowned education centre, fears lack of funding opportunities and fierce competition could threaten the centre's long-term viability.

AN organisation, which has staunchly supported the development of a world-renowned education centre, fears lack of funding opportunities and fierce competition could threaten the centre's long-term viability.Offwell Environment Link has donated over £31,000 to Offwell Woodland Education Centre since 2005, but fears the rate of its fundraising abilities will not be able to match that in years to come.The centre, which boasts Forestry Commission woods and a Victorian lake, is run by Offwell Woodland and Wildlife Trust, which, since its inception, has managed to find over £1 million to develop facilities and create and maintain habitats.The Princess Royal visited the centre in 2005, when the centre faced a financial crisis.Gill Graham, secretary of Offwell Environment Link, fears another cash crisis is looming.She and Link trustee David Tilbury explained to the Herald why sourcing regular income is vital for the centre's long-term future.Funding for the day-to-day running of the centre is what is lacking, they said - not cash for project work. However, even grants for specific projects came with strings attached and didn't always cover the full project costs.While impressed with the support and assistance given by East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they are less impressed with East Devon District Council.The council's chief executive Mark Williams is to visit the centre after being handed a 4,500-signature petition, calling for more support. A letter, sent on behalf of the Princess Royal, accompanied the petition."Five years ago, the council gave us £9,000 over three years. That's the only amount it has given in the 20 years the centre has been running," said Mrs Graham.Mr Tilbury is concerned that the council has been developing its own, new nature reserves with public money, while not supporting one that is already established."The council seems to have its own agenda, deciding what we, as ratepayers, want."Whereas Devon County Council appears to be supporting a whole list of things that are community-led."A big worry for centre supporters is that funding for three permanent staff will one day run out.Just one of the posts is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and only for the next 18 months.Led by director Steve Lawson, they have set up an impressive educational resource, one that appeals to expert naturalists as well as school children and walkers.Hits on their website, a recognised educational resource across the globe, has now exceeded 1.5 million a month.Mrs Graham said Offwell Environment Link raised over £30,000 through voluntary contributions.She is keen to encourage more people to join the organisation, hoping the Link's ageing membership can be swelled with young blood and people keen to fundraise or make voluntary contributions.Mr Lawson, she said, had been a visionary, seeing the potential for the centre and bringing it to fruition.He, and others, had worked hard to help the centre. They have developed hand-held computers that take school children and walkers on a guided tour of the site. It includes pictures and videos and is being developed all the time. It is hoped the concept can one day be marketed to other organisations.Funding for an extension to one of the two log classrooms at the site has already been secured.Promoting the woodland and finding regular income are the keys to the centre's future, said Mrs Graham and Mr Tilbury."It was a complete jungle to start with," said Mrs Graham. "Rhododendron was higher than mature trees and the ponds were full of silt."After all the restoration work, it would be a shame to throw it all away.

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