Guest blog from NT’s David Bullock

My blog on Monday,  which questioned the claim of the National Trust to be one of Europe’s leading nature conservation organisations attracted many comments from you.

I’m very pleased to post here a reply from David Bullock the Head ofNature Conservation at the National Trust.  I’ll come back to this subject, myself, on Monday.

 

Dear Mark

We don’t expect you to be shy of presenting us with a robust challenge. You are, however, wide of the mark on this one.

Conservation is our lifeblood. It’s what we exist for. It’s what our 4 million members pledge their money towards. Frankly, it would be nonsense to suggest otherwise.

However you judge it – membership, landholdings, the state of our natural capital – we’re by definition one of Europe’s leading nature conservation organisations.

Your main point, however, is about measurement. How do our members and supporters know that their money is being put to good effect? And how do we satisfy ourselves that we’re spending that money to the best possible purpose?

These are good questions, which we ask ourselves all the time. One measure is output – how much we spend each year on conservation. £20m is the figure that we’ve widely used, but by itself isn’t the sum total we spend on nature conservation each year. It doesn’t include, for example, the money that our tenants receive from agri-environment schemes (75% of them receive substantial funding in this way).

In England alone, for our tenants’ land and the much smaller part that we manage in hand, as of August 2011 (latest figures) Higher Level Schemes on our land supported 278 km of boundary (hedge/wall/ditch), 9,800 metre squares of pond restoration and creation, and 1,693 ha of scrub management. I hope that you’re not suggesting that nature conservation doesn’t benefit from such HLS agreements?

There are plenty of examples of where our land management, often supported by funding other than from agri-environment schemes has had tangible impacts:

• For many years we were protecting the only cranes breeding in the UK; without us, the decline of wild asparagus would have continued and the cirl bunting would be having an even tougher time.
• We worked with the RSPB, English Nature and The Landmark Trust to eradicate rats from the island of Lundy to save the Manx shearwaters there from extinction.
• We’ve just finished a really successful project – half funded by Natural England 2010 – Countdown funds on Conservation and Restoring Traditional Orchards in England. Take a look at the Project Scrapbook on the website we developed as part of that project (http://www.orchardnetwork.org.uk/). This project funded 58 orchard projects all of which will benefit conservation of wild and domesticated biodiversity, engaging people in the process. Good nature conservation is measurable over time; this project has a serious amount of legacy.
• With Biffa funding we’re restoring blanket bog in Wales, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales, our extensive holding in the uplands means that we must work hard to hold on to the peatlands there – and our whole estate carbon audits at Wallington and Wimpole are considered exemplary. Some of this work is extraordinarily hard and we can’t do it alone. You know that some of the Peak District peatlands are amongst the most degraded upland landscapes and will take decades or even centuries of care before we hope to restore their condition. But we usually own our land forever – it can never be sold – so we can and do plan for centuries ahead. Have a look at the amazing restoration management we’re doing in these habitats: http://bit.ly/yDSyj0
• And what’s the definitive reference for management of bats that roost in historic buildings? It’s Bats and Historic Buildings – http://bit.ly/wqNREZ – written by us and funded by Natural England and English Heritage. Why did we write it? Because there are so many bat roosts in our buildings and we look after them well.

Finally, in terms of natural capital, we know a lot about what we own because our in-house Biological Survey Team has surveyed and evaluated over 90% of our land. Have a look at an example of one of Biological Surveys of land that was not acquired for nature conservation (http://bit.ly/yCeezx – PDF). We’ll repeat the survey and track changes over time to determine whether our management (in places like the Wiltshire chalk – often reversion from arable to flower-rich permanent pasture) has worked.

We also have more direct ways of measuring the impact of our work. Our Conservation Performance Indicator is a key performance metric for the organisation, providing a direct assessment of the conservation condition of every one of our places and spaces. It’s fair to say that we often haven’t acquired land because of its high nature value – there are many reasons why we have sought to acquire land ranging from protection from development to allowing it express its dynamism. Having said this at least 30% of our land is designated as SSSI or ASSI and, our surveys and those of the country agencies indicate that it’s improving in condition. So over 95% of our Biological SSSIs in England were in ‘Favourable’ or ‘Unfavourable Recovering’ condition at the end of 2010, rising to just over 97% in November 2011. Meanwhile 96.4% of our purely geological SSSIs in England are in a Favourable Condition; they’re part of nature too and we’re rightly proud of our management of two World Heritage Sites designated for geological features: the Jurassic Coast and the Giant’s Causeway.

There’s always room for improvement, and we’re always keen to find new ways to assess the difference we make and to be held to account for our actions. It’s maybe not as simple as comparing the number of butterflies on our land with the number on the remaining 98% of the country – interesting though such a figure might be – and we’re seeking this information and the same for bats and birds. But our members, supporters, governance volunteers and expert advisers are hardly shy of telling us where they think we’ve got it right, and where we could do better.

