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National Trust calls for greater action on climate change

National Trust Fire

Image: Fire at Zennor in Cornwall, July 2022. National Trust.

Record-breaking temperatures and prolonged dry weather are affecting the nation’s cherished landscapes, gardens and wildlife, causing historic water features to dry up, sparking wildfires and taking a toll on animals, according to the National Trust.

With temperatures rising again this week, and after the driest July on record for parts of England, the conservation charity says this summer’s exceptional conditions are a wake-up call to cut emissions and adapt.

In the East of England, where temperatures hit 40c last month, 60-70 per cent of heather at the rare lowland heath site of Dunwich Heath is struggling to flower.

Further west, on Dartmoor, some tree-growing lichen, liverwort and mosses that usually thrive in the damp atmosphere of Lydford Gorge, a site of globally important temperate rainforest, are shrivelling due to a lack of humidity.

Elsewhere, rills and water features in some historic gardens dried up during July’s heatwave, while a pond dipping event at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire was cancelled after the 15-metre-long pool almost vanished.

At Wallington in Northumberland, bats were found disoriented and dehydrated in the daylight during the hottest days, while in Cambridgeshire, a waterwheel that powers a flour mill has had to stop turning due to low river flows.

Much of the country remains tinder-dry with fire risk reaching ‘exceptional’ levels in beauty spots like the Peak District last month. Several wildfires have broken out on Trust land in recent weeks, including one in Devon that has taken two months to fully extinguish.

The charity is continuing to respond to the current hot and dry conditions and adapt its places for long-term changes, with strategies such as selecting drought-resistant plants in its gardens, increasing tree cover and shade, and creating wetlands.

At the Holnicote Estate in Somerset, where beavers were reintroduced in 2020, wetland habitats are still thriving, despite low river levels.

Holding more water in landscapes will become increasingly important as the climate changes, the Trust says.

Keith Jones, national climate change advisor for the National Trust, said: “We shouldn’t be surprised by these temperatures, it’s what the science has been saying for decades. But even with years of planning, some of the effects are stark, and we are still learning of the precise impacts extreme weather events like this can have.

“What we can do, is adapt. At the Trust we’re taking action to make sure our sites are ready for future changes, from making our landscapes rich in nature, our rivers cooler and our gardens more resilient to helping our buildings cope with excessive heat.

“But we must cut emissions too.

“The UK still holds the COP presidency, and the next Prime Minister should put this at the top of their to-do list as COP27 approaches in November.

“This has to be a watershed moment, where we make a decisive shift from words to action.”

The Trust is also seeing early impacts on its historic buildings and is exploring strategies to help them cope with excessive heat, such as shading and passive ventilation, while ensuring they are warm during winter months to reduce emissions.

Richard Millar, head of adaptation at the Climate Change Committee, said: “We have long known that climate change is making UK heatwaves more frequent and more intense.

“These amplified heatwaves are just one of the impacts on the UK’s significant cultural heritage sites and landscapes.

“Addressing these impacts requires conservation and heritage planning to be undertaken on the basis that the UK’s climate is changing.

“This will enable the UK’s cultural and natural heritage to continue to be successfully preserved for generations to come.”

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