A light at the end of the burrow?

“Within a generation, island seabird colonies in south west England could be thriving and free from the threat of rats”. That’s the view of conservationists this week as they reveal the amazing results of the Seabird Recovery Project on Lundy ten years after the project started, and embark on a similar major new project to eradicate rats that threaten burrow nesting seabirds on St Agnes and Gugh on the Isles of Scilly.

Puffins on Lundy (James Wright)

Puffins on Lundy (James Wright)

Survey teams from RSPB with funding from The National TrustThe Landmark Trust and Natural England returned to Lundy this spring and found a tenfold increase in Manx shearwater numbers since the rat removal operation a decade ago.

Helen Booker, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer in the South West said: “This is such an exciting result, better than we expected, and the rate of increase is an indication of just how important rat free islands like Lundy are as breeding site for seabirds”

The Lundy Seabird Recovery Project was a partnership initiated in 2003 between the National Trust, English Nature (now Natural England), RSPB, and Landmark Trust. The aim of the project was to recover the Manx shearwater population, which was then at a very low level with around just 300 breeding pairs. Ten years on, there are over 3,000 pairs.

Puffin numbers have also increased from 5 to 80 birds and guillemots, razorbills and shags have also seen substantial increases. Anecdotally, other species such as pygmy shrew and wheatear are also more numerous.

Derek Green, Lundy General Manager said: “We are delighted with this result which is showing benefits for a range of species on the island and shows just how much can be achieved. Lundy has been a wildlife haven for many years, although rats were always a problem we had to live with.

Their removal has transformed the island for both wildlife and visitors alike, and we’re watching with great anticipation and excitement as the cliffs and slopes of Lundy fill with the eerie calls of thousands of birds once again. “

Dr. David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation for the National Trust said “Once the rats had gone from Lundy, the number of pairs of shearwaters on Lundy went from 100s to 1000s in matter of a few years which is outstanding news.

“Such a rapid recovery is unlikely to have been due to “home bred” birds. Shearwaters from other colonies must have settled to breed on the island. We do not know where these birds came from, but there is a massive shearwater colony on the islands off Pembrokeshire in Wales. So was Lundy repopulated in part by the Welsh?”

The striking results from Lundy are an indication of what can be expected a couple of hundred miles to the south west as the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project gets underway this summer.

This ambitious project seeks to also secure a legacy for similar seabirds and the Scilly shrew, as well as the community that lives and works not just on the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, but across the Isles of Scilly.

The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, now the largest community-based island restoration project of its kind in the world, will provide a raft of benefits in the islands for the 25 years of the project’s life, and beyond. It is managed by a coalition of groups including RSPB, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Duchy of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership and a representative from the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, with support from the Isles of Scilly Bird Group.

Jaclyn Pearson, Project Manager for the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project said: “Lundy has pioneered this type of project in the UK and it demonstrates just what devastating effects the rats were having on the island’s wildlife. Lundy is now the most important place in England for Manx shearwater, leaving the Isles of Scilly in its wake. This really has thrown down the gauntlet and in years to come it will be very exciting seeing the changes here.”

David Appleton of Natural England, who has been involved in both these projects, said: “Following Lundy’s example, in the 25 year lifetime of the Isles of Scilly project we can only imagine what the population of Manx shearwater and storm petrel will be in the South West of England.”

The first phase lasts five years and represents a significant investment of time and money. The funding has come mainly from the EU LIFE fund for environmental work – a dedicated pot that makes up just a fraction of a percentage of the EU budget – and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which aims to sustain and transform a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy.

Alongside the removal work, the project will also work with residents and visitors to highlight the importance of the islands for seabirds.

Darren Mason, a volunteer with the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, is already working alongside local businesses, telling people about the important seabirds, the threats they face and what we can do to help. “Our seabirds are amazing, long-lived birds but species like the Manx shearwater and storm petrel are particularly vulnerable as they nest in burrows and crevices where rats like to forage. It is amazing to think that the storm petrel is a relative of the albatross, as they weigh the same as a few coins. I hope we will soon hear the delightful “purring” of these tiny ocean wanderers from many more places in the future as the result of the project.”

