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Living with change: Our shifting shores

Thorncombe Beacon, Dorset
A landslip on the coast at Thorncombe Beacon, Dorset | © National Trust Images/John Miller

We look after more than 780 miles of coastline in the UK, and part of our job is to respond to challenges like coastal erosion. Climate change is contributing to rising sea levels and more severe storms, quickening the pace of change around our coasts. Thanks to your support, we’re finding ways to adapt to – rather than fight – our shifting shores.

Changing coastlines in our care

Powerful winter storms can dramatically change the coastal places we love overnight. In 2013 and 2014 our coastline was battered by a series of storms and high tides, which resulted in several years' worth of erosion over a few days. Building hard coastal defences as the only response to managing coastal change in the future now looks increasingly unrealistic.

Defend or adapt at the coast?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes it clear that we need to support adaptation. This means that rather than trying to simply stop change, such as coastal erosion, we plan ahead for change, protecting wildlife and adapting our own buildings and activities.

Working with nature is important to us. By understanding what’s happening to the natural environment around our coast we can make well-informed choices about whether and where to continue maintaining hard sea defences, or to adapt and work with nature rather than against it.

Natural sea defences can also become havens for wildlife. At Freshwater West beach in Pembrokeshire, for example, we’ve taken 100 acres of dune grassland out of active farming and allowed nature to take its course. We’ve also restored reedbeds and fen meadows so that, as water levels increase, they can still accommodate the richest flora possible.

View of houses on the edge of the white chalk cliffs at Birling Gap, surrounded by metal fencing
Vulnerable clifftop buildings at Birling Gap in winter 2017 | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Rolling with the changes

We also want to ensure that there’s space and land to accommodate future changes at our coast, at places like Birling Gap in East Sussex and Mount Stewart in County Down. By ‘rolling back’ we can relocate buildings, infrastructure, shoreline and habitats to ensure we maintain access to the coast for everyone, as well as providing new homes for wildlife.

We now have coastal adaptation strategies in place at our coastal hotspots across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Working together

It’s important to us to view the coast as a whole and to not just consider the areas we care for in isolation. By working with other landowners, communities, beach users and with local government we can create more joined up and better managed stretches of coastline.

We want to innovate – to have the courage to try out new ideas, and to be driven by long-term, sustainable plans.

Black and white photo of a Land Rover pulling an underwater themed float in the Lord Mayor's Parade
A Neptune Coastline Campaign float joins the Lord Mayor's Parade in London, 1973 | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Decades of caring for our coastline

In 1965, we launched our coast fundraising campaign in response to growing fears that development was slowly destroying the nation’s natural coastline. Five decades on, the campaigning spirit and generosity of thousands of people has helped us raise more than £90 million. This has allowed us to open and maintain our coastline for the millions of people who enjoy it every year.

Looking after our coastal land now costs about £3,000 per mile, per year. Your membership and donations support our coastal conservation projects, and every time you use a National Trust coastal car park, income goes straight back into managing and conserving the surrounding area.

Ranger removing debris from the hydro at Watendlath, Cumbria

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