Record-breaking temperatures and prolonged dry weather are affecting the nation’s cherished landscapes, gardens and wildlife, causing historic water features to dry up, sparking wildfires and taking a toll on animals, according to the National Trust.
With temperatures rising again this week, and after the driest July on record for parts of England, the conservation charity says this summer’s exceptional conditions are a wake-up call to cut emissions and adapt.
In the East of England, where temperatures hit 40c last month, 60-70% of heather at the rare lowland heath site of Dunwich Heath is struggling to flower. Further west, on Dartmoor, some tree-growing lichen, liverwort and mosses that usually thrive in the damp atmosphere of Lydford Gorge, a site of globally important temperate rainforest, are shrivelling due to a lack of humidity.
Elsewhere, rills and water features in some historic gardens dried up during July’s heatwave, while a pond dipping event at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire was cancelled after the 15-metre-long pool almost vanished. At Wallington in Northumberland, bats were found disoriented and dehydrated in the daylight during the hottest days, while in Cambridgeshire, a waterwheel that powers a flour mill has had to stop turning due to low river flows.
Much of the country remains tinder-dry with fire risk reaching ‘exceptional’ levels in beauty spots like the Peak District last month. Several wildfires have broken out on Trust land in recent weeks, including one in Devon that has taken two months to fully extinguish.
The charity is continuing to respond to the current hot and dry conditions and adapt its places for long-term changes, with strategies such as selecting drought-resistant plants in its gardens, increasing tree cover and shade, and creating wetlands.
At the Holnicote Estate in Somerset, where beavers were reintroduced in 2020, wetland habitats are still thriving, despite low river levels. Holding more water in landscapes will become increasingly important as the climate changes, the Trust says.
Keith Jones, National Climate Change Advisor for the National Trust, said: “We shouldn’t be surprised by these temperatures, it’s what the science has been saying for decades. But even with years of planning, some of the effects are stark, and we are still learning of the precise impacts extreme weather events like this can have.
“What we can do, is adapt. At the Trust we’re taking action to make sure our sites are ready for future changes, from making our landscapes rich in nature, our rivers cooler and our gardens more resilient to helping our buildings cope with excessive heat.
“But we must cut emissions too. The UK still holds the COP presidency, and the next Prime Minister should put this at the top of their to-do list as COP27 approaches in November. This has to be a watershed moment, where we make a decisive shift from words to action.”
Other impacts reported by Trust staff include:
- Wildlife: Rangers at deer parks spent more time checking deer were sheltered and hydrated, and a team on the Northumberland coast had to siphon water to neighbouring land to help 18 nesting avocet chicks.
- Trees: At the Trust’s biggest tree planting project at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, apple tree saplings baked in the heat, although thankfully survived. Staff at the estate said the bigger concern was the exceptionally low moisture levels in the soil and that a higher proportion of the saplings planted last winter were likely to have to be replanted than had originally been anticipated.
- Heritage: A Victorian Steam Yacht Gondola that ferries day-trippers across Coniston Water in the Lake District was unusually forced to stop sailing due to the record-breaking heat, as the engine room hit unbearable temperatures. The waterwheel at Houghton Mill, in Cambridgeshire, which powers millstones that grind flour, had to stop turning due to low river levels. Moat levels at 500-year-old Oxburgh Hall were also down. The clay needs to remain wet to prevent structural problems.
- Fires: Beauty spots such as the Peak District reached ‘exceptional’ fire risk in July – the highest level – and fires broke out on Trust land including at Zennor Head in Cornwall, where part of the South West Coast Path had to close; at Morden Hall Park in London, decimating a meadow; and at Bolberry Down in Devon, where a gorse fire continued to reignite for two months.
- Gardens: Some gardens also struggled in record temperatures, with plants and lawns scorched and water features drying up at Hidcote in Gloucestershire and Coleton Fishacre in Devon. Gardeners at Hidcote predicted that the flowering season may be shortened in some plants due to heat stress, with displays of summer flowers likely to finish sooner than usual.
The heatwave has underlined the importance of the Trust’s work to adapt its places to climate extremes. Examples of the solutions in place include:
- In gardens, solutions include adapting planting schemes to be more resilient to extremes, improving soil health and collecting more rainwater for irrigation.
- At Oxburgh Hall, a four-year project is restoring a 19th-century parterre so it is better able to cope. Senior Gardener Dea Fischer said: “In some parts the soil is like beach sand and needs constant mulching and attention to ensure it can nourish plants. It’s so dry that some plants that once grew here will no longer grow. We aren’t likely to see this revert, so we need to prepare, and learn to garden differently. The new planting scheme won’t fight with the conditions. We are looking for plants that can tolerate drought, but also occasional wet, and grouping plants with similar moisture needs.”
- At Felbrigg Hall, also in Norfolk, the new drought-tolerant garden is thriving and has only required watering once this summer, and at Cliveden in Berkshire, the team will plant over 2,000 lavenders in the famous parterre over the coming weeks, as part of a strategy to adapt the garden to suit the current and anticipated climate.
- Countryside sites are also adapting. The Trust is introducing 20 million new trees by 2030, which will help provide shade for wildlife and livestock, and for visitors. Natural regeneration will play a key part, as trees that are established naturally are readily adapted. A Woodlands for Water scheme with Defra will see 3,000 hectares of new trees along watercourses, helping cool river temperatures.
- Ranger teams are restoring landscapes and making them wetter, to absorb heavier rains in winter and increase resilience to prolonged dry spells in summer, and to reduce fire risk. A £13million Riverlands programme is returning rivers to their natural shape and function in places like the Lake District, North Wales and Somerset.
The Trust is also seeing early impacts on its historic buildings and is exploring strategies to help them cope with excessive heat, such as shading and passive ventilation, while ensuring they are warm during winter months to reduce emissions. The charity says it is also learning from cultural institutions in countries already dealing with regular extreme conditions.
Richard Millar, Head of Adaptation at the Climate Change Committee, said: “We have long known that climate change is making UK heatwaves more frequent and more intense. These amplified heatwaves are just one of the impacts on the UK’s significant cultural heritage sites and landscapes. Addressing these impacts requires conservation and heritage planning to be undertaken on the basis that the UK’s climate is changing. This will enable the UK’s cultural and natural heritage to continue to be successfully preserved for generations to come.”
Keith continued: “Surveys continue to show that there is high public concern about climate change. The recent temperatures and worrying reports about the decline in nature can feel overwhelming, but there are things people can do to help their local green spaces adapt and to feel more involved in the solutions. Practising sustainable gardening is one way of doing this – avoiding peat-based composts and insecticides, installing water butts, creating habitats for wildlife and choosing drought tolerant plants.”
“We’re also incredibly grateful for the donations we receive to support our work. Our ‘Plant a Tree’ fund has surpassed £2.5million, and hundreds of thousands of trees are already in the ground as a result.”
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