Puffin numbers rally after 2008 crash

Results from a three-month survey of puffins on the world famous National Trust Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, have shown an eight per cent increase in the number of breeding puffin pairs since 2008 when the last census showed a dramatic fall in numbers.

A team of eleven National Trust rangers carried out a full census of the population, which happens once every five years, across eight islands with the final figures showing that there are just under 40,000 (39,962) pairs of nesting puffins.

2003 was the peak year for puffins on the Farne Islands with over 55,000 (55,674) nesting pairs recorded and numbers had been steadily increasing since the 1960s. However the 2008 survey revealed a dramatic crash in numbers by nearly one third to just 36,835 pairs.

 David Steel, Head Ranger on the National Trust Farne Islands, commented,

“The results of the puffin census come as a real relief following some difficult years for them – with the flooding of burrows last year and a very challenging winter.  We had feared that the numbers of puffins would be down again as has happened on other colonies, including those on the Shetland Islands.

 “The bad weather during recent seasons has had some impact on numbers, but with a good nesting habitat secured by us and a plentiful supply of food in the area, numbers have been recovering pretty strongly, which is great news for the puffins and other seabirds.”

 Extreme weather has had a major impact on puffins in the north-sea in the last couple of years.  The 2012 breeding season was hit hard with the second wettest summer on record flooding many burrows, where puffins live.

Earlier this year, just as puffins were returning to the colonies in March, storms resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds along the coasts of north-east England and Scotland. Over 3,500 bodies were collected and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.

 Professor Mike Harris from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology added,

“The wreck was unusual in that it occurred when puffins were returning to their colonies and were close to land.  It’s likely that a very high proportion of the total number of birds that died were found, therefore exaggerating the severity of the mortality.

 “The Isle of May puffin population, 100 km to the north of the Farnes, has also shown no sign of a decline in numbers following the winter puffin disaster. Puffin survival over the last winter was not exceptionally low, despite fears after the wreck.”

The unmistakeable puffin with its bright beak and slightly comical walk is a much loved symbol of the British coastline. During the survey, which began in May, the rangers put their arms into holes to make sure that the nests are occupied.

Puffin census_infographic

 David Steel concluded,

“The poor spring weather affected the timing of the breeding season, with the birds that did survive, breeding late”.

“However this late start may result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them.”

 For the first time, nest cameras have been inserted into puffin burrows to record the birds’ behaviour in intimate detail. The footage, along with details on how the rangers are progressing with the 2013 puffin census, can be seen at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/puffins or follow progress on twitter at #puffincensus.

Weekly Witter: The future of our heritage – under the microscope

Andrew Bush – Adviser on Paper Conservation for the National Trust finds that there is more than meets the eye down his microscope.

One of the favourite tools of my trade is a trusted digital microscope, not much bigger than a fat cigar but capable of up to 200 times magnification. It’s a very portable piece of kit, which is a good thing as I travel all over examining collections in any of the 200 or so historic properties on my patch. Although I have had it for a couple of years now, I am only just beginning to realise its wider potential use, of which more later.

A typical use for the microscope is to help me examine the condition of some of the Trust’s 1,400 portrait miniatures, many dating from the 18th century. The majority of these are painted in watercolours, with a very fine brush on wafer thin sheets of ivory. The ivory is so thin, and translucent, that it can be painted on the reverse to give subtle toning to the face as seen from the front. Sometimes a sheet of silver leaf was placed behind to give added luminosity.

As far as conservation and stability is concerned, the marriage of ivory and water based paints is not a happy one. It is the inability of the watercolour to keep a grip on the smooth surface of the ivory together with the shrinkage and expansion of this thin organic support that leads to flaking and splitting. This, along with keeping an eye out for mould growth, is the purpose of my visit…..At least I used to think that this was the purpose of my conservation assessments, things have changed.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)  The Artist's Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)
The Artist’s Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

When I am carrying out a survey, I am usually with our collections in our showrooms and often the house will be open to visitors. If I am looking at something particularly delicate, or if distractions are to be avoided, I might be tucked away in a quiet corner, but increasingly I am working in front of the public, discussing what I am doing with anyone interested. It is this interaction with the visitors that I believe could potentially have just as much significance for the future well being of our collections, as any observations and recommendations for care or remedial treatment that I make in my reports. It is not only in raising awareness of the need for conservation, but showing that there are career opportunities in conservation. This is where my digital microscope has such a powerful role, it acts as a magnet to nearly every young visitor, and hopefully, who knows, for some of them it will be a way marker on a route to a career in conservation. Until I was at University I had absolutely no idea that a career as a conservator was possible, hopefully through the powers of microscopy others might cotton on faster than I did.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Top environmental award won by the National Trust

One of the most prestigious environmental awards in the UK has been won by the National Trust for its pioneering and cutting edge energy work in Wales.

