The National Trust

Do you think that the National Trust, which operates in England, Northern Ireland and Wales is a nature conservation organisation or not?

In its own words:

Conserving nature, for the benefit of everyone, is at the heart of the National Trust’s work.

We are one of Europe’s leading nature conservation organisations. The scale of our responsibility for the natural history of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is unrivalled by any other organisation.

Central to our work are caring for important wildlife sites and natural landscapes; conserving endangered and protected species; and addressing environmental issues such as pollution and the impacts of climate change on our wildlife and habitats.

Our Nature Advisors are expert in the conservation and management of wildlife and natural features.

However, there is a cost for conserving our wildlife and habitats. Around £20 million is spent on coast and countryside conservation projects each year.

That sounds pretty good, and I absolutely agree that NT Nature Advisors contain many experts. But would you say that the NT is one of Europe’s leading nature conservation organisations? Have you heard anyone other than the NT itself describing the NT in that way?

However, let’s look in just a little more detail.  If the NT does spend around £20m on coast and countryside conservation projects each year (as its own website says) then that isn’t very much money to my mind considering that the NT’s income is over £400m pa and it has around £1bn of fixed assets.

This (click here) is the NT’s conservation strategy but was written in 2005 (partly updated in 2008) and although the analysis is pretty good it contains no targets for nature conservation delivery that I can see.  Is the NT trying to increase nature on its large land-holding? And how does it measure its success or failure, exactly?

As one of the country’s largest landowners does the NT measure the Farmland Bird Index on its land? Are farmland birds doing better or worse on NT land compared with their fate on ‘ordinary’ farmland owned by less wealthy farmers?

How do butterfly populations on NT land compare with the national averages?

How does SSSI condition on NT land compare with national figures?

I’d be keen to hear more from the NT on how it spends its money and on how it benefits nature – and I’d like to see some figures rather than hear occasional interesting stories.  How does it measure its own success or realise that it needs to do better? As a much larger land owner than either the Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB I’d like some way to assess whether my membership funds are producing more nature on NT land or not.  At the moment it’s not very easy to tell from its website or annual report.  And that makes me a bit suspicious, as it might mean that the NT doesn’t know itself – and if it doesn’t know then it probably isn’t managing this area very tightly.

I remain to be convinced that the NT takes nature very seriously across its land holding.  But I’d very much like to be convinced.

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40 Replies to “The National Trust”

  1. My impression is that the National Trust's main concern is that a place looks pretty, and biodiversity is secondary. I would love to be shown that I am wrong.

  2. Here in Cumbria the National Trust own 1/3 of the Lake District national Park. Majority of the land is over grazed and has soil creep down its steep ground. None of its farm tenants actually manage the land first and farm second. In fact when once asking about taking on one of its farms I was told that farming was the priority not conservation.

  3. To my mind I can think of only eight actively-managed NT nature reserves, namely:

    Padley Gorge, Derbyshire
    Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire
    Farne Islands, Northumberland
    Hardcastle Crags, West Yorkshire
    Nare Head, Cornwall
    Plymbridge Wood, Cornwall
    Brean Down, Somerset
    Horner Wood Nature Reserve, Somerset

    Perhaps someone can enlighten me to others, but they does seem to rather pale in comparison to other conservation bodies, like the RSPB for example.

  4. The National Trust is an organisation that believes in conserving nature and has a great many knowledgeable, very competent and highly motivated staff working to manage nature reserves around the country. In addition, the National Trust’s survey team is the envy of the conservation sector – a team of leading experts capable of finding and identifying just about any species in any habitat.

    The NT Survey Team can quickly identify the biodiversity priorities and ecological functioning on a site and start the process of defining the management needed to maintain and nurture this importance, this can then be implemented and adapted by skilled hands on the ground.

    There are dozens of examples of high quality habitat management and the delivery of positive outcomes for species on NT owned and managed land. The record on NT owned and tenanted farmland is of course much patchier. NT has much more tenanted land than other organisations in the nature conservation business. It is much, much harder to ensure that biodiversity is kept high on the list of priorities when the land is managed by farmers on long term, even hereditary, tenanting agreements.

    The NT does make a critically important contribution to conserving biodiversity, but given the NT’s income and budget and considering both the treasures it holds and the extent of its holdings this is an organisation that punches below its weight in the nature conservation sphere.

