A Notional Trust

by | Dec 31, 2008

Two articles in the Guardian/Observer this weekend seem to have stretched reports produced by conservationists to effect the maximum possible alarm.

On Saturday, the Guardian reported that the National Trust had produced an audit of climate change effects on wildlife in the UK. 

British wildlife may not survive third wet summer, warns National Trust

 A third miserable summer in parts of the UK could spell disaster for many species of insects, bird life and mammals, the National Trust warns today.

The charity says three wet summers in a row in many regions could mean that creatures – ranging from crane flies (often called daddy-long-legs) to species of butterflies, members of the tit family, puffins and bats – may struggle to survive in some places.

Matthew Oates, a nature conservation adviser for the trust, said: “After two very poor years in a row we desperately need a good summer in 2009 – otherwise it’s going to look increasingly grim for a wealth of wildlife in the UK.

“Climate change is not some future prediction of what might happen. It’s happening now and having a serious impact on our countryside every year.”

The warning comes in a yearly audit produced by the National Trust of how the weather in 2008 affected wildlife.

It was indeed a bad year – for humans. But was 2008 really an unusual year for climate and wildlife?

The year began curiously, according to the audit, with sightings of red admiral butterflies and white-tailed bumblebees in January and February. Many naturalists think it is probably a bad idea for such creatures to be out and about so early. The bees were badly hit by snow and frost in April.

As we reported at the time, it is not unusual to see red admiral butterflies in January. According to the audit “snowdrops and crocuses emerge earlier than normal” in January. But as we also reported, the timing of snowdrops is determined not by the prevailing conditions of the winter, but of the previous Autumn. As for bees, the Natural History Museum website informs us,

In towns and cities in the south [the white tailed bumble bee] commonly continues to forage through the winter where suitable flower resources are available.

The National Trust can say nothing about January or February that is unusual, or points to climate change, and a deleterious effect of climate change on wildlife.     

Heavy rain during mid-May meant hard times for early-summer insects, which in turn meant many blue tit and great tit nests failed. In June, coastal birds such as choughs, kittiwakes and razorbills bred late and reared few young. In July, puffin numbers on the Farne Islands were down 35% in five years.

The audit printed in the Guardian echoes the article:

• Heavy rain makes life hard for early-summer insects, such as the marsh fritillary butterfly.
 • Many nests fail, including those of great and blue tits […], due to the lack of insects and foul weather.

Heavy rain in May? Not according to the UK’s Met Office, who report that rainfall in May across the UK was just 73% of average. In England, it was higher at 109%, and Southern England it was up still at 145%. This was a local effect. And an increase of 45% is not what you’d call ‘heavy rain’.

Foul weather? Again, not according to the Met Office, who reported that the UK saw 114% of the sunshine it might have expected during May. In the South of England, this was 102%. The UK’s temperature was 2.3 degrees warmer than average, as was the rest of the country.     

The audit continues to say of June that it was a “poor summer for insects such as butterflies, moths, hoverflies, ladybirds and dragonflies”. But the Met Office says that June was 0.4 degrees warmer than average for Southern England, and similar throughout the rest of the UK. The month brought an entirely average amount of sunshine, and less than average rainfall for the South (78%), and slightly above average (110%) for the UK. How can an average month be a poor summer for insects?

On to August. The audit claims

• Few wasps around as the poor weather hinders nest building.
• Two types of cabbage white butterfly, the large white and small white, are unusually plentiful as their predators are depleted by poor weather.
• Crickets and grasshoppers scarcely sing all month. Bats’ staple food, insects, are seriously affected by the heavy rain.

August was a disappointing month. But the Met Office shows that the UK experienced just 54% more rainfall than ‘usual’. This might mean nothing more than it rained one day out of every two more than it would ‘normally’. The UK average rainfall for August is around 90mm. It got 140mm. That makes for a boring Summer, but it’s no torrent of biblical proportions. Hardly a harbinger of doom in a series which is just 31 days long. There were also significant regional differences. Northern Ireland, for example, saw 213% of the rain it ‘usually’ gets according to the MO’s climate statistics. The South of England saw 152%, but the South East (part of the South) saw 125%, while the South West (also part of the South) got 171%. Temperatures in all regions were above average. The only remarkable thing was that it was the ‘dullest’ August in the record, since 1929 at 67% of normal, or 115 hours of sunshine. It is fair to say then, that it was a cloudy August, but that’s not consistent with any observable trend, or change that can be attributed to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’.

As a graph comparing the August sunshine, temperature and rainfall anomalies in England over the last century shows, August 2008 is generally unremarkable. In fact, looking at this graph, it’s hard to say anything about England’s climate that would be consistent with the claims that it is changing, or becoming hostile to wildlife – it is a very variable graph. So it’s even harder to know what Matthew Oates, a nature conservation adviser for the National Trust means when he says,

Climate change is not some future prediction of what might happen. It’s happening now and having a serious impact on our countryside every year.

