As guardians of Britain’s natural landscapes and careful curators of forgotten periods, the National Trust hold a revered stature among British culture. Whether you proudly display their iconic oak leaves on your windscreen or are a begrudging participant on family day trips, the National Trust is seen as a wise, if slightly needy — judging by the determination of their volunteers to get you to sign up — omnipresent custodian of our landscapes and castles. Their leaflets, posters, banners and signs proudly remind us of their dedication to conserving and protecting Britain’s natural beauty, with impressive figures in the number of coastlines protected, sites they manage and castles they’ve saved from decay. But are they deserving of their holier-than-thou stature that denotes serene and careful wardship of our natural landscapes? From throw-away single use tat in their gift shops, the obscene levels of ‘sign-up-now’ leaflets, guidebooks and brochures, and the commercialisation of areas of outstanding beauty that have become barren of their natural diversity from the level of human visitors, the National Trust may just be using their omnipotent stature as a profiteering marketing point.
The National Trust was inaugurated in 1895, charged with the bold assignment to preserve Britain’s heritage and natural vistas. Over time they have commandeered swathes of coastland, entire moors and armies of historic forts and manor houses, protecting their history and managing their lands. But over 120 years later, these sites are in need of indemnity from a threat far greater than vandalism, squatting, or decay. For the organisation, climate change is set to ravage their coastlines, threaten resources and damage far more than their reputation. With over 40% of their grand buildings open to the public 365 days a year, there is a foreboding risk of hypocrisy for their planetary conservation promises when they keep the lights on, and the heating cracked up in the draughty buildings powered by fossil fuels.
In 2010, the trust shifted themselves towards an energy supply more in keeping with their role as environmental guardian; with the goal to produce 50% of energy from renewables and to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2020. But such ambitions are proving challenging to stay in keeping with the image of historic sites; the awe-inspiring visions of Bodiam Castle would be significantly less enrapturing with a mass of solar panels attached to the medieval turrets. The modern stylings of renewable technologies are by design not easily entwined with the otherwise romantically archaic skyline of historic sites. But in their determination to stick to targets, the National Trust is finding solutions to enmeshing the new and old. Sensitive positioning has allowed for ‘invisible sources’ of low-carbon technologies on site, with others craftily designed to blend in. The trust’s first hydropower turbine in Hafod y Llan farm, Snowdonia has been inconspicuously designed to look like a waterfall, leaving visitors none the wiser that it’s generating 1,900 MWhr of electricity per year. Similarly, discreet installations like ‘invisible’ solar panels have been implemented along the roof of Grade 1 listed mansion Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire, silently reducing energy usage on site by 80%. Plas Newydd in North Wales heats the whole of the 300-year-old mansion that once consumed 128,000 litres of oil a year, abolishing it’s 217 tonnes of carbon emissions. Along with many other outfittings across the trust’s portfolio of buildings, a further £30 billion has been pledged to continue their renewable dreams.
But are such ambitious dreams for sustainability being reflected in the trusts more customer-facing sections? Throughout their many cafes and shops, the level of disposable plastic cups, sauce sachets and souvenirs fails to ring true to their aspiring sustainable goals. Slowly, the organisation is cottoning on to their double standards; having recently switched the plastic bag that incarcerated their magazine to a compostable plant-starch version, vowing to stop selling single-use plastics by 2022, and replacing cafeteria paraphernalia with disposable alternatives. Lizzy Carlyle, Head of Environmental Practices at the National Trust said: “As an organisation committed to creating and maintaining a healthy and more beautiful natural environment, we are committed to using every opportunity to minimise our use of non-renewable resources and cut down our waste.” But have their green-goaded efforts resulted in sterilisation of the environment they want so keenly to protect?
The parks owned by the National Trust, littered with brightly coloured way markers pointing to the gift shop and educational signage about historical significance, fail to rouse any visions of the ‘unspoilt landscape’ the organisation insists they offer. In reality, their 775 miles of coastline and 250,000 hectares of countryside are uncomfortably destitute of the natural wildlife and diverse ecosystems that should thrive in protected vistas. In the National Trusts over a century of custodianship of our countryside, their encouragement of human interaction with their spaces has seen wildlife decidedly evacuate the once wild, now expertly manicured grand lawns and forests, habitats culled to make way for guided footpaths and convenience cafes. In addition to the sanitisation of nature, the trust has been actively upheaving naturally cultivated ecosystems to encourage other big earners; grouse shooting and sheep farming. In order to avoid the connotations of the word ‘arson’, the common activity is known as swaling; conducted to burn heathland to encourage large numbers of red-grouse that monied aristocrats pay upwards of £1000 per session to shoot. Such burning is fatal for massive numbers of birds of prey, stoats, foxes, badgers and even domestic cats. Instead of acknowledging the strange activity for all its profiteering truth, the National Trust insist on it as conservation. But such avoidance only serves as an example of our disconnect between protection and devastation.
With over five million members last year, the National Trust’s community has a subscription base larger than all of the UK’s political parties combined. In its possession is 775 miles of coastline, 1357 time-honoured buildings, and nearly 1000 miles of land featuring historic monuments, entire villages and all their pubs and inns. With the National Trust’s enigmatic position in our culture as historian, conservationist, and teacher, the organisation must use their reputation to educate people about the need for sustainable practices in businesses and indeed homes, even if your own isn’t as lofty as many of their manor houses. In leading by example, the National Trust could become an unlikely trendsetter for the country in setting, and meeting, it’s sustainable ambitions.