Why does the National Trust do research?

Common Blue Butterfly

We look after places for ever for everyone, but the world around us is constantly changing. Our research helps us to understand these changes, learn more about the places in our care and find practical solutions to conservation problems.

Tackling conservation threats

Conservation is at the heart of what we do. Whether we’re caring for a Tudor mansion, a rare butterfly, a precious habitat, a rugged stretch coastline or a piece of artwork, we need evidence to make the best conservation decisions. Our research helps us to tackle conservation threats - from mould in our historic books to habitat loss and plant disease – and to understand their causes. 

Andy Foster our invertebrate ecologist surveying wildlife on Hambledon Hill in Dorset

Sharing good practice

Our research on how the planning system is working in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in 2015, for instance, showed some problems. Measures to stop inappropriate development were not always being put into action in some places and through our research we were able to suggest ways this could be improved.

Northern hairy wood ants in Bolehill Quarry at Longshaw, Burbage and the Eastern Moors, Derbyshire.

Exploring new worlds

A research project with the University of York saw tiny radio receivers fitted to 1,000 northern hairy wood ants in an experiment to find out how they communicate and travel. The results of the project – at the Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire which is home to around 50 million worker ants – were used by our staff to help manage the ancient woodland and land at Longshaw.

Ground-penetrating radar at Fountains Abbey

Layers of history

Research also allows us to uncover new and untold stories about special places and to tell these in interesting ways. At Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, for example, we’ve been working for over two years on a project with experts from the University of Bradford, Geoscan Research, and Mala Geoscience to research the monastic ruins, the largest in the country. This major research project used geophysical techniques and ground-penetrating radar to uncover new details about the life of the monastic community who lived there and their burial rituals.

The view from the Temple of Friendship showing the Palladian Bridge with the Gothic Temple in the distance on top of a large grassy hill of Hawkwell Fields

Answering questions

Our Knowledge Transfer Project with the University of Oxford helps us to share information about properties in new ways too. This exciting project – called Trusted Source – sees academics and National Trust experts using research to produce short, easily understood articles about history, culture and the natural environment. If you’ve ever wondered what Palladianism is, where Thomas Hardy’s Wessex was or why ‘Capability’ Brown was so important, you can find the answer to these and other questions in the article at the bottom of this page.

Research partnerships

Our land is a natural laboratory and we look after precious collections, so we often host researchers or work in partnership to get the knowledge we need.

Red squirrel on Brownsea Island, Dorset

Red squirrels and leprosy

At Brownsea Island in Dorset, for example, the red squirrels are suffering from a strain of leprosy and we are working with the University of Edinburgh and Dorset Wildlife Trust to learn more about the disease, to help protect the UK’s population of red squirrels.

Early Chinese wallpaper at Saltram

Chinese wallpapers

We also partner with colleagues across the environmental and heritage sectors. In 2016 our staff organised an international conference on Chinese wallpapers in historic houses with expert colleagues from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Pavilion (supported by Coutts & Co). The Trust looks after the largest collection of Chinese wallpapers still on view in their original location and for the last few years we have been carrying out research to understand the influence of Asian art in our properties. You can find out more below using the links.

A boy examines the 17th century needlework in the Tapestry Dreassing Room at Treasurer's House, Yorkshire

Our research strategy 

To find out more about our research interests and how we like to work, read our new research strategy (published December 2016).