Community groups across the South Hams are working together to tackle climate change, one project at a time. Chrissy Harris finds out more

Hope can be found in the most unlikely of places. In a small room in South Brent’s community centre, there are many reasons to be cheerful about the future of the planet.

The back wall of this busy place is covered in pictures and posters, showing kids and adults tree planting, making compost and opening a community fridge.

Great British Life: Jane Nichols at her desk in South Brent's community centre. (c) Chrissy HarrisJane Nichols at her desk in South Brent's community centre. (c) Chrissy Harris

A notice board gives details about the local ‘bike bank’ and ‘talking rubbish’, which looks at ways of reducing waste.

‘It’s a great community here - we’ve got such a fantastic network of volunteers,’ says Jane Nichols. Jane, who has just walked in with her black Labrador, Tiri, is a trustee of Sustainable South Brent. The organisation was set up in 2006 to inform, educate and engage local people in a series of projects designed to show that climate change starts at home.

Great British Life: Ecological restoration (or rewilding) is at the heart of Dittiscombe Estate and Cottages in Slapton. (c) Dittiscombe/SaundersEcological restoration (or rewilding) is at the heart of Dittiscombe Estate and Cottages in Slapton. (c) Dittiscombe/Saunders

The group has been such a success and inspiration to other communities that in 2021, Jane helped to set up Sustainable South Hams. This umbrella organisation brings together different local groups and projects to share knowledge and ideas.

‘Knowledge is gold dust that slips through our fingers if we’re not careful,’ says Jane, sitting down at her desk here in the Hub room of South Brent’s Old School House Community Centre. ‘We need to just capture a little bit of that and share it around.’

Sustainable South Hams is basically a way of getting people to copy good green ideas. Local projects, such as composting and rewilding schemes are listed on the website and mentors are on hand to offer advice about how to get things off the ground.

Great British Life: Ruth Saunders with a visiting Dexter herd of cattle at Dittiscombe (c) Dittiscombe/SaundersRuth Saunders with a visiting Dexter herd of cattle at Dittiscombe (c) Dittiscombe/Saunders

There are links to events and workshops, as well as nature trips and project visits.

‘The more we can connect the dots, the better,’ says Ruth Saunders. Her life’s project, Dittiscombe Rewilding, is highlighted through Sustainable South Hams as a way of showing how land can be given back to nature.

Ruth was an early pioneer of this way of thinking, ‘gifting’ approximately 20 acres on the Dittiscombe estate to wildlife in the late 1990s.

Great British Life: The Dittiscombe Estate in 1998. (c) Dittiscombe/SaundersThe Dittiscombe Estate in 1998. (c) Dittiscombe/Saunders

Great British Life: The Dittiscombe Estate in 2022. (C) Dittiscombe/SaundersThe Dittiscombe Estate in 2022. (C) Dittiscombe/Saunders

‘When we first started, we didn’t really know what we were doing, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling,’ says Ruth, who is delighted to be able to pass on her knowledge and experience to others through Sustainable South Hams. ‘All of these connections start to happen. We’ve had years and years of getting on with this quietly on our own. Being able to share it with others has really given us a big lift.’

Both Jane and Ruth talk about the ‘eco-fatigue’ that can sometimes leave the most well-intentioned of green-minded people feeling disillusioned.

Being able to see what’s happening and where boosts morale and energises others into doing their bit.

‘It’s easy for people to think, oh, nothing’s happening,’ says Ruth. ‘But then you see that there are all of these projects out there. It feels really good to be part of this tribe and this community.’

Back in South Brent, the Old School Community Centre – home to several local groups - is now a hive of activity, with some of the village’s older residents taking up their seats for lunch club.

Great British Life: Sustainable South Hams takes volunteers on field trips. (c) Jane NicholsSustainable South Hams takes volunteers on field trips. (c) Jane Nichols

A regular volunteer has just walked in with a huge saucepan full of homemade soup, while another resident has just asked if she can put some pies in the community fridge outside.

‘We’ve only got about 10 minutes left before it starts to get really noisy in here,’ says Jane, bringing over a poster to show me about a recent shadow puppet workshop, called The Soil’s Alive. It was organised to show local children the fascinating creatures that live in healthy soil and how they are affected by our activities. ‘We’re trying to reach everyone, youngsters and parents.’

The South Hams is a shining light amid all the doom and gloom about climate change. People here clearly care about each other, the planet and where they live. But, more importantly, they’re actually doing something to look after it all.

‘You’ve made my day,’ says Jane when I tell her that. ‘You’ve got to have active hope,’ she adds. ‘For me, it’s about focusing on what you can control and that has to start locally.’