    When Biodiversity Action Planning was at its height the NT did not develop a corporate biodiversity plan; it did not define the resource (which species, where?), did not set out targets and did not establish plans to meet targets. Given the capacity of the NT and the severity of the decline in biodiversity there is a strong argument for investing more than 5% of their budget on wildlife conservation.

    “The National Trust was established for the general purposes of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements, including buildings, of beauty or historic interest, and as regards lands for the preservation, so far as practicable, of their natural aspect, features and animal and plant life.” National Trust Act 1971.

    Surely it would be practicable to invest a bit more in halting biodiversity declines and in particular to drop into place the central mechanism. The bit of the machine that knows what biodiversity is where, how well it is doing and how well it should be doing in the future. It's not enough to just have your heart in the right place, the head’s role is essential, there needs to be clarity, transparency and direction and this needs consolidated knowledge.

    If we saw paintings in the walls of NT houses deteriorating as fast as the populations of pollinators are now declining across their land there would be a national outcry!

    P.S. thank you to the NT for recently agreeing to withdraw lethal wasp traps from their shops, a good decision!

  5. The experience of John is very much my own. I worked alongside the NT for many years and have often felt frustrated by the lack of positive nature conservation thinking in their midst. It is correct to say that much of their land is tenanted and NT seems content to let tenants just get on with it regardless. You would think that they would at least insist on membership of a scheme to improve biodiverstity and access. They seem to have an old fashioned land agent's approach to their property.

    There is no doubt that NT does a great job in protecting heritage properties etc but they do seem to have been left behind in terms of nature conservation. It is true that they own immense areas of nature conservation interest but their management is often minimal or sometimes done by other organisations under contract. The latter may well be a sensible approach.

    Most of all I never feel very welcome at NT properties. They tend to attract the converted anyway as their properties are restricted to their very middle class upwards members unless you are prepared to pay a hefty day entrance fee. This very much restricts exposing NT to all the people.

    I have become so disillusioned that I cancelled my membership to NT last year after being asked to pay £80 plus for a joint membership. I say this with a splendid NT property right on my doorstep. NT seems more money orientated than any other NGO I know. When visiting Skomer all they seem to want is to take your car parking money. they give you little information, apart from providing you with a place to leave your car they seem to have no other interest. Even at our local site if you are a member you are expected to "have your card swiped" on every visit (in my case it really could be daily) so that the local site can get more budget for the number of visitors it gets. Most local people just walk in from the town, disappear into the woods and do not even bother to join. NT are not liked even by nature conservationists in these parts.

    It is fair to say that they own a lot of important land but their positive input into the conservation scene is not noticeable. I am surprised because I remember their CEO being a feisty campaigning individual who punched way above her weight when she was working for CPRE.

    Concluding I do not think their claims are justified. Land ownership alone will not save our biodiversity. I do suspect that their Trustees might be the problem rather than their hard working staff.

  6. I'm afraid to say that, while there are many good things that the NT does to preserve the landscape and our heritage (it is an organisation I support), it is my experience that its nature conservation activities are haphazard at best, harmful at worst. Knowing a number of NT 'wild' sites as opposed to 'heritage' sites around the country very well, it has become apparent to me that the quality of local conservation work depends on the local teams of experts and the volunteers.

    The site of Badbury Rings in Dorset is a sad case in point. Over-enthusiastic and thougthless clearing of vegetation has been used to maintain the look of the Rings, rather than preserve the valuable wildlife there. The NT have even engaged in a programme of badger 'perturbation' on the Rings to persuade the badgers to leave their local setts for neighbouring farmland. Numbers of skylarks have crashed on the surrounding fields (thanks to over-grazing by sheep) and my own bird and butterfly counts on the site appear to have been harmed by the management here since I first took an occasional census around 20 years ago. (I've known the place for about 40 years.)

    I agree that it would be good to see a more serious attempt to gather records, set targets, engage in careful conservation programmes and measure progress across all NT sites.

    As you say, Mark, only the NT seems to regard itself as a nature conservation body. I have suspected for a little while now that the NT's nature conservation role is (mostly) window-dressing, designed to enhance the marketability of membership to the increasingly lucrative nature-loving, conservation-minded public which their not-inconsiderable, Heelis-based marketing department have identified.

