National Trust's Heather McLachlan: Reconnecting with nature key to climate change challenge

In its 125th year, the National Trust's founding principles of providing and protecting green spaces for public benefit have never been more relevant. Jenny Lee chats climate change, Brexit and tree planting with the conservation charity's Northern Ireland director Heather McLachlan

Heather McLachlan, director of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, talks to The Irish News at the trust's Minnowburn site on the outskirts of Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

"WE ALL want quiet. We all want beauty. We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently." These are the words of Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust in 1883.

Fast forward to 2020, when the threat of climate change is endangering habitats and wildlife and levels of stress and mental health illnesses have never been higher, in its 125th year the conservation charity is again highlighting the need for us all to reconnect with nature and do our bit to protect its beauty.

"Octavia Hill was speaking during the Industrial Revolution when people were not well because they were living in squalor. We are living in a different situation – one we have created for ourselves," says Heather McLachlan, director for the National Trust in Northern Ireland. "We have lost connections – with ourselves, with one another and with nature. We need to connect and become a community which works together to resolve the challenges we have created for ourselves."

As Europe's largest conservation charity, and the UK's biggest landowner next to the state, McLachlan recognises the trust's role in tackling the causes of climate change.

Among it ambitious commitments are planting at least 125,000 trees in Northern Ireland over 10 years, managing more than 40 hectares (equivalent to 80 football pitches) of wildflower meadow by the end of 2020 and restoring 890 hectares of habitat (equivalent to 1,220 football pitches) by 2025.

The charity is committed to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming carbon net zero by 2030 through tree planting, relying more on renewable energy, ensuring goods and services are sustainably sourced and introducing more electric vehicles.

"We are on the cusp of a lot of changes and challenges, both in terms of climate change and getting to carbon zero, but at the same time we need to ensure the basics of food security, clean air and water," says the 52 year-old, who is mother to Ren (18) and Peter (16).

Having graduated in business studies, it was during a life-changing trip trip to Sri Lanka in 1999, where she witnessed first-hand the work of a turtle sanctuary, that McLachlan's own interest in nature was ignited. Within six weeks of returning to her home in Dromore, Co Down, she secured a role with the Ulster Wildlife Trust, before joining the National Trust eight years ago.

"Our soils are really poor. The farming fraternity are saying they have only 60 harvests left. The recent flooding highlighted how our soil, and it's fertility, is being washed away. Planting trees in flood plains alone is not going to solve the problem," she says.

Advocating for environmental and nature legislation and policy is a key role for the National Trust, and McLachlan admits that Brexit presents enormous challenges.

"Ninety-five per cent of our designations and protections come from EU legislation. Obviously that is going to be devolved, and we are concerned about how that is managed. Our tourism industry is reliant upon the beautiful places we have, such as the Giant's Causeway and Strangford Lough, and we need to ensure we protect that," she says.

She believes that "a holistic approach" needs to be taken by the Stormont government.

"The natural challenges of our time impact all departments, from communities to the economy, not just agriculture and environment. I strongly believe we need a sustainable tourism policy for Northern Ireland, and one which also provides a benefit to the communities in which the attractions are based."

Another key ambition for the National Trust is opening up green corridor links near urban areas, and McLachlan is delighted with the success of Divis and the Black Mountain – the trust-owned hills and moorland that tower over west Belfast – which last year attracted more than 200,000 visitors.

"Divis is an incredible resource for the city," she says. "It's hard to believe it used to be a ministry of defence no-go area. We plan to continue working with partners in terms of infrastructure to increase links from the city and ensure more people have access to the Belfast hills."

The National Trust now has a dedicated community officer working with neighbourhoods around Divis and plans activities such as a Street Art Project for young people in June.

McLachlan is keen to highlight that the National Trust Northern Ireland entails much more than its well-known paid-entry sites, such as Mount Stewart and Castle Ward.

"Sometimes there is a misconception that we are an exclusive club but our aim is to look after special places in Northern Ireland, forever and for everyone," she says.

"Our entry charges enable us to not only look after our historic properties but to maintain our other assets that everyone can enjoy for free, including The Mournes, Strangford Lough, Glenoe, White Park Bay, Murlough Nature Reserve, Lisnabreeny and Minnowburn."

And does she support proposals to designate the Mournes as a national park?

"I don't know that we're going to see a national park in the next few years but the mood has changed, with less opposition, which is interesting. Whether we would support it depends on what it would look like and whether it would be beneficial to the community."

This week the National Trust published its UK-wide Noticing Nature report, which revealed, rather shockingly, that people in Northern Ireland are most disconnected with nature, with 83 per cent of adults having infrequently or never smelled wild flowers and 63 per cent rarely or never having watched the sunrise.

In response, the organisation has launched a year-long campaign to inspire people to engage with nature and increase their willingness to take actions to help halt its decline. This includes a weekly online 'noticing nature' guide. The equivalent of a 'Couch to 5k' for the natural world, the guide encourages bite-size activities, taking from only 20 seconds to 20 minutes, which can be easily squeezed into daily life, ranging from listening to birdsong and litter picking to going barefoot in grass or planting something to grow.

"We are intrinsically linked to nature later whether we realise it or not. If we don't look after nature future, then it won't look after us," adds McLachlan.

Researchers also found that nature connectedness is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. This is being seen in action in Co Down, where the National Trust is running the pilot project, entitled 'social prescribing'.

"We have been working with a GP surgery in Kircubbin, where rather than prescribing antidepressant medication they are giving 12 week passes to individuals to come and spend time in the woodlands in Mount Stewart. What they are finding is people are coming back feeling much better and asking for repeat prescriptions," enthuses McLachlan.

And starting on this leap day, the conservation charity is also encouraging people to make a promise to help nature, from building a bug hotel to switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs, or volunteering for a monthly beach clean. And McLachlan is leading by example, in making her own promise to nature by planting heather in her own back garden in Dromore.

"I sought inspiration from my own name when coming up with my promise to nature," she laughs.

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