The recognition in the ‘energy’ category of the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards was announced at a special ceremony last night with the judges saying that the Trust “shows that heritage shouldn’t stop sustainability – their approach was challenging and broad ranging – very large energy savings, moving towards energy independence, while preserving national heritage.”

Keith Jones, National Trust Environmental Practice Adviser for Wales, said “Winning this award is a great honour and recognition for all of the hard work of staff and volunteers across Wales.

 “Our work in Wales is all about getting the balance right in terms of generating our own energy but perhaps more importantly about using less energy in the first place. It’s a mixture of the big ticket measures that can generate clean and green power as well as the simple measures that can reduce our energy footprint.”

NT logo flag at The National Trust Annual General Meeting, held at the Arena & Convention Centre Liverpool, on 1 November 2008In Wales the Trust manages sites as diverse as the beautiful medieval fortress at Chirk Castle and crofts on the magical Llŷn Peninsula. It encompasses visitor centres and bunkhouses, a Tudor merchant’s house and old coastguard cottages, along with the 19th century neo-Norman Penrhyn castle and Tredegar House in south-east Wales.

National Trust Wales has already reduced its energy use by 40 per cent in two years and is well on the way to generating all of its energy needs from renewable sources at its properties.

There has been a major investment in 190 separate projects across Wales using groundbreaking technology as varied as modern light bulbs to the UK’s first marine source heat pump. It has explored biomass boilers and solar energy.

 Photovoltaic panels and Hydro alone will supply more than half of the energy needs for the National Trust in Wales by the end of 2013.

 In the last year the National Trust has also been recognised for its environmental and energy work by winning the prestigious Ashden Gold Award 2012, UK Water Efficiency Awards 2012 and the Cooperative Community Energy Challenge 2012.

Weekly Witter: Where are Britain’s Bees?

A Buzzless Spring…

Hindsight is useless. Foresight is what’s needed, but it is far easier to prove something retrospectively.  Conservation and technological science need to be forward looking, and to prime future actions.  Furthermore, there’s a jumping off point where science has to prime belief.  That jumping off point is often hard to determine: sometimes we have to jump before we have full scientific certainty, which is where belief becomes important.

“I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.”

Much has been said and written about neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and the plight of bees, hived and wild.  I’d love to say that I fully understand it all, but I don’t; some of the science is beyond me, and some of it seems woolly. Good science is often partial, and there is much inadequate science around (often acting as a stepping stone towards good science).  Yet as an entomologist who has been interested in our native bees for over thirty years and as someone who has been involved in bee keeping on and off since childhood, I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.  If there was a single cause we would in theory have got to the bottom of it by now, so I suspect a cocktail, a nasty cocktail.

My wife and I gave up bee keeping circa 2000 when we finally had to accept that we couldn’t keep them in the arable landscape in which we live.  It was unfair on the bees; they kept dying – and not just because of poor weather or Varroa mites, or even inadequate husbandry.  Moreover, we became increasingly aware that bees kept by friends in more suburban environments were faring considerably better.  Much of what our own bees gathered was Oil Seed Rape (OSR), which in my opinion makes revolting honey (and not simply because it sets rock hard).  Since then our local farms have increased their OSR acreage considerably.

“What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.”

In 2012 some 490,000ha of OSR (76 per cent of the UK crop) were treated with ‘neonics’, along with some 600,000ha (30 per cent) of wheat (Advisory Committee on Pesticides Data, 2012).  A formal review by the European Foods Standards Agency reported in January that ‘neonics’ pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored evidential data upon which regulatory agencies have relied may be flawed.  Their review concluded that an acute risk to honey bees is posed by dust drift from the seed treatments used in maize, OSR and cereals, and that a similar high risk is posed by residues in nectar and/or pollen.  In response the European Commission is implementing a temporary ban on some neonicotinoids. This is effectively an evocation of the Precautionary Principle of the Rio Declaration, which states: ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

honey_bee North Eastern Photography

Will honey bees soon be a thing of the past?

