National Trust bitterly disappointed at court ruling on Giant’s Causeway development

We’ve posted previously on our legal challenge to a decision to grant planing permission for a golf course development in the setting of the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site. Today the High Court ruled against our challenge.

A National Trust spokesman said:

“The National Trust is bitterly disappointed by the Court’s ruling and we remain convinced that a massive development in the setting of this World Heritage Site is wrong.

“We still believe that if a development of this scale does go ahead in this location, the message is that nowhere in Northern Ireland, no matter how important or protected, is safe from development.

“The ruling today has served to highlight aspects of very serious concern for those partners involved in the care and protection of the World Heritage Site.

“It is essential that we work together to get planning policy right in Northern Ireland to ensure that appropriate development can happen, but not at the expense of our beautiful landscapes and historic places. 

“There are also significant issues regarding the relationship between Government in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and UNESCO that must be addressed to ensure the protection of our World Heritage Site for the long term.”



Weekly Witter: The rites of spring

Spring is all about promise, the promise of summer, of rejuvenation, of life after winter. It is a time of immense hope, and people need hope – as perhaps do other life forms. But spring occurs tantalisingly, with starts and stops and bitter retreats, in spasms almost, as if it is caught up within some eternal struggle between light and darkness, between warmth and cold. The relationship between spring and winter is one of push-and-pull, for spring pulses forward one day, or even one hour, only for winter to return the next. Spring pushes forward in pulses, winter holds on, weakly at times, grippingly so at others, till spring retreats, temporarily. It is as if there is a gigantean wrestling match taking place between two almighty titans, though spring always wins, eventually. Spring is, however, at best a fickle being, heavily prone to tragedy; for it can readily turn foul (as happened last year) or lead ingloriously into a failed summer. Although spring by no means always fulfils its immense promise, we are swept away by it, for it promises all and everything.

Spring is an exciting time for everyone.

Spring is an exciting time for everyone.

Right now, in late February, the struggle between spring and winter is at its most wondrous. On the whole the winter has been mild – though excessively wet – with the exception of a 10 day cold spell in late January that offered some great tobogganing, before it ended in yet more floods. Another cold spell is now developing, accompanied by a bitter wind from the east. Though chill, necessitating over-trousers, this wind is welcome and necessary, for it will dry out the land, and the land desperately needs to dry out. Many of us were unable to dig our gardens during a wet autumn, and many a field still needs to be ploughed, or even re-sown. Country lane verges are badly rutted, muddied and puddled, where vehicles have pulled over to give way, with increasing unwillingness. Our countryside seems tired out, having been tortured by months of flood and mud. But spring can mend that, and more.

The feeling that the land is drying out is one of the most wonderful of the many signs of spring. At times it is almost tangible. There are mornings when frost lifts into vapours that rise and dissipate over the countryside, whilst the sun turns from blood red to white against an azure sky. At such moments, on the very cusp of winter and spring, the rooks start to repair their rookeries, and the morning larks ascend. The rooks will be busy this late winter, for few of last year’s nests survived the storms and deluges. Mostly they will have to start from scratch. The lark will have to be heard above the increasing roar of traffic, even in this, the centenary year of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the final year before the Edwardian rural idyll was ended by The Great War. When the land dries out one of the other traditional sights, and sounds, of spring will occur – the old heavy roller will trundle along rural lanes, to press fresh growth into the pastures. The old farm hands will tell you it’s a job that cannot be rushed, like spring itself it has to happen slow and proper.

Snowdrops (Galanthus 'Nivalis') covering the ground at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Snowdrops carpet the ground like late snowfall at Anglesey Abbey.

The turn of March is a time of many firsts. We have already seen the first snowdrop, aconite, crocus and daffodil in the gardens, or hazel catkin, celandine and primrose in the wild. But the Ides of March provide almost daily firsts – blackbirds gathering nest material, wheatears appearing on the south coast, the first brimstone butterfly, and so on. The aconites and snowdrops are the first to finish for the year, but they pass unnoticed amongst a plethora of appearances.

