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Speech by Hilary McGrady, Director General of the National Trust, at the launch of Natural England’s Nature Recovery Network Partnership

Today Hilary McGrady, Director General of National Trust, spoke at the launch of Natural England's Nature Recovery Network Partnership. Read the full speech here.

November 2020

I am delighted to be able to join you today to help launch the Nature Recovery Network delivery partnership in England.

We were meant to be in Dorset today, and I am incredibly jealous of those of you who are able to be there as I consider to be one of the most beautiful parts of England. It is the landscape that inspired Thomas Hardy to write my all-time favourite book - Return of the Native. The reason I love that book is because it speaks of how evocative landscapes and the power of nature become part of very personal histories, and how ultimately it is impossible to separate people from place.

And it is that link between people, nature and place that is at the heart of what the Trust is about and also what I think the delivery partnership is also about.

In the last year or more, we know that something tangible has changed in our nation. I don’t think I am exaggerating to say it feels like it is waking up, opening its eyes to the delicate balance that exists in our lives. Think Blue Planet, Greta Thunberg extinction rebellion and of course, the recent extraordinary outburst of people reaching out to be closer to nature as they were forced inside because of COVID-19.

A realisation that the health of our nation is inextricably linked to the health of our environment. The tide is turning in a direction that is powerful, urgent and compelling. And quite right too. Nature is in crisis. The evidence is unequivocal, and the additional challenge of climate change will magnify this crisis further as well as posing its own challenges.

These two things, the nature and climate crises, are having a devastating effect on the environment around us and people are noticing it. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of change needed. Let’s not be daunted- let’s be enlivened by it. This is our chance to work together to make that change happen.

The Trust has been working on this for some time. When we launched our 10 year strategy in 2015, we deliberately bound it tightly to Sir John Lawton’s recommendations to Government on Making Space for Nature.

For us at the Trust this has meant:

1. Making our important priority habitats and statutory sites ‘better’.
2. Restoring 25,000 hectares of priority habitat to create ‘bigger’ areas for nature.
3. Making it ‘more joined up’ through introducing nature friendly farming across half of our estate.

Our approach aligns well to the Government’s own 25 Year Environment Plan and I am delighted that the Prime Minister has reaffirmed its commitment to be the “first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”. This resonates so well with the Trust’s values of thinking now and forever, by creating a lasting legacy for the future – a functional Nature Recovery Network must do just that.

So, I echo the Prime Ministers Pledge for Nature last month where he said “we must act now – right now. We cannot afford to dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today, and it is happening at a frightening rate.”

He is absolutely right – time is of the essence, which is why I am delighted to join the Minister and partners today in launching England’s Nature Recovery Network delivery partnership and will take the opportunity to encourage us all to get on and act.

There can be no better example of what can be achieved when we act together than Purbeck. I’ve been fortunate to visit Purbeck many times and, talking to our team down there, have come to understand a bit of its history and the ambitious plans that have emerged through our strong and growing partnership.

Purbeck is one of the most biodiverse places in the UK. It’s geology and south coast location, gives rise to the greatest diversity of plants in the UK and in turn an extraordinary suite of habitats that support a rich diversity of animals, including many of our most threatened species. From Poole and Christchurch Harbours, up broad river valleys to the steep chalk ridge above, the area is a complex mix of intertwining habitats for wildlife. The relatively poor agricultural soils meant much of the area escaped some of the early destructive losses that was inflicted on so much of our countryside.

But by the 1960s, the heaths so beloved by Hardy suffered from what was described as ‘significant destruction and fragmentation’ – the very same drivers that the NRN seeks to reverse today.

So, it is no surprise that conservation effort was initially targeted in key areas to protect some of our most threatened species. But despite some great work, it was inadequate to turn the tide and the degradation of the area largely continued. Efforts picked up a gear in the 1980s with habitat restoration plugging the gaps between the protected areas and slowly building out ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ such that, earlier this year over 3,000ha - an area three times the size of the original protected areas - was declared Purbeck Heaths ‘super’ NRN.

The fruits of all this labour are starting to be seen – restoration management between core areas has enabled early succession species to flourish such as the Marsh Gentian and the Purbeck mason wasp and other vertebrate, The Purbeck Heath partnership has created the largest area of protected lowland heathland, ‘kick starting’ natural processes to help drive a dynamism that had been lost. This in turn, is now delivering a rich kaleidoscope of habitat mosaic across the landscape.

All of this of course is underpinned with an active research programme and a strong evidence base of what really works. It is an exemplar of what a Nature Recovery Network should deliver.

The question now of course, is how can the NRN roll out across the country, to turn back the tide and help nature’s recovery?

