Extreme weather ‘biggest threat’ to UK heritage

Extreme weather ‘biggest threat’ to UK heritage

  • Written by Harriet Bradshaw and Malcolm Pryor
  • BBC News Climate and Science

Image source, BBC/Harriet Bradshaw

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Historic homes and buildings cost the National Trust millions of pounds to protect from the elements

Floods, bushfires and extreme weather threaten the future of nearly three-quarters of sites managed by the National Trust, a new report says.

The charity says climate change is the “biggest threat” facing 28,500 historic homes, 250,000 hectares of land and 780 miles of coastline.

In a report on Monday, the organization called on the UK government to do more to help organizations adapt to climate change.

The government said it has a five-year plan to strengthen the country’s resilience.

Climate change requires “urgent and sustained attention” and represents “the single greatest threat to the places under our care,” said Patrick Page, the Fund’s director of natural resources.

The foundation monitors climate change threats to its stately homes, museum collections, parks and gardens, and land holdings by mapping current extreme weather events, such as heavy rains, floods, droughts, and wildfires.

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More than £2 million has been spent repairing the breakwaters at Mullion Cove Harbour

It then uses data on its “risk map” to predict threats to its sites under a “worst-case scenario” in which emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, continue at their current rate.

The charity says planning for the worst will help it identify vulnerable sites across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and use the knowledge gained by local teams on the ground to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

When the map was launched in 2021, it estimated that the number of National Trust sites facing a high level of threat from issues such as coastal erosion, extreme heat and flooding could rise from 5% to 17% over the next 40 years.

But in Monday’s report – “Climate for Change” – the foundation now estimates that 71% of its sites could be at moderate or high risk of being affected by extreme weather events linked to climate change by 2060.

In response, the Conservancy is ramping up its climate adaptation work, spending millions to repair and protect some sites, but it also has to decide where the money can be better spent.

Tough choices

One such location where the trust is looking at new ways to operate is Mullion Cove Harbor in Cornwall.

Set between steep cliffs and built in the 1890s, the harbor’s breakwaters are exposed to frequent and violent storms. This has left the Trust needing to spend more than £2 million on repairs – with more than 80% of that spent since 1995.

It is a cost that may not be worth continuing to pay in the face of rising sea levels and the trust may decide not to proceed with major repairs to one of the breakwaters.

“We have reached the threshold where we feel strongly that it is not possible to similarly repair the southern breakwater,” Katherine Lee, the National Trust’s community manager on the Lizard Peninsula, told the BBC.

“It’s a really tough call – the National Trust cares about looking after special places forever. But what we know is that we can’t continue this fight against climate change. We have to adapt to climate change.”

The organization is focusing its efforts on the western breakwater, working closely with local volunteers on daily repairs.

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Difficult decisions need to be made about Mullion Harbour, says Johnny Pascoe

One of those volunteers is third-generation fisherman Johnny Pascoe, who is also president of the Mullion Cove Harbor Society.

“My father and grandfather worked here, so it’s a very special place for me. I like to think I’ll be preserving this legacy and being part of this rich history,” he said.

Pascoe said “difficult discussions” must be had with confidence about what can be saved and how.

He explained: “We cannot afford to procrastinate. Climate change will not allow us to do so. The sea certainly will not allow us to do so.”

When it comes to the Trust’s historic buildings and stately homes, protecting them from extreme weather isn’t cheap.

Tudor mansion Cotton Court in Warwickshire is currently undergoing a £3.3 million facelift to ensure its roof and gutters can withstand heavy rainfall.

Staff at the country house have already had to salvage collections of paintings and historic chandeliers that leaked.

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Close to the edge, the ancient hill fort of Dina Dinli is being eroded and lost to the sea

In other locations, extreme weather has already seen the acceptance that climate adaptation sometimes means letting things go.

At the Iron Age hill fort of Dinas Dinly on the Gwynedd coast in Wales, erosion exacerbated by heavy rainfall in recent years has destroyed the site, with many parts already lost to the sea.

But its story and history are being recorded, with 3D digital modeling being used to keep a record of the site before it disappears.

The work is being carried out with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Aberystwyth University.

Three years of work on the site showed that increasingly heavy rainfall was having a significant impact on the ongoing erosion of the hill fort.

Professor Sarah Davies, from Aberystwyth University, said 3D modeling and geophysical studies of the area would help them “understand more about the hills and the surrounding landscape and the rates of change before that information is lost.”

The National Trust is now calling for more funding and support from government for landowners, heritage organizations and tourism groups across England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help them adapt their buildings, coastlines and countryside to better deal with the impacts of climate change.

It also wants to see the UK government create a new Climate Resilience Bill to create national targets for adaptation and a legal duty on all public bodies to make adaptation a key factor in decision-making.

The UK government said it has a national adaptation program that sets out a five-year plan to increase the country’s resilience to climate change risks, including those to heritage sites, its coasts and its countryside.

She added that she pledged to invest billions of pounds in wider climate change adaptation measures, including £5.2 billion in flood and coastal projects in England.

A Welsh Government spokesman said the government takes climate adaptation “very seriously” and will publish a new national strategy towards the end of next year.

A spokesman for Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) said it welcomed the Fund’s report and said it would also publish a new climate change adaptation program in late 2024.

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