Above all, spring must not come too soon or too hurriedly, for an early spring is high risk strategy – the earlier, the more vulnerable it is to winter’s pushback. Every now and then it gets away with arriving early, as in the great spring of 1990, but all too often it fails, as in the last two years. Slow and steady is the surest strategy, but patience is stale, and we are weary of it: we want spring.

  • 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. He has recently been featured in his own program on BBC Radio 4 “In pursuit of the ridiculous”.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Saving our seas

Why the National Trust is backing the call for 127 Marine Conservation Zones

On Monday 25th February the National Trust will be joining with the Marine Conservation Society at their Westminster Rally, calling for the government to create a coherent and extensive network of Marine Conservation Zones. Phil Dyke, Coast and Marine Adviser for the National Trust takes up the story as to why the National Trust is backing the call for better protection of our most important marine environments:

The National Trust owns and manages over 700 miles of coastline around England, Wales and Northern Ireland on behalf of the nation. An ownership that includes important marine habitats that have long deserved recognition and protection by the state.

I was closely involved with the development of the Marine Conservation Zone project from 2007 and indeed the National Trust contributed to the early funding of the fledgling project in a belief that there was an urgent need in the UK to up our game on marine conservation. I also worked alongside the government and other NGOs on the development of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, a genuinely ambitious piece of legislation that brings with it both the tools to create MCZs and places a requirement on the administration to deliver.

A long view along the coast at Birling Gap, part of the Seven Sisters cliffs range, East Sussex

A long view along the coast at Birling Gap.

It can be hard to imagine what MCZs might look like (a sense that they are distant and under water) so for me it helps perhaps to focus on one special place that is up for designation as an MCZ and in which the National Trust has an important interest. This most iconic chalk cliff includes Beachy Head and the Severn Sisters. A geological and geomorphological wonderland where soft chalk cliffs give way to flinty beaches, rasping and rounding as the pebbles slide back and forth in the surf. At the bottom of the beach low tides expose tantalising glimpses of the chalk ledges that form the main feature of the MCZ; home to a host of marine wildlife and thrill to children of all ages enjoying some rock pooling. More than 300,000 people visit Birling Gap each year and get the chance to interact with this amazing and inspirational inshore marine environment – their MCZ.

In our view the creation of the Marine Conservation Zones is a long-awaited opportunity to give the amazing and, in every sense, vital coastal and marine habitats found at places like Birling Gap the same sort of protection that land based sites have enjoyed for decades. However we are concerned that the government, having worked through an exemplary stakeholder led process to identify these sites, is now back-tracking on the intention of the Marine and Coastal Access Act, and is not giving the waters around the English coast the protection they need.

The National Trust's responsibilities go beyond our boundaries.

The National Trust’s responsibilities go beyond our boundaries.

Birling Gap was originally one part of a proposed network of 127 MCZs recommended to government by the myriad of stakeholders that contributed to the MCZ project. But alas it seems now that the government’s ambition to create a representative network of MCZs in English waters is faltering. The Consultation now includes just 31 MCZs – less than 25% of the network envisaged. An increasing number of people from all the sectors that contributed to the MCZ project are asking the government to revitalise its ambition by creating a genuinely representative127 MCZ network.

Having requested and received the ‘best available evidence’ from stakeholders involved in the 4 regional MCZ projects, the government is now insisting on unrealistic levels of ‘best evidence’ before sites will be considered. By moving the goalposts only 31 of the 127 recommended MCZs (less than 25%) are currently out for consultation. Many of the 96 MCZs rejected are at immediate risk of deterioration and damage.

The National Trust’s view is that the government has a duty to require its agencies to use existing legal mechanisms to protect all 127 of these special marine places until formal designation as MCZ can be achieved. If we wait until all of the evidence is gathered and a lengthy designation process is implemented we risk damage to these underwater habitats and the creatures that call them home.

Close up of a young, female, grey seal basking on a beach on the Farne Islands in Northumbria

Effective legislation for the protection of our seas has never been so close, yet so threatened.

Marine Conservation Zone statement

The National Trust is joining with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) at their march at Westminster on Monday (25th) in calling on the government to create a robust network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).