In what way is climate change happening now? And how can it be having an effect on our countryside?

On Sunday, the Guardian’s Sunday paper, the Observer, ran a similar story. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/28/wildlife-animals-conservation]

Third of Britain’s mammals ‘at risk’

Oh No! We’re mammals!

Climate change and habitat loss have led to a dramatic increase in the number of mammals whose future survival is a cause for concern among conservationists, the study commissioned by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species concludes. The Bechstein’s bat, one of the country’s rarest mammals, has shown a marked decline while the number of soprano pipistrelle bats has fallen by 46% in six years.

A visit to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) website doesn’t lead us to this study. They don’t seem to have published it yet. Which is odd, isn’t it, given the dramatic headlines it has generated. We’ll try and get hold of it. Meanwhile, the Observer article continues,

Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions, combined with hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, were causing changes in the distribution and behaviour of some species, such as the hazel dormouse, the study finds.

‘Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions’? Does this mean that the poor bats and mice have declined in numbers because they got caught in a rainstorm they weren’t ‘expecting’? What does ‘unpredictability’ have to do with population decline? And when was UK weather ever ‘predictable’? As the graph above shows, there is a great deal of variation in England’s weather. But ‘extreme’ it has not been.

We hear a lot about hotter, drier summers, and wetter winters. But how true are the claims made about them? We took the statistics generously supplied by the Met Office, and put them into Excel. The following graph compares temperatures for each season in England, between 1915 and 2007, with 10 year moving averages.

What strikes first is that it isn’t the Summer in England which shows the greatest change, but the other three seasons. There is a fairly substantial year-to-year variation of average temperature. If the moving average represents a trend, it doesn’t lead to anything we could safely regard as ‘extreme’.

Spring and Autumn exhibit much more significant recent warming trends, which might lead us to imagine that they could represent ‘extremes’. Except that, as transitions between states, they cannot be ‘extreme’ any more than a middle can be an end.

Winters look as though they may have been getting warmer recently, but by the standards of Winters in the 1920-30s, they look fairly normal, having gotten colder between 1930 and the 1970s, then warming up again.

Next, we looked at the amount of rainfall in the winter and summer.

Winters have been getting wetter, according to the moving average. But there is also a great deal of variation. So it is hard to imagine what recent ‘extremes’ would would consist of. It could be said that wetter summers were getting slightly more frequent, but again, in what sense does this constitute ‘extreme’ weather, rather than more frequently ‘slightly worse than mild’? And what does it say about the claim that summers have been getting drier? 

Summers since 1980 have not been getting any drier, according to the moving average. They did get drier in the ’70s and ’80s. Clearly, then, there is no substance to the claim that England is experiencing drier summers because of climate change. 

So, England’s climate is no less ‘predictable’ than it ever has been. It is no more ‘extreme’ than it ever has been. Winters have been getting slightly wetter, and the summers slightly warmer. But it would be an over statement to say they are getting ‘hotter’.

Back to the animals. We were wondering at this point: fluffy creatures don’t live in abstract climates such as ‘the south’ of England, so what sense does it make to use data about the whole of England, or large parts of it? If we want to know why, or how, animals have responded to climate in a given area, there is little point in looking at aggregate data – averages of averages of averages. Whether or not global warming is happening, the effects that local populations will experience are local. We ought to look at data from a single station. After all, the Guardian’s article explained…

The weather was not terrible across the country all year – some areas such as the north-west, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland got some rather good conditions. But in places such as the Cotswolds and parts of the Thames Valley and south-east, Oates said there was an awful lot of very bad weather for wildlife.

It is the cumulative effect of bad weather that can be so damaging. If there is one poor summer a species might be lost from a parish here and there. If there are two, the loss is likely to be across two or three parishes. But if there are three consecutive washouts, whole counties could lose species.

(Notice that according to the article, Northern Ireland ‘got some rather good conditions’. But according to the Met Office, it got 213% of the rainfall it normally gets in August, while the Thames Valley was characterised as having ‘ awful lot of very bad weather’ and only got 125%. This makes no sense whatsoever.)

We decided to look at the data from one station near the locations mentioned in the quote above: Oxford. Oxford is just beyond the edge of the Cotswolds, in the Thames Valley, and in the South East. We should be able to see something in the data from this station, which might explain why things are getting hard for wild animals there.

First, rain. Have winters been getting either wetter or drier for animals in Oxford?

Not much. And certainly no where near as much as in the early part of the last century. But the bunny rabbits, the dormice, and all things great and small survived. So how about the summers – has there been any recent change in Oxford’s summer rain?

Curiously, it seems that ‘climate change’ has brought some stability to the levels of rain in Oxford since about 1980. 

