As I write, I’m looking out of my home office window and up at the rolling Malvern Hills. I grew up in this part of the world, learning how the hills inspired the likes of Edward Elgar, J R R Tolkein and C S Lewis. A couple of evenings ago I saw a wheatear, on its southward migration, on one of the peaks. This summer I’ve delighted in seeing silver-washed fritillaries, marbled whites and painted lady butterflies on them.
But there is something about the Malvern Hills that I only learned recently. Parts of the Hills have been cared for under National Trust covenants.
In its simplest terms a covenant is an agreement (often a voluntary one, occasionally involving money changing hands) between a landowner and another body to manage the land in a certain way – and the agreement stays in place even if the land changes hands.
From 1937, the National Trust has held special powers, allowing us to protect private land on a permanent basis. Through entering into covenants (voluntary agreements with individual landowners) we have helped to preserve large areas of countryside and important wildlife habitats, as well as many historic features. In the 1930s, for example, we took covenants over approximately 1200 acres of the Malvern Hills. In doing so, we recognised both the unique quality of the environment and the need for it to be protected for the long-term.
Ultimately, much of this land was notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1954 and, since 1979, all of it has been included with the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. While the Malvern Hills are now amongst the UK’s best-protected landscapes, it is clear that our covenants played an important role in preserving their special character from the interwar years, until statutory designations were put in place. Today, our covenants in the Malvern Hills serve as a reminder that through collaboration with local landowners and other stakeholders with an interest in the local environment, it is possible to make a positive and lasting impact on a landscape scale.
That’s why we think the Government’s proposals to introduce a legal system of ‘conservation covenants’ for England could be a key part of delivering for nature. Our own National Trust covenants are restrictive – they prevent certain activities. The Government’s proposed system would be able to prevent and oblige management measures. The system would be available to any organisation that the Government approved – this wider availability of the power would mean much more land could be protected and restored for nature and historic interest than at present.
An England-wide, legal scheme of conservation covenants could help to restore habitat for wildlife, protect historic features, lock away carbon, restore woodlands and re-open river floodplains thereby reducing flood risk.
Covenants are a cornerstone of the Government’s environmental proposals. But they will only achieve their purpose if they are part of the delivery of the Government’s wider environmental programme – including the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill. Covenants could help to deliver the reforms in the Agriculture Bill – a farming system where farmers are much better rewarded and supported to look after the environment. They could help to deliver biodiversity net gain habitat that’s preserved for decades to come. And they can help to achieve the long-term targets for recovering nature that will come from a strong Environment Bill.