Whether this will actually help bees remains to be seen.  Crops sown this autumn will not be affected by the moratorium, and two years is a pathetically small window of opportunity – especially as ‘neonics’ can persist in some soils for up to four years.  Furthermore, it is unwise to assume that the alternatives to ‘neonics’ are less damaging, so we urgently need to see guidance provided to farmers and gardeners on practices to use instead.  What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.  Meanwhile in Wales there is perhaps some hope in the production of a Pollinator Action Plan (open for consultation until June 4th) which could be usefully extended and developed on a UK-wide basis as our bees don’t respect borders.

Why we are growing all this Oil Seed Rape in the first place is a question only naïve people like me ask…

  • Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years.  Although passionate about butterflies he is very much an all-round naturalist and is effectively the Trust’s resident naturalist. He works closely with the Trust’s network of ecologists and naturalist rangers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular weekly mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about the news and what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Spring catches up

At last we had a decent May Day Bank Holiday, you all say.  Actually, that of 2011 was sunny, though spoilt by a penetrating north-east wind, and we have to go back to 2005 for the last genuinely good one.  Hopefully the nation made the most of Monday’s most welcome sunshine.

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Nature certainly did.  It went into rapid catch-up mode.  Until this last week spring had been running late, the latest it’s been since 1996, though 2006 also saw a late spring.  But spring can move fast when released, and in the space of a mere week the countryside has been transformed.  Blink, or spend a week on an intensive indoor training course, and you miss it.

Bluebells have come from nowhere, or at least from a state of serious retard, and are now at or approaching their peak in many places. But why do they matter?  The answer is simply because they flower en masse when spring it at its absolute zenith.  Our scented bluebell drifts therefore form the pinnacle of spring – add a distant cuckoo call or the vibrancy of the nightingale and you’ve reached what TS Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’ (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton).  Also, and more obviously, we have no other native plant that forms such stunning purple haze carpets (though devil’s bit scabious can perform a poor man’s version in September).  And our native bluebells are strongly scented.  We can get mildly intoxicated on the sight and scent of a bluebell carpet, especially on warm still spring afternoons – like Monday’s bank holiday.  To put it bluntly, bluebells are a legal and natural high.  They are especially good this year as some of the early spring flowers, with which they often grow, are still in flower – notably the pinky-white wood anemone or windflower, which are normally finished before the bluebells start.

nt-infographic-bluebells 2The trees are also, quite suddenly, breaking into leaf – and this seriously transforms the landscape.  The oaks are leafing late this year, so late in fact that they are coming out at the same time as the ash trees.  This may or may not be worrying, depending on how aware of, or convinced you are about, the rural saying concerning the leafing of ash and oak.  2013 could, of course, be the year in which Ash Dieback starts to do to our landscapes what Dutch Elm Disease did back in the early to mid 1970s.  We shall see, but in good spring weather there is always optimism – for spring is essentially about the fulfilment of promise, the promise of summer.  Perhaps we truly belong in summer?  Certainly, we are overdue a good summer.

Some migrant birds have arrived late, held up by northerly winds.  Two of the British Trust for Ornithology radio-tagged cuckoos arrived on our shores, found that the weather wasn’t to their liking – and promptly flew back south across the Channel.  Hopefully the warm spell has lured them back again.  It certainly brought a major flurry of arrivals – a major fall of common whitethroats over the bank holiday weekend, and more recently garden warblers.

In effect, spring is happening, all at once and all in a hurry right now.  It is impossible not to be moved by it.

Weekly Witter: Out of the strong came forth sweetness

Spring is a time of joy for all naturalists, leaf burst and blossom delighting all of us, not least the entomologist who has suffered a long and bleak winter with hardly a buzz or a flutter of wings. The search for the rare and spectacular is most definitely on and it’s not in praise of leaf or flower that I devote this blog. I’m celebrating a sweet and intoxicating liquor, a dark brown liquid that oozes, bubbles and even gurgles from trees. Sap-runs or flux as they are sometimes known, prove irresistible to insects and insect hunters alike.

