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.

Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site – ‘State of Conservation Report for UNESCO’

The National Trust has today responded to a report published by UNESCO following their visit to the Giant’s Causeway in February 2013 to assess the impact of the Runkerry Golf Resort development on Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site.


The report recommends that: “the proposed golf resort development project…should not be permitted at its proposed scale and location in order to avoid adverse impact on the landscape setting and important views of the property, which are part of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value.”


Heather Thompson, Director for the National Trust in Northern Ireland said:  “Today’s independent report from UNESCO on the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site raises major concerns regarding the significant impact of the Runkerry Golf Resort on this special place. It also highlights serious gaps in the law regarding the protection offered to such sites in Northern Ireland.


“Protecting our only World Heritage Site, and other special landscapes in Northern Ireland can only be served by fixing our broken planning system.


“In February 2013 we welcomed Minister Attwood’s invitation for UNESCO to visit the Giant’s Causeway. Today, we share the very serious concerns expressed by UNESCO.


The National Trust challenged the process of planning approval for the proposed development in January 2013 via a judicial review.  It was disappointed with the ruling which will allow this massive development in the setting of this World Heritage Site to proceed.


The National Trust will not be appealing the Court’s decision, instead it will be actively seeking ways to influence changes to the Planning Bill currently going through the Northern Ireland Assembly which it believes should give full protection to World Heritage Sites.


The report to the World Heritage Committee states that UNESCO:


·         Regrets that the State Party (UK Government) did not keep the Committee fully informed about the Runkerry golf resort development prior to any decisions being taken;


·         Reiterates its request to the State Party to halt the proposed golf resort development project until its potential impact on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property has been thoroughly assessed;


·         Invites the State Party to consult the World Heritage Centre and IUCN on potential modifications and alternatives to the golf resort development project to avoid adverse impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property;


·         Strongly encourages the State Party to consider strengthening its legal provisions and planning framework to allow the national authorities to ensure their responsibilities for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention at the national level.


·         Requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2014, a report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the above requests, as well as a copy of the Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed Runkerry golf resort development.


Heather Thompson, continued: “This much loved global icon is our only World Heritage Site and as such plays an important role in our economy.  It is also a place that many people in Northern Ireland, and beyond these shores, feel passionately about.


“The report underlines that the law in Northern Ireland does not afford the protection they – or indeed local people – would expect for such important places. It is essential that legislation and policy are strengthened to provide this protection urgently.  There is a short window of opportunity to act on this now, while the Planning Bill is making its way through the Assembly.”


If we think big and long term we can turn nature around

One of the National Trust’s General Managers, Adrian Colston, shares his thoughts on the findings of a new report, ‘the State of Nature’, which provides a health check on how wildlife is faring in the UK:

Yesterday saw the publication of yet another report: The State of Nature, detailing the decline of animals and plants – 60% of species have declined in the past 50 years.

Lots of different reasons are given for the declines; habitat loss, climate change etc etc but what is striking with this report is how widespread the losses are. Its not just rare species but also some ‘common’ ones like hedgehogs (33% decline since 2000) and small tortoiseshell butterflies (77% decline in a decade).

Faced with all this doom and gloom it is easy to think its all pointless and that nothing can be done. In my view this is not true – there is a lot we can and are doing which makes a difference. Here is one example.

Think big , think long term

I remember when I was working at National Trust’s Wicken Fen in the 1990s developing their 100 year vision I discovered that the average Wildlife Trust nature reserve in Cambridgeshire was just over 16ha! Conserving wildlife in pocket handkerchief sized parcels clearly wasn’t going to work in the long term – nature needs space! The 100 year vision therefore proposed expanding the existing reserve 20 fold in size – buying up agriculture land and restoring it back to wetlands and thereby creating a 8000 ha green lung for people and wildlife.

Achieving such a dream would take time, tactics and patience – hence the 100 year vision – Wicken Fen is already 3 times its original size and wetland wildlife is returning to the newly restored areas.

Working in partnership is also crucial – RSPB helped us manage our reedbeds so that bitterns could return – we carried out the habitat management works and the bitterns did return. Various Universities and research establishments helped us create the right water levels for wildlife and members of the public supported the vision to ensure it turned from dream to reality.

