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Climate change is eroding nature and heritage

“Posforth force waterfall” image by Rotherz67 for Creative Commons

With the news last week of a £2.5m National Trust project to improve the resilience of the Skell Valley to protect Fountains Abbey and the city of Ripon from the impact of climate change, it struck home that North Yorkshire cannot escape the climate crisis. In fact, nowhere can. We expect to hear about the impact of climate change happening ‘over there’ and to ‘them’ – whoever ‘they’ are. It’s not something for us to worry about in the UK, thank you very much.

And yet, the UK is already being affected by the climate emergency, with longer heatwaves, flooding, air pollution and river pollution. And it is getting worse. For the city of Ripon and the Skell Valley, flooding has happened before in 2007, and it will happen again – except with growing cost, both financially and to human life.

The mitigation and limitation of damage needs to be paramount. We cannot watch the floodwaters rise and hope that any locally led climate adaptation will be enough. As Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said yesterday:

“The ground is saturated, previous rainfall and snowmelt means river levels are high, and now a band of heavy rain coming in from the Atlantic threatens parts of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire”.

Indeed, many people in the UK may well be feeling anxious as Storm Christoph passes.

The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review’ (2006), summarises the position starkly: “The benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting”.

Preventative measures can often be far more cost effective than expensive clean-up operations, where property insurance prices rise as quickly as the waters. The individual cannot bear the rising cost of climate change and yet this is how the UK government responds – with passing the burden.

Successive UK governments have been slow to respond to the climate emergency and although the UK has declared one, this means very little on a practical level. Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, like other historic buildings and monuments, are not protected by the UK government and sit under threat of damage. Lottery grants of £1.4m and regional fundraising to reach £900,000, in order to reduce potential damage to a protected and well-loved World Heritage Site, means that the individual tax-payer is once again asked to foot the bill.

There is a tragic irony that there is a connection between our reliance on road expansion and the increasing effects of climate. A connection lost on this government, which appears surprised when one impacts the other. While money is available for road network expansion – the Stonehenge Tunnel Project is expected to cost £1.7bn, for example – money for the environmental protection of a World Heritage Site in Yorkshire (estimated at £2.5m), does not seem to be as easily accessible.

However, as the Guardian reported, this much-needed National Trust scheme, which looks to preserve the heritage and help protect the valley, has been helped significantly by a lottery grant of £1.4m. With tree planting, pond creation and bird and fish population increases, it is hoped that this will be enough to help reduce soil runoff and slow the water. What happens upstream directly impacts downstream and mitigation along the 12 miles of the River Skell can help treat the symptoms instead of the cause.

Harry Bowell, Director of Land and Nature at the National Trust, said:

“This is a significant marker in the history of this fascinating valley – and an important moment for the Trust. Climate change is eroding away nature and heritage and only by working across our boundaries, with local people and partners, and with nature, will we be able to make a real difference”.

Plans are in place to open up the wider Skell Valley and address the barriers people face in accessing the countryside. Organisers will create new walking trails and improve signs and information while local people will have a chance to learn drystone walling, wildlife and river monitoring and hedge laying.

Much of this work will take place in Nidderdale area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). The nationally protected landscape is home to important habitats and rich in wildlife, with many sites designated for their local, regional or international importance.

Councillor Nigel Simms, chair of the Nidderdale AONB joint advisory committee, said:

“We’re delighted that The National Lottery Heritage Fund has given us this support. Through the Skell Valley Project, we’ll be able to trial innovative approaches to pressing issues such as climate change, flooding and land management. We’ll work closely with local farmers and landowners across the Skell Valley to put in place nature-based solutions that will reduce flooding and improve biodiversity in and around the river.

“We’re looking forward to working with the 16 organisations that make up the Skell Valley Partnership. The partnership, together with people from across the area, will enhance the Skell’s natural environment, reveal more of the beautiful Skell Valley and provide greater access for people to visit this wonderful part of Yorkshire.”

Awareness and skill building of nature preservation and wildlife management, as this new scheme will develop, takes us back to a past where we lived with the land and respected the power of nature, rather than a current lifestyle that is built on pollution.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, which is a core feature of the area and speaks to our past, needs to be protected. Otherwise, one day we will wake up to hear about the irreparable damage that has been caused. The government of the day will likely wring its hands and sadly state that this was unavoidable – that the rains came. Comfortably passing their responsibility once again onto hard-pressed local communities and abdicating accountability.

And what was once a proud local and national bastion of endurance and religious belief in Fountains Abbey, will be gone.

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