National Trust calls on Government to back natural climate solutions, as charity ramps up efforts to tackle the ‘greatest threat to its places’

Press release
Coastal heathland in Dunwich
Published : 23 Jan 2020

One of the nation’s biggest landowners, the National Trust, is urging the Government to invest in natural climate solutions, following an audit of the effects of climate change on its best places for nature.

The conservation charity is calling for ‘immediate and common-sense actions’ that can cut emissions, restore nature and provide benefits to wildlife and people, including banning horticultural peat and increasing tree cover.

On Thursday, the Committee on Climate Change said transformation in land use is needed if the Government is to reach its net zero goal by 2050.

The Trust is today warning that three quarters of its priority habitats are under threat and already showing signs of the impacts of rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events such as drought and flooding.    

On analysing 101,000 hectares of priority habitat across England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Trust discovered that 73 per cent of the land, ranging from upland oak woods to globally-rare peatland, was deemed sensitive or highly sensitive to increasingly turbulent weather events, rising seas and accelerating temperatures.

Half of all National Trust properties have habitats that are sensitive to climate change, according to the report.

The worst affected habitats were those on the coast, but also included rivers, lakes, lowland fens and upland habitats like heathlands.

As well as supporting an incredible array of wildlife - from endangered natterjack toads to otters, mountain hares and butterflies – the report also found that these precious habitats play an important part in halting the warming of the planet, safely locking away approximately 290,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Patrick Begg, Director of Natural Resources at the National Trust, said: “Protecting, regenerating and extending these carbon stores could play a significant role in tackling climate change, which is the greatest threat to the hundreds of historic and natural places we look after at the Trust.

“Two easy and immediate solutions to the climate crisis are eradicating horticultural peat and expanding woodlands. Trees and peat soils are our natural armour in the fight against climate change and provide huge value to the nation. It’s vital that the Government takes action to protect them.”

Earlier this month the Trust’s Director General Hilary McGrady unveiled plans to plant and establish 20 million trees over the next 10 years to mitigate the effects of climate change and help the Trust reach carbon net zero by 2030. Woodland creation at this scale will lock up an estimated 296,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to the energy output of 37,000 homes.

Ms McGrady also revealed the charity would be focussing on restoring degraded peatland that can lock in millions of tonnes of carbon over generations but can quickly become a source of emissions if not protected. In the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales, volunteers are already painstakingly repairing the peat that was lost through industrial pollution by planting thousands of sphagnum moss plugs and building small dams to hold water, nutrients and carbon in the soil. 

On Thursday, a Committee on Climate Change report called on Government to transform land use in the UK, including increasing forestry cover from 13% to 17% by 2050 and restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat.

Just last week, the Government announced it would reward UK farmers for maintaining soil quality, as part of the new Agriculture Bill.

Patrick Begg continued: “We’ve known for a long time that places that are good for nature are good for the climate too – but we now know exactly which of our habitats are providing the biggest benefit, and which need restoring to prevent emissions leaking into the atmosphere.

“As the condition of a river, a fen or a marsh degrades, its vulnerability to climate change increases, so it’s crucial that we look after these habitats.

“Over the next 10 years, we’re going to be putting all our effort into restoring these amazing places. We’ll be cleaning up our rivers, planting and establishing 20 million trees and reversing the decline of our globally-rare peatlands.”

In the report, lowland mixed woodland, mountain heath and upland oakwood habitats were found to be the most effective carbon sinks, together accounting for three quarters of the emissions stored.

The Trust has a significant role to play in caring for these sites: 9 per cent of all habitats in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that are highly sensitive to climate change are cared for by the charity, despite it only owning 1.5 per cent of the total land area. 

Warmer temperatures and more frequent extreme weathers are already affecting many of the Trust’s priority habitats.

The report also highlighted the habitats owned by the Trust which are leaking greenhouse gasses – including some coastal floodplain and grazing marsh.

To produce the report, sustainability advisors 3Keel developed an interactive GIS-based dashboard that enabled Trust staff to explore the location, extent and characteristics of at-risk sites.