The government – having previously denoted an ambition for the establishment of 127 MCZs (of which around a quarter adjoined or included National Trust coastal places) – appears to have changed tack and is now consulting on a much more modest list of 31 MCZs, of which nine touch or link to special coastal areas in our care.

Granite stacks on the West coast of Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel, Devon

We collaborated in the establishment of the first MCZ in English waters around Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

The National Trust is strongly supportive of the need for the establishment of MCZs as they provide the important and much needed protection for habitats and species in the sea that are comparable to those we support on land.

We believe that the government:

· Should be more ambitious and commit to establishing a much larger suite of MCZs than the current consultation proposes.

· Needs to be more realistic about the evidence requirements to support the establishment of MCZs, having now set the bar unnecessarily high.

· Involve Stakeholders in reconsidering how to best establish a scientific baseline against which the conservation management of the wider MCZ network can be evaluated

· Should support high quality stakeholder involvement in the setting up and management of MCZs.

 Simon Pryor, Natural Environment Director at the National Trust, said:

“The creation of the Marine Conservation Zones is a long-awaited opportunity to give marine species and habitats the same sort of protection that land based sites have enjoyed for decades”.“However we have major concerns that the Government, having worked through an exemplary stakeholder led process to identify these sites, is rowing back on the intention of the Marine and Coastal Access Act and is not giving the waters around the English coast the protection they need.

Phil Dyke, Coast and Marine Adviser for the National Trust said:

“We’re supporting the Marine Conservation Society rally on Monday 25 February as it will send the signal to the Government that people care about the need for proper protection for our marine environment. The Government needs to act now to create a network of Marine Conservation Zones to give our seas the protection that they deserve.”

On the Academy Awards trail…

With award season in full swing its time to celebrate the National Trust’s stars of the silver screen, especially as no less than three Oscar nominated films feature stunning National Trust backdrops.

Ham House and Garden, London
Anna Karenina Oscar nominations: Cinematography, Costume Design, Music (original score), Production Design

©2012 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

©2012 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

In this classic tale of love and adultery set against the backdrop of high society in Moscow and St Petersburg, Ham House, a sumptuous red-brick mansion on the southern bank of the River Thames, was transformed into Count Vronksy’s grand apartments.

To celebrate the Blu-ray™ and DVD release of the film, Ham House is hosting an exhibition showcasing Bafta award winning costumes worn by the likes of Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jude Law in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic romance.

The exhibition is now open and exclusive tours are available until 7th March, please visit or call 020 8940 1950 for full details.

Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire
Les Misérables Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Make-up, Music (original song), Production Design, Sound Mixing

Ashridge Estate please credit National Trust Images, Michael Caldwell

Ashridge Estate is no stranger to the limelight with Harry Potter and Sleepy Hollow famously shot here.

Based on the long-running stage musical and classic novel by Victor Hugo the film’s stars include Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman.

Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France the epic story follows the plight of Valjean, an ex-convict on the run after breaking his parole.

In late April 2012 the cast and crew arrived to shoot in the huge expanse of woodland at Ashridge. A number of scenes were shot, including one where Ashridge stood in for countryside on the outskirts of Paris in the midwinter.

Frensham ponds, Surrey
Snow White and the Huntsman Oscar nominations: Costume Design, Visual Effects

Frensham - Snowwhite and the Huntsman credit Katherine Hill

The medieval style village that was built on the banks around the pond.

In this big screen adaptation of the story, Snow White is tough warrior princess, with a huntsman (hired by the evil queen) on her tail. But when the huntsman and Snow White come face to face, allegiances change and an epic quest to vanquish the evil queen begins.

One of the most dramatic battles takes place at the childhood home of Snow White, a quaint fishing village on the shores of a lake. This village was in fact built on the shores of Frensham ponds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), no less.

Find out more about National Trust places that have starred on the silver screen here

Lyveden New Bield Judicial Review

The National Trust, together with English Heritage and the Local Planning Authority, East Northamptonshire District Council, issued a statutory appeal under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 in the Administrative Court in London against the Planning Inspector’s decision to grant planning permission for four wind turbines close to Lyveden New Bield.  

Evidence was originally heard on 4 December 2012 but the judgement had to be postponed and the case re-heard because of a perceived conflict of interest arising from the Judge’s membership of the National Trust.

