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29 Oct 2021

A helping hand to heal the planet

Written by Janine Ballantyne, Policy Officer
An old Scots pine stands alone in a mountainous landscape. The hills behind are covered in snow and the sky is blue.
Nature cares for us; now we need to care for nature. | Photo: a Scots pine at Mar Lodge Estate
Starting this Sunday 31 October, Glasgow is hosting an event which truly lives up to hyperbole: the future of the planet depends on it. We agree, and think climate change is the biggest risk to protecting Scotland’s heritage.

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) runs from 31 October–12 November and is advertised as ‘uniting the world to tackle climate change.’ As many commentators have noted, the conference – delayed due to the COVID pandemic – comes not a moment too soon. US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry said that COP26 is the ‘last, best hope’ and that the conference is ‘…coming at a point where these scientists have told us we have about nine years remaining within which to make the most critical decisions. Those decisions have got to really start in earnest and in a significant sum in Glasgow.’

In the last year, we have seen the devastating impacts of climate change across the world through floods and fires, but what kinds of changes may happen in Scotland if the global average temperature continues to rise?

Since 2000, we’ve seen nine of the ten warmest years on record in Scotland. If we do nothing, then in the future we will see warmer, wetter summers and milder winters, along with more storms, flood and periods of drought, all of which could have devastating effects on our ecosystems, our wildlife (for example, 1 in 20 species could face extinction under a global temperature rise of 2°C) and even our food sources.

No part of our way of life and living space will be unaffected, and that includes the heritage landmarks we tend to think of as permanent and unchanging. A 2018 Historic Environment Scotland (HES) assessment of hundreds of historic sites showed 28 are at ‘very high risk’ from climate change. The location of many sites puts them at risk from coastal erosion and rising sea levels. A further 160 sites are at risk from flooding, instability and erosion. The frequency and severity of these hazards is set to increase as climate change progresses.

Over the 90 years of the Trust’s existence, we’ve evolved from simply protecting and maintaining the habitats and natural places in our care, towards restoration and recovery. We’re mitigating damaging past practices and the impacts of climate change. Our places, and the Trust itself, can play a part in showing that climate catastrophe need neither be inevitable nor irrevocable.

For peat’s sake

An aerial view of the peatland at Mar Lodge Estate, showing the channels of water through the land
An aerial view of the peatland at Mar Lodge Estate

Peatlands are full of rare wildlife and their beautiful open landscapes are part of what makes Scotland. They also have a key role to play in climate change, covering only 3% of the earth but storing 30% of the world’s terrestrial carbon – more than the world’s forests. When peatlands are wet they continue to lock away carbon in the layers of undecomposed plant material. However, when they are drained the thousands of years of stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. It is estimated than 6% of the world’s anthropogenic carbon emissions come from damaged peatlands.

That’s why the Trust has been actively restoring peatlands at Ben Lomond, the Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve and our other peatland landscapes across Scotland. At present, we estimate that across the 16,000 hectares of peatland in Trust stewardship, over 25,000 tonnes of carbon are being sequestered each year which is equivalent to a town of 2,000 households: a figure we intend to boost.

Watch now: Restoring peatland at Mar Lodge Estate

Our commitment to peatland restoration is such that we’re a key partner chairing the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, a consortium of governments, NGOs, scientists and restoration programmes, which promotes the role of peatlands as a nature-based solution to climate change. COP26 will see peatlands given a prominent status for the first time at such a gathering. This will include the Trust’s presence with other partners, including the Global Peatlands Initiative, at a Peatland Pavilion in the event’s ‘Blue Zone’ between 1–11 November, as well as a virtual pavilion to enable everyone to connect with the event, and an international reception hosted by the Trust at Pollok House. Peatlands will be a key topic on the most important world stage, and the Trust will be playing its part as Scotland’s biggest conservation charity.

Trees of life

The trunks of numerous Douglas firs in The Hermitage
Douglas firs at The Hermitage

Of course, we need to go beyond peatland restoration alone to tackle climate change. Other solutions are needed which will encompass action on the part of us all. Planting trees of the right type, and in the right places, is one such action. Trees have been described as the ‘ultimate carbon capture and storage machines’: through photosynthesis they absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. Woodlands and forests also provide a haven for wildlife, including many species that have declined due to land clearance and modern agricultural practices. Peatlands and woodlands are both brilliant nature-based solutions to climate change.

At the Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve, which at 29,000 hectares is the largest nature reserve in the British Isles, we’re only a few decades into a two-century project to restore the reserve’s pinewoods. After 25 years we are seeing a huge change, with natural regeneration establishing the pinewoods of the future. It’s certainly onwards and upwards as we also begin to regenerate Mar Lodge’s missing high-level montane woodlands.

At Ben Lomond we’re re-establishing the lower ptarmigan slope as natural woodland cover, and at Glen Rosa on the Isle of Arran we’re replanting native woodland.

