Recognising the history within the habitat

Our environment and landscapes are rich and multifaced. They are the products of interactions between man-made and natural features over thousands of years. It is therefore important to take a balanced approach to managing both natural and historic features, and seeking to protect and enhance both can be mutually beneficial for both of these aspects of our environment.

In delving deeper in to the relationship between the historic environment and the natural, the case becomes clear for a broad understanding of “environment” in public policy-making. This needs to be supported in the forthcoming Environment Bill, which must protect and enhance our landscapes as a whole.

Two sides of the same coin

There are few landscapes in the UK that can be considered entirely “natural”. Human activity has been leaving its impact on our physical environment since Neolithic times. From the visible earthworks and archaeology of ancient field systems to carefully crafted landscaped gardens, our countryside tells the story of our cultural heritage.

Our historic environment sits alongside natural features, sharing the same physical spaces and facing similar challenges. Environmental change, such as flooding, fire or coastal erosion, all have the potential to cause damage to historic sites and features – in the same way they would impact plant and animal life. The natural and the historic are tied together as demonstrated in this Case study on Peatlands

Wardens working on the blanket peat on the High Peak Estate, in the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire. ©National Trust Images/Leo Mason

Protecting heritage to protect nature

The natural environment often depends on the historic environment in the same way. For example, the lesser horseshoe bats are entirely dependent on buildings for breeding. In other cases ancient stonework can provide habitat for lichens and plants that would not otherwise be present in the landscape, and in some cases specific species can even be traced back to the actions of our historic ancestors. For example, the Roman Snail, Helix pomatia, can be found at the site of the Roman Villa at Chedworth. These snails were introduced by the Romans for cooking and eating but escaped the kitchens and have thrived on the site ever since. These species are protected by law and caring for these historic sites can therefore actively support biodiversity and contribute to the protection of these rare species. This is demonstrated in this Case study on Wessex Hillforts.

Roman snail on a pillar in the hypocaust (underfloor heating) at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire. These short pillars are what remains of the Roman hypocaust system from the 4th century. They’re close to 2000 years old. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

What does this mean for environmental policy?

Considering historic and cultural features alongside the natural is not new to environmental policy in the UK. For example, the statutory role of National Parks in England and Wales is “to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage”. In addition, agricultural policy under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has played a substantial role in protecting and supporting heritage. 84% of scheduled ancient monuments are found on farmland, and a combination of funding measures has helped protect heritage on farmland. For example, 24,000 historic sites in England have been protected through Environmental Stewardship alone since the start of the scheme.

We are pleased that the Agriculture Bill recognises that the natural and historic need to be protected alongside each other and provides for future environmental land management schemes to continue to support cultural heritage. However, the Government’s draft Environment Bill, which sets out the framework for environmental governance in the UK, is a cause of concern.

The Draft Environment Bill

The draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill contains on the following definition of the “natural environment”:

  • “In this Act the “natural environment” means—
  • (a) wild animals, plants and other living organisms,
  • (b) their habitats,
  • (c) land, water and air (except buildings or other structures and water or air inside them),
  • and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.”

This definition sets the boundaries of much of the policy in the Bill. It is this definition that will guide Secretaries of State in future when creating Environmental Improvement Plans. It also frames the understanding of “environmental law” within which the new environmental regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection, will operate.

We are very concerned that this definition of the ‘natural environment’ does not include the historic environment. In fact, by specifically excluding ‘buildings and other structures’ it appears to proactively exclude historic features and could lead to recommendations which could damage our nation’s cultural heritage.

This contradicts and undermines the welcome and prominent presence of the historic environment in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which identifies enhancing “beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment” as a specific goal.

View from the outer bank looking south at Figsbury Ring, site of an Iron Age hill-fort, Wiltshire. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

We want the definition of the ‘environment’ to include the historic environment.

This change would merely bring the statutory definition of “environment” in line with existing government policy and practice. It would ensure that future environmental planning and monitoring seeks to enhance and protect these crucial features of our landscape hand in hand with the indivisible natural features.

There will be a need for the OEP to have regard to the historic environment, and ideally set out how it will ensure balance as part of its strategy. The body will also need access to sufficient expertise in the historic environment to ensure that the advice it offers is robust. Including the historic environment among the expertise criteria for recruitment of members of the OEP would be a welcome addition.

When eventually introduced to Parliament, the Environment Bill will also need to establish legally binding targets and these targets must also encompass the historic environment, as well as broader aspects of the natural environment, beauty and landscape characteristics.

There is much in existing Government policy which recognises the integral importance of the historic environment to the enhancement of the natural environment, but this risks being undermined by the current drafting of the Environmental Bill.

Widening the definition of the environment in this Bill, setting clear, deliverable targets, and ensuring that the OEP has regard to the historic environment would help drive the long-term protection and enhancement of both the historic and natural environment.

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