There are many reasons why sap might spring from trees, bacterial disease, physical damage or the attentions of wood boring insects such as the chunky larvae of the goat moth which might spend five years developing on the frugal diet of solid wood. Whatever causes the sap to flow from the tree there are rich pickings for insects. Flies, beetles and wasps are all attracted to the sugary secretions. While some of the species such as red admirals and wasps are fairly ordinary, there’s a chance of finding more rare species per square inch than any other habitat I know.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The tree in the photograph was in a field at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons and is clearly in decline although the sap runs are a symptom rather than the cause. One of the first things I check for on such trees are the exit holes of the twin-spot wood-borer, a formerly rare beetle that has become much more common as a result of acute oak decline. These beetles, sometimes implicated in the spread of disease leave holes that are distinctive for being flattened on one side, much like a D. There was no sign at all of where this handsome beetle had been, indeed despite seeing hundreds of holes on scores of trees I’d never seen this species in over ten years of trying. Other species though were there in abundance.

Wasps were frequent, along with their bigger cousins the hornet. These, despite their fearsome reputation are luckily kind-tempered; praiseworthy when poring over the trunk with your nose an inch away from where they feed. Sap-beetles, fungus beetles and hoverflies all flocked to the sweet sap. The rare brown tree-ant, a real southern speciality was busy, scurrying across the trunk, drinking sap and seemingly attending hoverfly larvae that were immersed in the syrupy stream. Several hoverflies are known to breed exclusively in sap runs, some of these are tiny and rather dowdy but the inflated hoverfly is a much more robust beast. This inch long fly is a dapper black and orange affair and always a pleasure to see.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

Red admiral butterflies had settled onto the trunk to feed occasionally flashing their wings to startle other insects attempting to muscle in. The smell of the sap was even tempting enough to lure a purple emperor away from its sylvan kingdom. After a good twenty minutes of inspecting the insect life on this once mighty tree I thought that the emperor would be the highlight. Just as I turned to walk away, another insect alighted at the foot of the tree, the wings creating an audible buzz as it did so. Its slim shape and spangled appearance gave it away as one of my most sought after species. Agrilus pannonicus, the oak jewel beetle, the twin-spot wood-borer (so good they named it thrice), a Holy Grail that serendipity (and sap) had seen fit to allow me to meet.

oak j Oak Jewel Beetle

Oak Jewel Beetle

  • Peter Brash is a wildlife and countryside advisor for the National Trust. He specialises in animal ecology; specifically birds, insects and bats. As well as the surveying of habitats, wildlife interpretation and engagement.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Battle of Britain’s bluebells

The Natural History Museum online Bluebell Survey

Are British bluebells under threat?

Are British bluebells under threat?

Since 2006 scientists at the NHM have been asking the public to look more closely at one of Britain’s best loved plants and report their data online. Initially driven by the desire to understand whether this iconic species was indeed threatened by an invasive alien, the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), our work soon became a quest to understand just what the plant we thought of as the Spanish Bluebell was and where it had come from, before we could begin to understand what we were seeing in the British countryside. Molecular work demonstrated that the Spanish and English Bluebells were very similar, indeed there was as much genetic variation between the populations of Spanish bluebell isolated on the different mountain ranges across Iberia as there was between it and our native plant. Study of the narrow zone where they meet in northern central Spain revealed a confusing mix, just like we can find in urban areas in Britain. Only geographical isolation has kept them apart and distinct as there is no apparent barrier to breeding between them. As a consequence our horticultural endeavours have in less than 250 years done much to undo the last 10,000 plus years of isolation and evolution!

“So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements?”

It became clear that the plant which had become associated in British botanist’s minds as typical Spanish Bluebell was actually a triploid, the like of which our criss-crossing of Iberia had failed to find. It is likely that if this didn’t arise early in cultivation it was of a selected form, picked out for its robustness and vigour (and not for its charm!) not subsequently found in the wild. It was also obvious that over time plants from different parts of Iberia had found their way to British gardens and because of the variability in the species we could determine that our problem plants might better be called Portugese rather than Spanish Bluebells!

“Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes…”

So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements? To an extent yes – with no barrier between them interbreeding will occur wherever the taxa meet, and our gardens, wherever they be across the country, the British public had shown us were full of hybrid plants. It was also clear that the major ancient woodland areas supporting the world’s largest stands of Hyacinthoides non-scripta were, as yet, largely unsullied and untainted by the alien. In areas around our major towns and cities, where ancient woodland habitats are small and fragmented and in close proximity to gardens and fly-tippers, populations were mixed. The message thus then became one of educating the public not to dispose of unwanted garden plants irresponsibly. Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes although encouragingly it seems that most pollinator movements may be going the other way, from our native plants to the invaders.

Having better established the distribution of alien plants (or their genes) within the British Isles we then decided that our survey may provide us with an excellent opportunity to build a more robust data set looking at the phenology of flowering in this species, which may help provide evidence on the existence and effects of climate change. To do this meaningfully requires very many years’ worth of data (not least to counter natural yearly fluctuations such as we see now) and as many members of the public contributing as possible, hopefully with the same plants recorded year after year. Responses to the survey peaked late in the flowering period last year following my appearance on the BBC’s One Show and we hope that all those people who contributed then will do so again this year. Last year our first records were made early in the first week of March, some five weeks or more ahead of our first this year and most plants I see even in the cities heat are still more than a fortnight from flowering.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

By carefully identifying plants using our online guidance, with the fallback of being able to send images to me here at the museum enquiries team (ias2@nhm.ac.uk) to help with this, it will be possible to document whether hybrid and Spanish plants do flower earlier so that we can discount this as one cause of change in flowering time and behaviour.

  • Fred Rumsey- Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM
  • Experts at the National Trust believe that due to the late spring, British bluebells are still weeks away from flowering. Read more here.

National Trust invests £3.5m to put clean energy at the heart of conservation

An ambitious plan to provide clean energy to 43 of its historic properties was launched today by the National Trust in conjunction with green electricity supplier Good Energy.

The Trust will invest nearly £3.5 million in five pilot projects, including hydro, biomass and heat pumps, during 2013/14.

If the pilot is successful, the Trust expects to spend ten times that sum in a programme that will see it generate 50 per cent of its energy from renewable sources and halve its fossil fuel consumption by 2020.

This will enable it to reduce its energy costs by more than £4 million per annum, releasing more money for the charity’s conservation work.

The National Trust’s four million members will also be able to support the programme by signing up for renewable electricity with the charity’s energy partner, Good Energy. The company will pay the Trust £40 per year for each new customer signing up to its dual fuel tariff via the National Trust.

If 5 per cent of member households adopted the tariff it would raise £3.8 million for investment in a low carbon future and see 95,000 households powered by clean, green renewably sourced electricity.

 Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprises Director at National Trust, said:

“Through our work we show that renewable technologies can be made to work in some of the country’s most sensitive landscapes and historic environments.”

“Like householders everywhere we are facing rising energy bills. We spend more than £6 million each year heating and powering the places in our care.”

“By investing in renewable energy production we can reduce our energy bills and invest more in vital conservation work around the country. It will put renewable energy at the heart of conservation.”

Juliet Davenport, CEO of Good Energy, said:

“Britain is blessed with abundant sources of natural power and we hope people will be inspired when they see how National Trust properties can generate renewable power in harmony with the environment.”

“Together we hope to inspire people to switch to green electricity, reduce their energy usage and if possible generate their own renewable power at home.”

Good Energy is helping the Trust develop its renewable strategy, using its expertise in generating power from natural sources and its experience of supporting more than 46,000 small and medium sized renewable energy generators in the UK.

The National Trust spends nearly £6 million a year to heat and power its estate – 300 major historic houses, plus office buildings, visitor centres and 360 holiday cottages – and without action it forecasts that rising oil and gas prices would take this to £7.5 million by 2020.

The water-wheel at Aberdulais Falls viewed at ground level.

The water-wheel at Aberdulais Falls viewed at ground level.

However, the renewables investment programme is expected to reduce operational energy costs by £4.3 million from 2019 and provide an expected 10 per cent return on investment, thanks to lower fuel costs and schemes such as the Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive.