Sometimes though, restoration of woodland may not be possible and outright replacement may be the only practical response. One of the impacts of wetter, warmer weather is a proliferation of pests and plant diseases, such as Phytophthora (a name derived from Greek, meaning ‘plant destroyer’) and ash dieback. There’s no easy way to combat such infection other than removal of the affected trees, followed by plugging the resulting gap in tree cover and habitats with alternative species, as a form of adaptation to climate change. The key is to spot problems as early as possible, and at places like Arduaine Garden we’ve embarked on major projects to tackle the issue.

Turning the clock back

An aerial view of farm fields, divided by hedgerows, pockets of woodland and a couple of roads. Occasional white buildings can be seen in the landscape. A river winds in the distance.
The Threave Landscape Restoration Project is taking place at Kelton Mains Farm, a former dairy farm which is part of Threave Estate | Photo: Mike Bolam

We need to make our natural landscapes as resilient as possible, to enable them to adapt and flourish as our climate changes. This includes the removal of non-native species – often imported to Scotland for ornamental gardens – which have quite literally choked our native wildlife. Project Wipeout is our response to this, through which we’re gradually working our way around the places we care for and removing damaging species like Rhododendron ponticum, Japanese knotweed and American skunk cabbage.

Working with nature and new forms of agriculture is behind one of the most ambitious landscape restoration projects ever undertaken by the Trust, which began this year. The Threave Landscape Restoration Project will take a century to complete, and will result in natural processes being restored to 81 acres of dairy farm in Dumfries & Galloway. The River Dee will be allowed to flood to create wetlands, new woodlands will be established and sustainable agricultural practices will be trialled. We’re grateful to HSBC UK for joining us in these efforts.

Climate friendly gardening

Gardeners Martin Cuthbert and Sean Argue (from Pollok House) stand in the garden at Holmwood in front of fresh soil beds, as they help to dig in crops and cover them with manure
Gardeners Martin Cuthbert and Sean Argue (from Pollok House) lend a helping hand with digging in crops and covering them with manure

Changes don’t have to be made only at landscape level to make a difference. Our gardeners are changing the techniques they use to tend the places they care for, offering examples that anyone can apply to their own garden or allotment. The use of green manure at Holmwood in Glasgow is one example where the Trust has demonstrated that you don’t need to use peat to have a beautiful garden – all of our gardens across Scotland are managed on a peat-free basis.

We’re training new generations of gardeners through the Threave School of Heritage Gardening, so that from the very beginning of their careers they will be applying sustainable techniques, to everything from peat-free propagation gardening and composting to the way in which plants are sourced and transported.

This approach is also being applied to garden design across Scotland. Alternative planting regimes – such as those used in the gardens of Brodie Castle, the bulb and wildflower meadow at Falkland Palace, the modern fruit orchard at Pitmedden Garden and the organic kitchen garden at Kellie Castle – are providing more diverse habitats which have no need of intensive techniques.

Coasting towards recovery

Choppy, white-capped waves rush towards the shore of the island of Staffa. The tall rock columns are very clear from the sea.
The basalt columns of Staffa

One of the primary drivers of climate change is the warming waters of our seas and oceans, which in turn generates the shift in weather patterns that are of so much concern across the planet. In recognising the vital necessity of protecting marine environments, the Trust has a direct role to play in terms of lobbying policymakers as well as in the management and monitoring of the coastal sites and islands we care for.

Our responsibilities are encapsulated in Turning the Tide: A Policy for the Protection and Use of the Marine and Coastal Environment. This policy sets out a range of challenges and solutions prompted by the climate and biodiversity crises. It follows on from our objections to massive salmon farms proposed for waters off the Isles of Arran and Canna that may damage the marine environment.

At places like St Abb’s Head, Canna and St Kilda, we, in partnership with others, monitor the condition of seabird, seal and other marine species so that we can offer evidence of climate impacts. But monitoring isn’t enough without preventative and remedial action. It’s our view that diverse natural marine life deserves at least the same level of maximum protection offered to onshore nature reserves and species. We want to see an end to damaging fishing practices like unrestricted bottom trawling and use of mobile gear, as well as the inappropriate siting of over-scaled fish farms in protected places like the Sound of Canna, which could lead to chemical pesticides and excrement from caged salmon totally destroying vulnerable ecosystems.

Building resilience

A view of the Hill House, surrounded by a very large metal, chainmail structure. The view is from the garden and it is a sunny day.
The award-winning Hill House Box

Shifting weather patterns affect structures as well as landscapes. As you would expect, historic buildings managed by the Trust date from earlier periods when the weather was more consistent and tended to be drier. Wetter weather with regularly recurring extremes of rainfall is a serious issue for structures never designed to cope with that level of inundation. This means we have to be more vigilant with our monitoring of these buildings and undertake more regular (and therefore more expensive) maintenance and repair. Our buildings will also need to move to renewably-sourced heating, and be as energy efficient as possible.

Beyond this, sensitive adaptation may be necessary at some places, ensuring that any modifications we make do not compromise the historic structure and character of the buildings. This may be as simple as installing wider gutters to cope with heavier rainfall, or more radical solutions may be needed.

The Hill House Box is one example. Admittedly, the Hill House’s problems with water ingress result from Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1904 choice of (then) new materials for the application of external rendering which proved unsuitable. However, the noticeable increase of wet and windy weather on the west coast in recent years was worsening matters considerably, and this was a factor in our decision to erect a protective ‘box’ over the structure, to give it time to dry out as we work to find long-term solutions.

