National Trust returns to roots to reverse decline of threatened wildlife

A water vole at  Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales
Water voles have vanished from 90 per cent of British streams and rivers  Credit: National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The National Trust is to go back to its roots after admitting it had lost sight of one of its core founding principles - to protect wildlife - in its quest to maintain country houses and estates

Under ambitious new plans, the Trust will create 25,000 hectares of new habitats by 2025 to reverse the dramatic slump in some of Britain’s most-loved plants and animals, such as water voles, natterjack toads and cuckoos.

All tenant farmers will be encouraged to create wildlife corridors, establish lowland wildflower meadows and wetlands, maintain hedgerows, improve water and soil quality, install ponds and plant new woodland.

Highland cattle conservation grazing above the village of Malham, Yorkshire Dales National Park Credit: National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The Trust was founded in 1895, following years of effort by founder Octavia Hill to protect the garden of seventeenth century diarist John Evelyn. Its formal purpose pledged to preserve animal and plant life for the nation as well as looking after places and buildings of beauty of historic interest.  

The National Trust has always been synonymous with our beautiful countryside, and I welcome plans to create thousands of hectares of new habitat for some of our most important species.Andrea Leadsom, Enviroment Secretary

Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation of the National Trust, said the charity had a duty to help prevent wildlife decline, which currently affects 56 per cent of British species.

“Nature has been squeezed out to the margins for far too long. We want to help bring it back to the heart of our countryside,” he said.

“Our charity was founded to protect our natural heritage and we believe we should be playing an active role in reviving it by doing what we can on our own land.

“Despite the battering it’s taken over many decades, nature has an incredible ability to rejuvenate and revive if given the conditions to thrive.

“Birds such as the cuckoo, lapwing and curlew are part of the fabric of our rural heritage.  But they’ve virtually disappeared from the countryside. We want to see them return to the fields, woods and  meadows again, along with other wildlife which was once common and is now rare.”

Cutting weeds in the River Dun to help salmon in Hampshire  Credit: National Trust 

Last year The Wildlife Trust’s State of Nature report found that one in six of Britain’s wild species is at risk of vanishing with intensive farming largely to  blame.

Creatures added to the threatened list include the Kentish Snake Millipede, the Mole Cricket, the Necklace Ground Beetle and the Yellow Pogonus, a small sand beetle found in salty marshes. Hedgehogs, natterjack  toads, greater crested newts, turtle doves and nightingales are also facing alarming drops in numbers.

The Trust owns almost 250,000 hectares of land, more than one per cent of land in the UK, and cares for 775 miles of coast. Around 10 per cent of land owned by the Trust has been identified as priority habitat which is threatened and projects are already ongoing to help revive Britain’s wildlife on Trust land. At Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales, England’s highest freshwater lake, water voles have been reintroduced to help stem the their decline from 90 per cent of rivers and streams.

At Sheffield Park in East Sussex, gardeners have been restoring ancient bluebell woods, which are under threat from invasive Spanish bluebells.

Bluebells growing in the garden at Blickling Estate, Norfolk Credit: National Trust/Justin Minns

Marian Spain, CEO of Plantlife, said: “Half of our Important Plant Areas,  botanical hotspots of international importance, includes land belonging to the National Trust.

“Plantlife is already working with the Trust on how to manage their land for threatened plants like cornfield flowers and oakwood lichens, how to create wildflower meadows, and even

purchasing a flock of over 400 sheep for the National Trust shepherd on the Great Orme.

“It is a bold commitment by one of our largest landowners and we are excited about extending the breadth and scale of our partnership.”

Lapwing numbers have plummeted in recent years because of habitat loss  Credit: National Trust Images  Dougie Holden

The new plans will include enlarging current habitats and joining up areas to create wildlife corridors to allow animal populations to move and expand.

Many of the trusts 1,500 farmers are already carrying out practices which benefit wildlife and the charity will talk to them in the coming months to learn how to introduce nature-friendly measures into all its farmland.

George Dunn, Chief Executive of the Tenant Farmers Association: “I commend the National Trust for its determination to work positively with its tenant farmers to achieve greater nature conservation objectives from its land.

“Accepting that it has much to learn from working in partnership with its tenants who are already farming to high environmental standards, the National Trust must now put in place the practical arrangements to deliver this.  

“Farm tenants will be heartened by the National Trust’s clearly expressed position that good environmental management in the countryside cannot be divorced from the achievement of productive and sustainable farming.”

Large Blue Butterflies are under threat because of the decline of meadows Credit: National Trust 

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: “The National Trust has always been synonymous with our beautiful countryside, and I welcome plans to create thousands of hectares of new habitat for some of our most important species.

“It is my ambition that we become the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it, and we can only do this by working closely with farmers and landowners – growing hedgerows, restoring earth banks and creating wetlands.

“I’m really pleased nature will be prioritised across the Trust’s farmland, supporting even more of our plants and wildlife and helping deliver our target to create 200,000 hectares of priority habitat by 2020.”

Natterjack Toads  Credit: National Trust Images Neil Fo