    If that sounds a little unfair to all those good conservation people who do work for the NT, then perhaps they need to press their organisation for a more coordinated, thoughtful approach to nature.

    And so do its members, like me!

  7. My experience is that the NT does some great middle-order work - conservation projects and has some great people like Matthew Oates whom I admire.

    As I suspect is your experience, too, Mark, it barely functions on 1st order issues. For example, has anyone ever questioned the fact that NT farmland has level pegged 'best practise' ie intensification ? Had they done so in say 1970 our countryside could be a very different place today - its not just that there'd be lots of richer NT owned farmland but the moral question over the way the whole of farming has gone would have been pointed up with potentially s[ectacular consequnces. And NT would undoubtedly have the largest area of SSSI as the nation's leading conservation body - not, as it does now, lying third behind a rapidly improving MOD at no 1 and a far more adventurous & ambitious Forestry Commission at no 2. Far from being a constraint, the Trust's tenants increasingly feel like a human shield against its real responsibilities.

    In an era of amalgamations for 'back office efficiency' the NT and probably Natural England may well be cases where the span of control has just got too big for any management to give equal weight, drive and delivery to all the very different parts.

  8. I live and work in the south west, where the NT as a potential nature giant lies sleeping (deeply). Excellent isolated practice, but locked away out of its mainstream. A woken giants nature footprint would be incredibly impactful.
    Well done to this blog for giving this slumbering beast a little nudge.
    What would be enough to wake it up though?

  9. I recently walked through field after field of improved grassland (ie ecologically impoverished grassland) owned by the NT near Golden Cap. If the NT cannot be bothered to restore grassland, it sends a message to others that this is not a priority.

  10. If there's one 'conservation' organisation I'll never join, it's the National Trust. I don't get the feeling they're about helping wildlife or making improvements where it most matters on the huge tracts of land they own whether tenanted or not.

    Not saying they don't, it's just my impression. Unlike, say, the RSPB who I can easily point to multiple examples of good work and positive action which makes me feel justified in every penny I put into the organisation. I feel with an NT membership I'm paying primarily to maintain paintings and buildings I don't give a hoot about.

    There is one exception I have personal experience of and am very grateful for the effort of the Head Warden/Ranger David Steel and his team who do a stirling job at the Farne islands off Northumberland.

    I'd almost join just for that but I think I'd rather spend the equivalent of an annual membership getting as many visits as possible to an absolute gem of a seabird and seal colony.

    The NT are a bit like Natural England to me.

  11. No NT & nature? Dont forget about the NT National Nature Reserves - Calke Abbey, Orford Ness, Blakeney Point, Dovedale, Kinder Scout, Hatfield Forest, Sandscale Haws, Studland & Holt heaths, Horner Wood, Malham Tarn, Newtown Harbour, ... and of course the wonderful Farne Islands
    And many key SSSIs such as Fontmell, Attingham, Danbury Common, Felbrigg Great Wood, Rodborough Common, Ashridge, Bembridge Down, .. etc.

    The NT is a big organisation that probably punches below its weight in any one aspect of conservation, but it does do conservation work across all the many disciplines, of which nature is one (a very important one).
    Conservation is complex, nature conservation especially so.
    And nature conservation is about so so much more than birds and the farmland bird index.

    1. Well, yes, conservation is about much more than just the farmland bird index but, first, this was given as just one example of some of the things NT should be measuring on its landholdings and, secondly, for an organisation that owns a vast area of - er - farmland, most conservationists would surely consider it to be a highly relevant one. And if birds are doing well then it is pretty certain that lots of other taxa that are not so readily enumerated will also be doing well. On the other hand bird-free farmland is very likely to be biologically impoverished in general.
      One of the issues that we have to face is whether or not we want 'nature' to be confined to a few protected enclaves or rather do we want to have a strong level of biodiversity right across the countryside? If we want the latter (which surely we do) then we need to ensure that the countryside in general is farmed in a wildlife friendly way and the NT, as a major owner of farmland, has a potentially significant role in leading that if it chooses.