Our challenge therefore is to think big, think long term, work in partnership and gain support from the public. If we do this nature will flourish – if we don’t expect another gloomy report soon.

Adrian Colston was the Property Manager for Wicken Fen from 1997 to 2004. He is now the Trust’s General Manager for Dartmoor and the Trust’s Nature Champion.  You can follow Adrian on twitter http://twitter.com/NT_AdrianC

Think bigger for nature

A three month survey of puffins has started on the National Trust's Farne Islands.  The Trust works with partner organisation to understand what is happening to puffin numbers

A three month survey of puffins has started on the National Trust’s Farne Islands. The Trust works with partner organisation to understand what is happening to puffin numbers

The ‘State of Nature’ report published today is important. It signals a pivotal moment in our relationship with wildlife in the UK.  It clearly outlines the tremendous challenges that the nature conservation movement faces as species and habitats have declined in recent decades, and as we look to a future where our demands on the land are increasing. Yet we mustn’t see this as a lost cause. It shows that we need to focus on two things – making more room for nature, and making more time for nature.

Everyone involved in nature has started to think big about how we can create the space for nature. The Natural Environmental White Paper in England and the twelve Nature Improvement Areas have been important in moving us in the right direction.  However, this is just the tip of the iceberg; we need more of these areas in England and need to be bolder in how we connect places that are important for nature across the rest of the UK.

Reconnecting kids with nature is really important for the future of wildlife in the UK

Reconnecting kids with nature is really important for the future of wildlife in the UK

We also need to make more time for nature. Last year the National Trust published its ‘Natural Childhood’ report which documented the decline in the relationship that kids have with the natural world.  This is something which has happened in just one generation.  This new report underlines the urgency and need for action to reconnect children with wildlife for their own wellbeing but also for creating a generation that gets the value and importance of the natural world.

If this was an end of year report at school then the conservation sector would need to do better in terms of how nature is faring across the UK.

But there is hope.  When conservation organisations work together positive change can happen.  We work closely with a wide range of conservation partners from Butterfly Conservation to Buglife and the BTO to RSPB helping to create the right conditions for wildlife to flourish in the places we care for. We are also working closely with a wide range of partners in establishing a “Wild Network” to create more opportunities for children to connect with nature. Yet in both cases the answer has to be bigger than the nature conservation movement alone – nature needs everyone’s support right now.

David Bullock is Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust.

Weekly Witter: Pests and pestilence at the Chelsea Flower Show

Stop the Spread

No it’s not about butter…but tree pests, diseases and invasive species in general. This is the subject of a ground breaking garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

“The garden will also have a black pool of water with a small living oak tree on a plinth in the middle at the end of the dead avenue.”

The National Trust has joined other organisations as a partner in the  Food and Environment Research Agencies  (FERA) garden designed by Jo Thompson to help raise the profile about the increasing threats we face but more importantly what we can all do about them.

The modern world we live in and our globe-trotting lifestyles combined with our increasing desire for ever more exotic food and plants is only increasing the chance of new pests and diseases and non-native species threatening our countryside, woodlands, forests and gardens.

“be prepared to be shocked… as there are dead (non living) trees at Chelsea for the first time…yes really!”

Since 2003 the National Trust has had to spend around £1m to deal with one disease alone, Phytophthora ramorum no small amount for a charity in these challenging financial times. But add in another 14 or so tree pests and diseases including the dreaded news making ‘Ash dieback‘ and the constant battle to keep our waterways and countryside clear of non-native species which sucks in vast amounts of staff time dealing with what is often a ‘fire fighting’ exercise, you can start to see why the Trust wants to help make a difference.

So was born the idea of working with others to raise the profile of these issues at the most famous garden show in the world, which in it’s centenary year is set to be a media show stopper.  But, be prepared to be shocked… as there are dead (non living) trees at Chelsea for the first time…yes really!  If you don’t believe me and you can’t go in person, check out our videos of the garden at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chelseaflowershow or tune in to watch some of the television coverage which will be on BBC2 every evening of Chelsea week.  The garden will also have a black pool of water with a small living oak tree on a plinth in the middle at the end of the dead avenue.

But there is beauty as well as we know that this is not a lost cause and we can all do things to help prevent the spread of plant pests and disease.