We recognise that we need to do more to tell our wildlife story to our members and visitors and shine a light on all of the wonderful work that our rangers, volunteers and wildlife advisers do across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Best wishes and thanks for the challenge,

David Bullock
Head of Nature Conservation, National Trust

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12 Comments

  1. John Miles

    1,693 ha of scrub management! Most of this destroys habitat removing especial key bird habitat for Song Thrush and Turtle Dove. As you all know scrub is the first stage of woodland creation with many species creating nitrogen to kick start the trees. No plastic tubes are needed and protection from deer is natures way. The fact HLS pays for this does not mean you have to use it.

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  2. cowboy

    I love figures that mean very little. As you have previously discussed Mark, agri-environment grant measures that look at how much has been spent not the actual difference on the ground are hollow statements at best. I would have expected better from NT. Not forgetting that this our money not NT funds.

    May be David could let us know how much NT derive from tenant agreements annually and what percent of total expenditure £20m is? Crucially the performance of NT farms on farmland bird index?

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  3. Dennis Ames

    I think as far as conservation goes the N T does a great job,it is always the same critics putting the boot in.

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  4. Gert Corfield

    I think a fair response and excellent to get the NT' s view. I for one will be watching progress more closely and looking forward to the National Trust standing up for nature more visibly. I may even join.

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  5. Jon

    John Miles - it's not all about birds, other species count as well.

    Removing scrub might benefit (for example) chalk grassland. A rarer habitat which supports many more species than scrub.

    The scrub might support some bird species but grassland may well support Skylarks, it will support small mammals for Kestrel and Buzzard to feed on.

    I can think of NT countryside properties where all the staff are nature conservationists (in one case ex RSPB & WT) - Mark and others seem to give them no credit

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  6. Yes, but....

    A really big YES, because the NT, particularly passionate dedicated staff like David do care about conservation and do a fantastic amount of positive work. Another example here - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jan/04/country-diary-harting-down-west-sussex.

    But, a big BUT as well, because successful nature conservation depends on feeling for, and tracking the pulse of, life; measuring the bottom lines of population levels and extinction rates and responding to the changes with an enquiring mind and quick hands.

    The NT does not set its corporate targets, or report its successes, in terms of outcomes for the species that inhabit, or could inhabit, the land in their care. The central cog needs this data as it is the most relevant form of return on investment with which to prioritise and drive forward further investment in the NTs fantastic wildlife heritage.

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  7. Jan A

    Well, that's all very well. However, I would also like to know, how the National Trust feels about landowners turning a blind eye and allowing the illegal act of Fox Hunting - not legal trail hunting and exercising of hounds without guns - but actual illegal Fox hunting which is being carried out by organized groups with hounds and perhaps the occasional gun flush, to continue to take place in the UK countryside?
    Having your strict guidance on which groups are and are not allowed on NT property in order to gather with hounds and horses - unless they have a specific licence to do so purchased and granted by you, I can’t help but think that it does appear very careless, short-sighted, to grant such licences to hunting groups who are not regularly, if at all, policed by the law or by the landowners, such as perhaps yourselves? If they are, then why do we not hear more about hunts boasting about the popularity of drag hunting on National Trust land, rather than hearing in the news and well known registered animal welfare society reports, of the continuing popularity of illegal Fox hunting and the various loopholes that go with it?
    How can such a pioneer of conservation, have such little faith in science and a widespread Badger inoculation and instead prioritize and push ahead with mass Badger Culls?
    These are just a couple more examples of why I have little faith in why you profess to conservation to be your lifeblood.

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    • Mark

      Jan A - welcome to this blog. I'm not sure that what you assert about the NT is actually true but your opinions are welcome here.

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  8. I think overall NT do a pretty good job. Nobody's perfect!

    I agree with Matt's point that NT, if they are Europe's largest conservation organisation, should show their membership what they plan to do and how they go about doing it.

    I thought some of David's examples were a bit weak with too much emphasis on process indicators rather than the outcome achieved. NT have an incredible resource of land supporting many many priority or endangered species and habitats - let's hear about them and what their status is. We all know the SSSI target statistics have been manipulated by NE/Defra - why give that canard legitimacy by repeating it David?

    I also think David should use this opportunity to reply to/clarify NT's actions in respect of this story.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jan/11/secret-forest-sell-off-list?newsfeed=true

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  9. Dennis Ames

    Jan A ----yes think you completely wrong on NT badger cull,they are actually spending lots of money on where there are hot spots of BTB vaccinating badgers on their land so lets please give them credit,obviously you did not know this.

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  10. Jon

    Jan A

    NT are spending their own money to innoculate badgers. Please read
    http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-global/w-news/w-latest_news/w-news-four-year-badger-vaccination-programme.htm

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