  12. Any of the large NGOs whose PR departments use the words ‘leading’ in their promotional blurb are subject to ridicule. At a recent meeting a French colleague described the UK land management sector as ‘100 dictators fighting to gain the ear of a democracy’ and as the French are also horrified at the silencing of all only allowing their chiefs, or rather their PR departments to speak on their behalf it does simply nothing more than delay progress for all across the sector, immensely frustrating and damaging to the private sector who understandably are becoming more and more vocal in their criticism of some the nonsense that is being said and as the internet and twitter in particular allow transparency it will inflict damage on their reputation with their members and potential members.
    The NT cannot have one voice and it would be refreshing to hear the discussions and debate from within the NT itself. But holding up individual case studies of ‘poor’ management is not the way forward, particularly as every NGO is guilty. I could easily state examples of very poor woodland management from all the land owning NGOs whose property I have visited and indeed in one case the poor management seems to be consistent nationwide rather than localised and therefore forgivable.
    At a recent open ONF meeting a raging argument between ONF staff took up most of the agenda – it was so refreshing and resulted in a conclusion satisfactory to all.

  13. As one of the PR villains talked about I'd just like to parry the barbs thrown at us in this sector. Our role is; in many cases, to translate a lot of the far too technical, acronym based and inward looking work of our excellent nature conservation colleagues. It is, or should be, a symbiotic relationship where each specialism respects the others and the value they provide. Rather than stifling freedom of speech or silencing the 'doers' PR hopes to inspire greater insterest and support from those who enjoy nature. It's all very well having a pop at the National Trust or Natural England Mr Avery, and some of your points about access to information are valid, but don't throw stones for self-publicising reasons from the safety of a blog, you are better than that.

  14. Not a great fan of NT, yes they own some wonderful sites but the fact they are wonderful appears to be almost a chance event. They also own some sites with huge conservation potential that is neither realised nor does there seem to be a move towards realisation. The Malham Tarn area is a case in point much of the NT owned limestone grassland is as intensively grazed( thus over grazed) as anything else in the area. Also too much of their land is handed over to be managed by shooting tenants, resulting in over managed moors with no raptors or wall to wall alien pheasants.
    Paul Irving

  15. PRVillian! ‘inward looking work’?

    The people are not stupid, the politicians are not either, but the media are or purport to be or more likely are too lazy, (as Leveson witnesses prove testimony to). The massive decline in newspapers and traditional media coincides with a huge rise in open journals and online science.

    Financial resources decline for nature conservation and regrettably that means that PR is a luxury, which is proving all too easy to go ‘cold turkey’ on.

    Social media; the blogosphere and twitter are becoming the chief source for general media material, often well after those who need to know, can act upon and are actually bothered have digested and started work. The manipulated false feedbacks of our industry in the broadsheets have become nothing more than a source of mirth at best as we are well beyond the initial frustration such claptrap caused us.

    1. Wow! I can see you feel strongly about this indeed. I can see the day to day frustration from academics and conservationists about the media having to say a thesis worth of work in a couple of columns but if we work together more closely - PR and conservationists then we'll become less fluffy and you can become less geeky and the n the most important people - the readers/listeners can have a wider, more informed and balanced view.

      You say social media, the blogoshpere and twitter are the chief source for the media - you are quite right - and the danger from such things as blogs like this are that they are mot objective or impartial - and are not open to challenge like the media - Leveson is one catastrophic policy that deserves as much vicarious responsibility as the shooting of raptors - but if the media get something wrong then they are legally bound to change it.

  16. Across much of the English uplands (much of which owned by NT), ..waders are apex,.. say no more.

    Some beautiful habitats mind! :-S

  17. The National trust own more than 12,000 hectares in the Borrowdale Valley in the Lake District. Their first woodland here was purchased 110 years ago. It is no coincidence that Borrowdale is the Lakeland valley that contains the most semi natural woodlands and which also hold a rich flora and fauna. Many areas are being managed for woodland regeneration whilst other areas are managed for the rich atlantic bryophyte flora that the area holds. If a bryophyte rich woodland is fenced off from grazing then a rapid growth of ground flora can actually destroy the many rare mosses and liverworts found there. A compromise needs to be found, however many people , conservationists included do not understand the reasoning behind the management regimes. They think that because the NT is not completely stopping grazing in their woodlands then they are not managing it properly for nature and stopping natural regeneration taking place.