Here are my top tips of some things we can all do to help ‘Stop the Spread’:

 Taking some simple steps when gardening or buying and planting new trees, can help reduce the risk:

Ask your nursery/garden centre for help: Wherever possible, buy home-grown trees and plants; they’re more likely to be “acclimatised” to our conditions and less likely to be a home for new pests and diseases or non native species. Don’t bring plant material home from holidays abroad.

Buy small and watch it grow.  Semi-mature trees often grown overseas pose a higher risk of introducing pests and diseases. So be patient and plant smaller trees instead – they’ll often establish quicker too.

Right plant; right place.  A healthy tree or plant is less likely to succumb to disease – try to match a tree to its preferred location, type and size of tree, soil type, available space.

Help it to establish itself.  Feed your tree but avoid over-feeding which can lead to vulnerable soft growth. Consider a mycorrhizal fungi planting treatment to encourage healthy root growth. Use a good stake and tie, but don’t strangle your tree!  Lower leaves in contact with the soil risk picking up disease, so remove them when you plant or use a good mulch.

Give it room to grow.  Space trees as widely as possible to ensure good air movement and reduce humidity.  Prune out any dead and diseased branches and dispose of the waste sensibly.

Keep clean.  Pests and disease are easily spread on soil and plant debris attached to footwear or on tools like secateurs and saws, so clean mud and leaves off regularly.

Don’t stop planting. The worst thing we can do is to stop planting trees. Simple measures like those above will help protect our beautiful woodlands and forests in these difficult times.

 Dispose of garden waste responsibly. Compost your waste properly or dispose of in a responsible way. Don’t dump garden or pond waste in the countryside or water courses

Top tip: When buying look for: healthy, vigorous trees and plants, not pot bound, not too much soft growth. Avoid signs of dieback, leaf spotting, insect infestation and mould growth. Look out for other non -native species species hitching a ride.

The team hard at work

The team hard at work

  • Ian Wright is the National Trust’s Gardens Adviser based in the South West of England.  He advises on all things horticultural at the 30 great gardens in the South West. He has built up an extensive knowledge of plant and tree pests and diseases over his 26 years working for the Trust and in more recent times produced guidance for staff aimed at preventing the spread of pests and disease.  Ian describes himself as ‘almost a tender perennial’ and now ‘lacking the appetite for true British winters’ after working in the favoured climate of the South West for so many years.  Potential sponsors take note… Ian’s greatest dream is to design a ‘Gold winning’ show garden for the National Trust at Chelsea…..any offers?
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular weekly mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about the news, current affairs, and 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.

Puffin count begins on the Farne Islands

A Puffin census has begun at the north east’s most amazing wildlife habitat, the windswept Farne Islands, as National Trust rangers attempt to find how many breeding pairs of these iconic birds live on the Islands.

The iconic Puffin

The iconic Puffin

The census takes place every five years and records date back to 1939 when 3,000 breeding pairs were recorded.

Until 2008, each survey since the census began 65 years ago showed a steady increase in pairs of puffins on the Farne Islands, but the last count indicated numbers had fallen by a third.

The 2008 survey recorded 36,500 pairs of puffins across eight islands compared to 55,674 pairs living on the Islands in the 2003 census.

This spring and summer a team of eleven National Trust rangers will be travelling between eight of the Farne Islands to carry out the mammoth task of counting every single bird.

Puffins nest underground in burrows, which means the rangers will have to put their arms into the holes to make sure that the nests are occupied during the comprehensive count.

 David Steel, Head Ranger for the Farne Islands told us:

“We’ve been monitoring a small section of the Farnes every year since the last census in 2008 and have seen a small increase in numbers in this area. We’re hoping to see an increase overall numbers this year but you can’t tell after the winter we’ve just had.”

 Factors for why the Puffins continue to flourish on the Farne Islands include better protection, good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas. However rangers on the Farne Islands fear that the extreme cold weather this winter which has led to a higher than average mortality rate may effect numbers.

David Steel continued:

“This March was the coldest on record since 1962 and this could impact on breeding numbers. The extreme winds affected the puffin’s ability to feed as they made their way back to their summer breeding grounds. It will be interesting to see the results of the puffin census which we will have available to share in July.”

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 #puffincensus.