The case will be re-heard at the High Court on 20 and 21 February 2013.

The court will decide whether the Planning Inspector went about making his decision in the correct way.  If the appeal is successful the wind farm development proposal will be subject to redetermination. If the appeal is unsuccessful the Planning Inspector’s decision to grant planning permission will stand.

Weekly Witter: One swallow does not a summer make

The title is a quote from Aristotle and is difficult to dispute. His other proclamation on swallows, that they spend the winter in the mud of ponds, is plainly absurd. Bird migration is one area in which the reality is more fascinating and remarkable than the myth. Science, rather than reducing romantic notions to mundane facts is proving that bird migration is more amazing than we’d ever dreamt possible. But how can talk of migrant birds from Africa be relevant in the middle of winter?

Are swallows a sign of Spring?

Are swallows a sign of spring?

The answer to the last question is that while we may think of February as winter, to birds and other wildlife we are well into spring. Indeed, warm fronts on 7th February 2004 saw a scattering of swallows as well as small groups of house martins and even the odd yellow wagtail on the south coast of England, a good two months earlier than usual! This was an extreme event but it was only an outlier of a general trend towards many of our migrants arriving earlier. A study in Guernsey (Sparks, 2007) showed that the mean arrival dates of many of our sub-Saharan migrants has shifted substantially between the periods of 1903-1945 and recent years of 1985-2005. In the latter period swallows arrived 16 days, wheatears and willow warblers 18 days, house martins 27 days and sand martins an incredible 36 days earlier.

“None though are as celebrated as the cuckoo, which for over a century has prompted a letter to the editor of The Times.”

Some of our migrants are greeted with great fanfare whilst some slip into the country without causing much of  a stir. The first returnees such as sand martins, wheatears and chiffchaffs are probably only noticed by the keener birdwatcher. Swallows, house martins and swifts on the other hand are familiar birds and are eagerly anticipated. None though are as celebrated as the cuckoo, which for over a century has prompted a letter to the editor of The Times. The promise of warmer weather is probably the primary reason we look forward to the return of these birds so much.

It’s always interesting to see what sparks a welcome in other countries and perverse to think that in Iceland the birds that are eagerly anticipated are those that spend the winter with us. Pink-footed goose, whooper swan and redwing are seen as signs of spring there. The golden plover is said to arrive in Iceland to push away the snow. In Lithuania it’s starlings that are celebrated as the herald of spring. Nestboxes are made ready for their arrival , the swirling masses that entertain us throughout the winter at iconic roosts on piers and bridges hail from there, the low countries and even as far as Russia!

“A swift was tracked from Liberia to England in only five days, averaging 25mph over its 3000 mile journey.”

As mentioned earlier, science continues to inform us of the wonders of migration. Ringing studies have shown just how far birds go and have revealed interesting movements of birds that were previously thought of as sedentary, such as starlings, robins and blackbirds. Rather than relying on the chance recapture of birds that were previously marked, cutting-edge technology is now telling the story. Data loggers and satellite tracking systems are becoming forever smaller and lightweight and are now being fitted to the slightest of songbirds and revealing remarkable insights.

Swallow in flight

Swallow in flight

The British Trust for Ornithology has been tracking the fortunes of cuckoos on their migration from here to Africa and back and keeping us all updated with the latest news. A swift was tracked from Liberia to England in only five days, averaging 25mph over its 3000 mile journey. Undoubtedly the most incredible feat though was performed by a bar-tailed godwit. These waders breed right across the high Arctic, some spend the winter in Britain or pass through on the way to and from the tundra. One bird, with the rather unromantic moniker of E7, was tracked travelling from Alaska to New Zealand. A distance of 7145 miles, that was achieved at an average speed of nearly 35 miles per hour on a non-stop flight of a little over 8 days!

Social media is another modern advance which is helping us to track our migrant birds. As I write, with snow swirling outside the window, an old acquaintance on Twitter is reporting swallows streaming north over his adopted home in Tanzania. So give a thought on this February morning to our harbingers of spring. They are already on their way!

  • 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 morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.