The lessons learned from adapting our built heritage are also valuable for our wider built environment. Some 20% of Scotland’s buildings are traditionally built, dating from before 1919. These buildings often form the centre of our cities, towns and villages, and are also more common in rural areas. We are contributing to discussions on how we can develop appropriate solutions, and ensure there is an adequate supply chain of materials, assessors and installers who are able to make these changes.

The public view

A woman faces a group of people all ages, giving them a tour of Culloden Battlefield. Behind her, the Culloden memorial cairn is visible.
Visitors to Trust properties | Photo: a tour at Culloden Battlefield

Over the summer, the National Trust for Scotland asked visitors to Trust properties how they viewed climate change. Given current travel limitations due to Covid-19, the majority of visitors in this period were Scottish residents. 92% of visitors to Trust properties thought climate change is a global emergency. This compares to 64% internationally as found in the United Nation’s Peoples’ Climate vote*. This suggests our conservation visitors and supporters are more familiar with the challenges facing the planet. In the Trust’s survey, younger visitors were more likely to consider climate change to be a global emergency (97.4% of 16–24 year olds, as compared to 88.7% of those aged 75+), but there was a clear majority in each age group.

National Trust for Scotland visitors were also more likely to want immediate action to tackle climate change. 86% of visitors thought that the world should ‘do everything necessary, urgently’, compared to 59% internationally. Only 0.5% of Trust visitors thought that ‘the world is already doing enough’, compared to 10% internationally.

Visitors to Trust properties were also relatively well informed as to which sectors needed to do the most to change, with energy supply (64% of respondents), transport (60%), and business and industry (55%) identified as the three priority areas. This compares to the highest emitting Scottish sectors** of transport (12 MtCO2e***), business and industry (7.8 MtCO2e), and agriculture (7.5 MtCO2e). Scotland’s energy supply sector (6.4 MtCO2e) has actually been decarbonising in recent years and is now only the fourth most emitting sector. The fifth most emitting sector, close behind energy supply, is private housing (6.2 MtCO2e). These figures suggest that there is good awareness in Scotland of what needs to be done to tackle climate change in terms of transport, and business and industry, but more work to be done on understanding the changes needed in agriculture and the residential sector (particularly domestic heating).

* United Nations/University of Oxford (January 2021), Peoples’ Climate Vote results

** Scottish Government, Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2019

*** Metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent

Going electric

A view of the entrance to Robert Burns Birthplace Museum at the end of the day. An orange glow comes from the lit shop inside. The museum has a triangular wooden porch covering and drystone-effect walls. Parking spaces can be seen in the foreground.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, one of the properties where we have installed electric vehicle charging points

The Trust is doing its bit to help visitors make use of more sustainable travel options. We have installed electric vehicle charging points at seven of our places: Culzean Castle, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Bannockburn, Brodick Castle, Brodie Castle, Culloden, and Inverewe. These are available for staff, volunteers and visitors to use.

There are also other ways to be more green when we travel: information about how to visit our places by public transport and bike can be found on all of our website property pages, and our most recent magazine included a story on touring Burns country by bike.

Future action to make sure there is a future

A group kneel down in the Glencoe landscape, a Land Rover parked behind them, as they study the natural flora.
Sharing our research and knowledge | Photo: Glencoe

We’re not pretending that the Trust alone can save the planet – but we will do what we can in this small corner of the globe called Scotland to take positive steps and offer inspiration. There is still much more we can do and we have plans to make that happen.

We’re at the final stages of preparing a new ten-year strategy that will take us to our centenary in 2031. Central to it will be our responsibilities in helping nature thrive and contributing to a healing process for our climate and the habitats both we and the species around us depend upon. This will partly come through a new Plan for Nature that we are developing in tandem with the strategy, as well as new commitments to reduce our own emissions and become carbon positive by 2031.

We’re also putting in place the arrangements and measurements we can use to understand the condition of the landscapes and habitats we care for, and measure the progress we are making toward recovery and improvement. This in part depends on a survey of the natural capital we manage.

The Trust, alongside other heritage organisations, have commissioned the development of a map of future climate risks across Scotland. The map provides a set of hexagonal grids, each covering 5km, to map present and future climate risks, with the potential to later include climate vulnerability assessments for our heritage sites.

And, recognising that our own efforts aren’t enough, we are working with a range of strategic partnerships such as the Climate Heritage Network, where we can come together to influence national and international policies and take joint action.

A key example of partnership working is our participation in Scotland’s Landscape Alliance. Through the Alliance, 60 organisations have come together to influence the ways in which we manage land use and the protections we apply, so that we can increase resilience to climate change and the associated environmental challenges, as well as contribute to the wellbeing of Scots.

The core message is that our own future depends on us working together around common goals, to ensure we apply sustainable principles to the way we do business and to our lifestyles. We need your help to make sure we can play our part, in possibly the most important contribution that Scotland as a nation will ever make to the world.

Find out more about how the National Trust for Scotland works with nature

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