    I believe the National Trust are doing an admirable job of nature conservation in the Lake District and that the management regimes are working well. Extensive survey work is also carried out, so that they fully know what management needs be carried out in the semi natural areas that they own.

    I have to laugh at this talk of farmland bird surveys/indices which certainly haven't produced very good results in the wider countryside

    1. In what sense have farmland bird surveys 'not produced very good results'? I think you are confusing the performance indicator with the managment prescription. Farmland bird surveys do not improve farmland for birds and are not intended to - they simply tell us how many birds there are on farmland (or at least give an index of abundance). This information can then be used to decide if existing land management is appropriate from the point of view of maintaining healthy bird populations and justify the introduction of whatever changes may be required. Most people would agree with you that the wider countryside is not well managed from the point of view of wildlife but it is absurd to describe that as a failure of the farmland bird index which is simply one of the ways of objectively demonstrating the state of the countryside for wildlife.
      Reading the views expressed here it would seem that there is recognition that the NT does some very good work in specific sites and locations and Borrowdale may be a good example of this. The question, though, is if they could/should be doing more across the entirety of their landholdings? NT is a major owner of farmland and an organisation that claims to be a leading nature conservation body so it is not unreasonable to expect it to be at the vanguard with respect to wildlife friendly farm management.

      1. jonathan
        you ask In what sense have farmland bird surveys not produced very good results’? perhaps I should have said instead that the results of these farmland bird surveys haven't led to any improvements in farmland bird numbers so what good do they do. No matter how many surveys you do it is fairly obvious that if you grow silage crops then you are not likely to have vast numbers of curlews, lapwings, skylarks nesting on your farm.

        From what i understand the NT strongly protect any peripheral wildlife habitats on their farms and any areas of semi natural habitat or SSSI. I do not think that there remit should be to convert improved farmland to areas of wildlife interest through habitat creation.

        Jonathan you say "it is not unreasonable to expect it to be at the vanguard with respect to wildlife friendly farm management". I advise you to check out this link
        relating to the National trust owned New House Farm National nature Reserve and then tell me that NT have little concern for nature conservation on farms!!

        1. David
          I don't recall saying that NT has little concern for nature conservation on farms and I have also acknowledged that it does some very good work on various sites. New House Farm is obviously a very good case in point. Great! Keep up the good work! But do we just want to preserve a few jewels in the crown or do we also want to try and ensure a healthy level of biodiversity across the entire countryside? It may not be the remit of NT to convert improved farmland to areas of wildlife interest through habitat creation but it has been demonstrated that there are a variety of measures that can be applied on a conventional farm that yield benefits for wildlife without harming farm yields. NT could ensure such measures are applied wherever possible and appropriate and not just on the nature reserves it owns. Given its expressed commitment to nature conservation we can surely expect all of its farmland to be better than average on basic measures of biodiversity.
          You suggest that surveying is pointless (or at least question its value) and say that is is obvious that if one grows silage there will be fewer curlews and lapwings whether one surveys or not. The trouble is that what you or I find 'obvious' may not be sufficient without some supporting data either to persuade farmers to change what they do, or to demonstrate to the public who fund you that your work is achieving something useful. Furthermore, as you have pointed out yourself in the context of the Borrowdale woodlands, in many cases what seems superficially 'obvious' may turn out to be misleading

  18. Do I sense the start of movement where members demand/encourage/request a better deal for wildlife on NT managed land??? sign me up!

  19. Mark - my local experiance of the NT here in Bedfordshire is that they demonstrate ignorance of the natural resources they manage, to the point that I have not renewed my family membership.
    Local 16thcentury Dovecotes hosted nesting Barn Owls as far back as residents could remember except that the NT then decided to block access to the owl's roost/nest to save money on the mess that the Doves create in the Dovecote! In parallel they published a new leaflet with an image of a Barn Owl on the front. Barn Owls have been absent ever since.

    1. A Dovecote is not a natural resource, and pigeon poo is very harmful to Listed Buildings (there were pigeons in residendence, not doves). And a barn owl box was put up nearby. The NT has to balance its responsibilities for conservation. If you live in Beds, I recommend you go to Sharpenhoe Clappers for your semi-natural habitat managed for nature conservation by the NT (beech hanger, hazel coppice, chalk grassland, species-rich scrub, arable reversion to grassland, and lots of footpaths to enjoy the site and its flowers and butterflies).