The Trust’s five pilot projects this year will trial a multi-site approach and prove business models:

Plas Newydd – 300kW marine source heat pump, providing 100% of property’s heat requirements

Croft Castle – 150kW biomass boiler, supplying 74% of property’s heating needs

Ickworth – 300kW biomass boiler, supplying 100% of estate’s heating needs

Craflwyn – more than 100kW hydro-generation, which will be sold back to the grid

Stickle Ghyll – 90kW hydro-electric project providing 30% of property’s energy needs

If the trial phase is deemed successful, the National Trust plans 38 further schemes tailored to individual properties and selected according to strict criteria.

Patrick Begg continued:

“Projects must offer strong financial returns, build energy independence and energy security, but also respect properties’ settings and historical significance, and improve conservation, wherever possible.

“A major focus of the programme will be to dramatically reduce the Trust’s reliance on oil from 20 per cent to 3 per cent. This not only protects it from volatile and rising prices, but also reduces the risk that oil spills will pollute water courses, gardens and buildings. Two of the trial properties, Plas Newydd and Ickworth, are the Trust’s largest users of fuel oil.”

The National Trust has been making steady progress pioneering the use of renewable technologies across the places it looks after.

Over the last decade more than 150 schemes have been installed across a wide range of technologies: wood (biomass), solar electricity and hot water, small-scale wind, hydro-electric, and heat pumps.

Following the development of these projects, there is now widespread recognition of the value and impact which well-built renewables initiatives can bring to local National Trust businesses.

This investment programme is part of a move to invest beyond small impact renewables towards larger-scale initiatives, which can make a greater contribution towards meeting local and national goals, as well as generating income for the Trust.

A curate’s egg of a curriculum?

There’s been a fair amount of coverage and comment recently on the Government’s consultation on the National Curriculum. Andy Beer, the National Trust’s Head of Visitor Experience and Learning, provides an overview of the questions we are asking ourselves as we draw up the National Trust’s response to the Government’s proposals:

The proposed new National Curriculum is an interesting reminder of the diverse interests of the National Trust. Just about every subject area touches on some aspect of our work. Coastal change, nature education, fostering a love of history, climate change, citizenship and identity are all things that bear closely upon our purposes as a charity.

So, how do we respond? Firstly, that it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some good things, but also some areas that cause us, and others, some concern. We are compiling a response by talking to our staff, volunteers and partners, but in doing so here are some of the questions that we are asking ourselves:

The consultation document asks us whether we agree that “we should free teachers to shape their own curriculum aims based on the content of the programmes of study” and this seems an entirely laudable aim. However, if that is the ambition then why does the history curriculum not look like the geography curriculum? The latter is a broad framework, which appears to have been well received, whereas the former appears a prescriptive list of tasks, perhaps best accompanied by an atlas shaded in pink.

This leads us to a second question in relation to a history curriculum, for which the answer is self evident: “can we engender an understanding of chronology (a good thing) without teaching things in rigid chronological order?” The delight felt by the National Trust’s archaeologists that prehistory is now included in the curriculum has been somewhat tempered by the understanding that it appears to only figure between the ages of 5 and 5 and half. I sense we are underestimating the ability of children to organise information and, in doing so, might we squander the chance to fire them up about history?

Nature education is also an area we feel passionate about. The science curriculum places strong emphasis on the importance of first hand experience (something we would strongly support) and is also littered with the phrase “pupils should use their local environment throughout the year” and an increased emphasis on some basic skills of taxonomy potentially providing opportunities for learning about plants and animals. Is that sufficient?

Climate change is another thematic area of study that is not explicitly mentioned. Interestingly this forms part of a wider pattern of a move away from cross disciplinary areas of study. The curriculum looks as though it is split into separate silos, which is unhelpful given that most of the problems these children will face when mature cut across subject boundaries. That said, it will be very hard to teach “weather and climate” and the interaction of “human and physical processes on landscapes” without reference to it. However, it is a curious inconsistency that students will be required to know about the Heptarchy (I had to look it up) and Wycliffe’s Bible, but that knowledge of climate change is only optional.

Find out more about the government’s consultation on the National Curriculum.