National Trust and protecting wildlife

The Guardian newspaper has a piece today about how wildlife has repopulated closed National Trust properties (the Trust is one of the largest landowners in the country, and with over 5 million members potentially one of its most influential). It says that “The National Trust is reporting that emboldened wildlife, from raptors and warblers to badgers, otters and even orcas, appear to be enjoying the disappearance of humans from its gardens, castles and waterways across the UK“.

These emboldened species include spring migrants like Cuckoos (which of course could turn up anywhere at this time of the year) and Little Owls, which while declining are typically difficult to see unless you’re looking for them and easily disturbed anyway. They also mention that Peregrines are nesting on Corfe Castle for the first time since the 1980s, and a Grasshopper Warbler has been heard singing in a “typically busy dog-walking area” (which makes it sound like the dogs go there to walk rather than being taken there by dog owners).

The Guardian goes on to say that “the charity is asking people to be aware that when they eventually return to the countryside they should take care not to disturb wildlife they would not usually expect to encounter“. It then quotes a wistful head of nature conservation at the Trust, Ben McCarthy, saying: “It has only been eight weeks but wildlife seems to be enjoying the breathing space. With less traffic and fewer people, we’ve heard deafening levels of birdsong and seen famous monuments and formal gardens colonised by wildlife… As the lockdown begins to be eased, we all need to play our part to ensure that this wildlife remains undisturbed.”

A couple of things come to mind when reading this (aside of course from our own post on Solastalgia from a few days back, which warned of “people everywhere spilling out across acres of grass that just days ago belonged to thrushes and deer” and of “the fearless” becoming wary and hesitant again).

First off, well, no disrespect intended, but ‘duh’. Keep people away and wildlife flourishes. That’s a rather basic observation. But rather than sort of hoping people (who often don’t seem to notice nature until it comes inside and joins them) change their habits and stay away from ‘unusual’ wildlife, why not see an opportunity to educate a vast number of visitors who – in general – have already proved their conservation interest by joining the Trust in the first case? Put up notices and information boards. Keep people away from nesting peregrines (it’s illegal to disturb a nesting peregrine anyway). And while the Trust does already try to explain to dog walkers that ground-nesting birds need to be protected so ban them from some areas temporarily, why not extend that and really enforce it? Wistfulness doesn’t protect wildlife, positive and determined action does.

Secondly, is this the same National Trust that licences fox hunting on its land – oh, sorry, that should be that ‘licences the entirely legal and it’s-just-unfortunate-if-a-fox-runs-in-front-of-the-hounds sport of trail hunting’ on its land? Indeed it is. It’s all very well promoting your properties (by hinting what havens they have become while the paying membership have been kept out but now that we’re opening again come have a look for yourselves, it’s great here etc etc), while at the same time ignoring the fact that packs of hounds and red-faced wildlife criminals on horseback stampeding across SSSIs and through woodlands actually damage precious habitats and are KILLING wildlife with your permission.

It just goes to show how difficult a line the Trust has had to tread since votes at the 2017 AGM were swung in favour of fox hunters by the Chair. And it’s such a shame, because the Trust do fantastic work, preserve and protect a staggering wealth of coastlines, woodlands, parklands, and heaths, and could be one of the finest examples of a conservation charity in the UK if they’d just drop this pretence about ‘trail hunting’. So many of us warned the Trust that facilitating illegal hunting on their land would come back over and over again to metaphorically bite them, and that’s exactly what has happened. And it’s not just campaigners saying this, we know for a fact that many of their staff are saying it too.

Coming out of lockdown should provide all our wildlife charities with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Lockdown changed the world for a few months. We’ve all noticed that we can hear more birdsong (which by the way isn’t ‘deafening’, it’s the traffic and aircraft and noise that was ‘deafening’ and we’ve just been struggling to hear birdsong above it), that wildlife will come back if given a chance, that the air is cleaner, that we feel better when we slow down and notice nature around us. Yes, lockdown came at a huge human cost, but turning that tragedy into something valuable and long-lasting, re-examining our relationship with the wildlife around us for example, would benefit everyone and everything.

And if the National Trust were to understand how hypocritical they look by lauding wildlife on the one hand while allowing fox hunting on the other, well – that would be a wonderful bonus…


Coincidentally the League Against Cruel Sports has just today launched a campaign to urge members of the National Trust to back a motion to ban hunting on the organisation’s land with the first in a series of films which asks the question, if ‘trail’ hunting is real, then why are animals still being chased and killed by hunting hounds?


  • Header image, peregrine falcon at Corfe Castle in Dorset, by Jonathan Kershaw/National Trust/PA