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Shocking before and after pictures show impact of driest summer since 1976 as National Trust warns it is a climate wake-up call

The National Trust has warned that the record-breaking heat and driest eight months since 1976 are impacting its iconic gardens, watercourses and nature sites. The trust said it was a “wake-up call to cut emissions and adapt”.

It said the waterwheel that powers Houghton Mill in Cambridgeshire stopped turning as river levels fell.

If it is not operational for a period of time it can cause the wood to warp, so the team have had to switch to a second set of mill stones operated by an electric motor.

Parched fields at the National Trust's largest tree-planting project on the Wimpole Estate. Picture: National Trust (58628118)
Parched fields at the National Trust's largest tree-planting project on the Wimpole Estate. Picture: National Trust (58628118)

And, at the trust’s biggest tree-planting project at Wimpole, apple tree saplings baked in the heat, but thankfully survived.

Staff at the estate said the bigger concern was the exceptionally low moisture levels in the soil. A higher proportion of the saplings planted last winter were likely to have to be replanted than anticipated, the trust said.

It planted 90,000 trees at the Cambridgeshire estate in a £1.3million project.

Elsewhere, late-flowering meadow plants that provide nectar for insects have dried up and trust land in the East of England has fallen victim to field fires.

The region is now officially in drought status, but water companies in Cambridgeshire are not currently planning hosepipe bans.

The National Trust said it was adapting to climate change by selecting drought-resistant plants in its gardens, increasing tree cover and shade and creating wetlands.

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 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.”

The parched lawn in the Rose Garden at Anglesey Abbey, Camrbidgeshire. Pictuer: Mike Selby / National Trust (58628160)
The parched lawn in the Rose Garden at Anglesey Abbey, Camrbidgeshire. Pictuer: Mike Selby / National Trust (58628160)

At Peckover House and Garden in Cambridgeshire, herbaceous perennial plants have been severely scorched, and some have died back completely, including astilbe, fuchsia, penstemon and primula.

Over the border at the Ickworth estate in Suffolk, the ranger team predict it could lose between 50 and 70 per cent of their yearling trees this year, even with watering.

Entire hawthorn shrubs have turned yellow and sycamore leaves have gone crispy and are beginning to fall several months early.

Over at Dunwich Heath, also in Suffolk, the heather is not flowering, and the ranger team has warned that food sources will be scarce for wildlife this autumn.

Lloyd James, area ranger for the Suffolk and Essex coast, said: “Around 60 to 70 per cent of the heather at Dunwich Heath isn’t flowering this year. Bell heather has gone over very quickly in the dryness, which will impact the common and silver-studded blue butterflies that feed from the flowers.

“The main heather, Common Ling, is also barely flowering due to the extreme heat and dry conditions, add to that a population explosion of heather beetle grubs that are sucking out the last few drops of moisture. Blackberries are also wilting and struggling to swell fruit, which is a worrying sign that food will be scarce for wildlife this autumn.”

On the Norfolk coast, there have been two fires at National Trust beauty spots.

Chris Bielby, countryside manager for the Norfolk Coast, said: “A serious fire in Brancaster Staithe sadly destroyed a number of houses in the village and spread onto the edge of Brancaster Estate. Here it set fire to vegetation along the flood bank.

The aftermath at Brancaster Marshes. Picture: National Trust (58628158)
The aftermath at Brancaster Marshes. Picture: National Trust (58628158)

“This came just days after a fire was brought under control between Morston and Stiffkey, which damaged around three hectares of land. We’re saddened to know that we will have lost some invertebrates and our hearts go out to our local community. We urge everyone to be extra cautious in the weeks ahead, to help reduce the risk of wildfires.”

Meanwhile, moat levels at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk have dropped due to evaporation and lack of rain. More water has been lost into the river, as the fall in water pressure has caused the sluice gate to open, which would normally retain water in the moat.

The team have found a solution to close the sluice, as the clay within the foundations of the 500-year-old building needs to stay wet to prevent structural problems arising.

Dead animals were found in the aftermath of July’s heatwave, including young birds, mice and frogs.

The trust has reported a noticeable decline in the number of beneficial insects. Even the late flowering meadow plants such as vetches and clovers dried up at Blickling Estate, preventing continuous nectar flow for insects including bees.

How the trust is adapting to climate change

The trust said it has been making many adaptations across its East of England estates.

The drought-resistant garden at Felbrigg, Norfolk. Picture: National Trust (58628145)
The drought-resistant garden at Felbrigg, Norfolk. Picture: National Trust (58628145)

Gardens: Solutions include adapting planting schemes to be more resilient to extremes, improving soil health and collecting more rainwater for irrigation.

At Peckover House the garden team intend to reinstate Victorian underground cisterns to store rainwater for the summer months, dramatically cutting mains water use.

At Oxburgh Hall, a four-year project to restore a 19th-century parterre is under way 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, a new drought-tolerant garden is thriving. It has only required watering once this summer, as part of a strategy to adapt the garden to suit the current and anticipated climate.

Head gardener Tina Hammond said: “We’re showcasing dry-loving plants from places like New Zealand, Australia, South America and the Mediterranean, and visitors are really enjoying the beautifully colourful ‘Persian carpet’ style underplanting.”

And at Melford Hall in Suffolk the team are adding organic matter at the planting stage and establishing an annual programme of heavily mulching garden borders.

Tree-planting: The trust is introducing 20 million new trees by 2030, which will include plantings to provide shade for wildlife and livestock, and for visitors. It says natural regeneration will play a key part, as trees that are established naturally are readily adapted and more likely to succeed.

Landscape restoration: Ranger teams are restoring landscapes and making them wetter in places. At Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, there are now cracks along paths and the wider nature reserve where peat has dried out. This would lead to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, underlining the urgency of projects like the one there to restore areas of peatland and improve capacity to store increased volumes of water during the winter months, which will keep the area wetter for longer.

Historic buildings: The trust has also reported early impacts on its historic buildings and is exploring strategies to help them cope with excessive heat. These could include shading and passive ventilation. They also need to ensure they are warm during winter months to reduce emissions. Cultural institutions in countries already dealing with regular extreme conditions are being examined.

What can we do?

Keith said: “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.”

For volunteering opportunities with the National Trust, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/volunteer.

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