      1. Redwood - I think you missed my point and the irony of the NT's actions, taken at the time out of Ignorance of the local wildlife. The building is not harmed by the dove-poo but it costs the NT to clear it from time to time so as not to put off the occassional visitors. The nearlby box by the way is mine. Unfortunately it was located after the birds had been disturbed and it's location is not good enough to have attracted them to return. The NT did not consult those who would have helped prior to disturbing the birds.

        I agree that Sharpenhoe is great but that doesn't demonstrate my point that many but not all people in the NT are totally unaware of their Natural world, only that of those who like to spend their money visiting stately homes and historic buildings.

  20. I don't think that you can ignore the NT business model. They are landlords and they farm their land and earn their return through their tenants. While they can try and control the way that their tenants farm through the selection process and through clauses in their agreements, this is a fine balance. In some cases they inherited their tenants many of whom have security of tenure
    What this debate shows is that nature conservation, done properly, costs money whether directly in expenditure terms or in indirect ways e.g. rent foregone. This balance isn't easy and I suspect that there are few that manage it better than the NT.

  21. Mark,

    I hear what you say and you may well be right. Have you put your questions to them? If you have you could post their answer on the website.

    Or you could run for the NT council and get them to change their ways. I would vote for you!


  22. I remember in the late 90s while walking in the Lakes having a camera and microphone shoved in my face by a local news team asking the question if the NT 'do a good job' . My answer then was that they did, when it came to historic houses but otherwise they were like any other property owner. Maximising income to run a portfolio. As far as I can see not much has changed. That's not necessarily a bad thing as far as historic properties are concerned but it doesn't do much for nature conservation as it don't earn.

  23. Hmm. I have very mixed thoughts about the National Trust and where their priorities lie when it comes to concentrating money into effectively maintaining & safeguarding as many natural environments, landscapes, waterways, species and habitats as possible, which are needed now more than ever in the wake of the government’s Planning Policy Framework and recent Autumn Statement. I am alarmed, at the revenue and expenditure figures you have stated Mark and of the apparent lack of transparency by the NT, as to just where all the money goes. But it also makes me ask the questions: When does a charity, stop being a nature conservation charity and when should a charities ombudsman step in?
    Undoubtedly since the trust was set up, it has safeguarded tens of thousands of acres of land, hundreds of historic houses, gardens etc and continues to do so and has so far, protected many of the UK’s stunning landscapes and farmlands from housing developments. But I have concerns that this also is no longer a priority for them.
    So what are the true costs? Who are the long term winners and losers? How do the National Trust measure the value of say, a stately home, to that of the natural environment under threat? I suspect a lot of their income does go on maintenance & rates for such properties and estates, but also, on their numerous hospitality projects and the staffing of them - upkeep of footpaths, dry stone walling projects, ecology surveys in some areas are done by amazing unpaid volunteers of course, but many are not. I do suspect that too much charity money is being spent on the upkeep and pomp of stately homes along with all their numerous heritage gardens & properties across the UK. This is indeed made clear by the National Trust that they intend to spend donations on this type of building preservation, but then confusingly, so do organisations such as English Heritage. Whilst not only gaining revenue from those who continue to farm land, by way of tenancies etc, they interestingly gain a lot, from the thousands holiday cottages, apartments, country house hotels, volunteer holidays etc they now provide and have developed - rather a lot of them too.
    Times have changed since the trust was originally set up and so I wonder if perhaps, The National Trust should do some honest rebranding and declare themselves as primarily, tourist operators instead?

  24. I think David H's comment 'I do not think their remit should be to convert improved farmland to wildlife habitat' sums the issue up: the simple question is why not ? If its good enough for FC - as RSPB and others are urging over both heathland and ancient woodland - which doesn't even claim to be a conservation organisation, why not NT which does ? Especially, as just like FC and conifer plantations, the intensive farmland isn't something they inherited - it's all happened on their watch.

  25. I was slightly concerned to see the Manor Reborn on the Beeb before Christmas - the walled garden which, it seems, was home to great crested newts (and judging by the 'before' shot looked like fairly valuable terrestrial foraging habitat) was dramatically changed into a manicured and intensively worked veg garden. Were surveys carried out before works? Is a management plan now in place?


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