Like most things in my life – for me - it’s the people. I have an extraordinary team working with me at the NT and regardless to the impact of COVID-19, I know they are itching to get on with the delivery of our strategy for nature, climate and people and to maximise our contribution to nature’s recovery. But I really want to take this opportunity to acknowledge, and indeed celebrate, the partnership of which we are just one part.

The partnership has been hard at work, keeping a shared vision topmost in their minds, to cut through difficult snagging issues, to make a real-world-impact that makes Purbeck what it is today. Importantly the partnership has reached out to engage other landowners like the Rempstone Estate, a commercial farm who has provided a pivotal link across the heaths. And the ambition doesn’t stop here with on-going discussion with neighbouring landowners, philanthropists and business.

By creating opportunities for local communities to get involved – from better access through to citizen science monitoring – we are supporting greater access to this national gem from the young and old with outreach programmes in the neighbouring communities. It is the partnership’s dedicated expertise and tenacity that has made this happen and I congratulate everyone involved! Not only for shining this particular national jewel, but also for firing up the imagination of what a difference a fully functioning NRN could make to all our lives.

So, we have the people, we have the partnership and the know how to restore habitats. In many ways that is the easy bit if you have a knowledgeable army of conservationists and scientists eager to get involved. No, it’s not the practical mechanics so much as the context and framework that nature conservation sits within, that is so important in enabling our partnerships to ‘get on and do’.

Boots on the ground will take us a long way and I am a massive believer in actions speaking louder than words, but nonetheless, we must also look to government to create the conditions in which we can get on with delivery – to enable us to deliver the public benefits nature offers.

Never has it been truer that everyone needs nature, nor more important for Government to hold tight to the ambition set out in the 25YP so these benefits can be shared by all. Government lit a tantalising light when it promised ‘no regression’ and ‘world beating environmental laws’ and I acknowledge the steps taken on the Environment and Agriculture Bills - so now is the time to hold our nerve and not let any of that hard work slip.

We need Government to stay true to its word. Not only to demonstrate what is possible on a global stage next year, but because without such leadership, our efforts will have less impact and we will not be able to deliver as effectively.

I welcome the Prime Ministers desire to shift from a narrative of doom & gloom to positive and purposeful leadership. I can promise you the National Trust will be with him all the way – offering up our 250,000ha estate to support nature’s recovery & people’s enjoyment and engagement with.

But to secure the kind of confidence and certainty that is so important for investment, it is crucial that the current legislative programme provides a robust and coherent framework so our collective efforts stack up, and to ensure this exciting step forward isn’t followed by two steps back.

So, what needs to happen to enable many more Purbecks across the country?

The first and perhaps most important is the need for clarity from government agencies on how they intend to plan for and secure the vital contribution protected sites and priority habitats and species will make to nature’s recovery.

We need to map out our respective contributions from work on the ground through to regulation to ensure our collective efforts make more than the sum of the parts - whilst a common evidence base to monitor nature’s recovery will help secure the long-term gains on offer. Innovative approaches to private financing are very welcome along with the necessary transparency and statutory underpinning of what goes where. Such novel funding streams create new opportunities to work across sectors and will be vital to the successful delivery of an NRN.

We must not lose sight of the public benefit a Nature Recovery Network offers. A £5.5bn capital investment in green infrastructure would deliver a £200bn return in physical health and wellbeing benefits alone, whilst helping overturn the inequality of accessing natural greenspace – that really would help us ‘build back better’.

Our research demonstrates that so many farm businesses are locked into an unprofitable and unsustainable system, chasing ever increasing intensification whilst vital natural capital drains away.

We can only turn this around with a robust and adequately resourced Agriculture Bill that rewards our farmers for the public benefits they can provide in building a Nature Recovery Network.

Finally, a robust and independent Office of Environmental Protection will provide the confidence and certainty needed for longer term investment.

So, I want to conclude by marking this truly crucial opportunity for the country: of responding to the challenge of nature in perilous decline and seizing the opportunity this new Nature Recovery Network delivery partnership represents. It is vital step in creating the coalition of partners that are needed to bring nature back from the brink and I am excited to see it unfold.

It must be forward-focussed, with a powerful collaboration to change how we manage land, to reward those delivering a nature-rich landscapes and delivering for society.

I am fully committed to ensuring the Trust plays it part and I am confident that others are too. We need you please Minister to do likewise. Making provisions so the NRN works in practice by clear public leadership and rewarding those who step up to the challenge and deliver a high-quality natural environment that benefits us all.

Thank you.

Hilary McGrady is Director General of the National Trust.

Follow: @nationaltrust

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