So how about temperature. How has Oxford’s temperature changed in recent years, that might cause problems for its flora and fauna? We took the middle month (January, April, July, October) of each season to see what they said about how much climate has changed. First: maximum temperature.
There has been a recent warming trend for July. But it’s not yet any more extreme than it was at the beginning of the previous century, which saw far more dramatic changes. October has been getting warmer. But again, it has been since about 1900. And there is some significant variability in its history. Ditto April, which shows a warming trend since 1980 that mirrors a cooling trend since 1960, which follows a rather rapid warming. Winter shows a great deal of variability, with the current trend peaking at slightly greater than the trend in the mid 1900s. 
Next, minimum temperature. 
July’s minimum temperatures don’t quite seem as cold as they were in the 1800s, but all of the warming seems to have happened before 15 years ago, and from 1920. October minimums have been fairly variable since about 1970, but less so since, having been on an upward march since 1930 to 1970. April’s minimums do show a recent increase, but again, nothing like as variable as the trend between 1850 and 1944. Similarly, the January minimum temperature has been all over the place, never settling on any trend that reflects anything ‘stable’.  

Climate in Oxford has changed before… um… climate change… err… changed the climate. Oxford’s wildlife never existed in the ‘stable’ climate that reports about their demise seem to imply. Its history shows substantial variation. Yet animals survived here. Whether or not reports about the decline of animal populations or diversity have any truth to them, attributing population trends to ‘climate change’ is highly premature.  

Back to the articles. We’d spent many hours this weekend trying to work out how the National Trust and PTES had conducted their research. How big were the population studies? What areas and how many species did they focus on? How had they projected from this study to make a statement about the country more generally, and attributed it to climate change?  

This was a waste of time. We rang the National Trust on Monday afternoon, to ask them how they had carried out their ‘audit’. They told us that it was compiled from anecdotal (yes, that was their word) data, from staff at their various sites. There were no population studies. We rang the PTES to see if there was any more substance to their report, but they are still on their holidays.  

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 18 months, it’s that stories about climate change may be wild and preposterous just as long as they encourage the idea that climate change is getting worse. You can pluck something out of thin air, and no one will call you a denier, nor challenge your sanity, motivation, or moral character. Lies are allowed, just as long as they are ‘good’ lies, and help people to believe that the world is on the brink of collapse, even if the facts don’t support the idea. 

But we’ll be charitable here, because we can’t know what happened between the National Trust and the journalists at the Guardian/Observer. What we can say is that their journalists aren’t being very critical about the ‘research’ they are reporting. The headlines of articles in the Guardian are not based on robust research, but on anecdotal data compiled by an organisation which has made clear its intentions to turn itself into a pressure group.  

In July last year, we reported on how the The National Trust, was reinventing itself as a campaigning organisation. The organisation, which owns 1.5% of England, Wales and N. Ireland, and has an income in excess of £1billion ($1.5billion) wasn’t just going to tell us how we used to live by preserving sites of national heritage, it would now tell people how they should live,     

From now on, said director-general Fiona Reynolds, the trust will advise people how to adapt their lifestyles to climate change and challenge government to be more ecologically aware. “If we think that public policy is not right, then we will say so.”

When we spoke to the National Trust about their ‘audit’, we were expecting to be pointed to a long dry, boring document of facts and figures. But no such research existed”It’s on our website” they said, and it was fairly similar to the one printed in the Guardian. It seems that there’s a reluctance to challenge statements issued by organisations such as the National Trust, and an inclination to turn them into dramatic headlines. 

This isn’t really a story about ‘bad science’, or bad journalism. Though it is worth asking what the point of journalists actually is if they can’t reflect critically on whatever it is they are reporting, to ask about the direction it will take us in, and what interests and agendas that are being served by the use of this kind of ‘research’. What is really curious about this all too common phenomenon is the gap between ‘research’ and the story lines it is used to construct.
We’ve called this process ‘Chinese whispers’ in the past: weak and rather inconsequential ‘research’ is stripped of caveats and caution removing it of any scientific meaning it had. The headlines of research are thereby amplified in the media, and the idea that the end of the world is approaching is assumed to have some authority: it came from scientists, rather than the short-sightedness of journalists. What is ‘abused’ in all of this is not ‘science’, but the trust that the public has in institutions. All the more an irony, then, that the ‘National Trust’, which is assuming to tell us how to live, should be at the centre of this story.
These whispers circulate, and the claim ‘climate change is happening’ can be used without any respect for proportion. Yes, clearly climate has changed. But it always has, and animals survived. There is little that is unusual about the change we can see in terms of magnitude, or direction, or its significance to wildlife. Yet because the maxim that ‘climate change is happening’ has such gravity, any context that the change exists within is forgotten, or ignored. This is true of virtually all of the stories we have covered over the last twenty months. Climate trends -which probably do have some scientific credibility – are observed, and reported, but then are attached to alarming stories that amount to little more than science fiction. They spell the end of the world in one shape or another, but they are all founded on mythology.  

At the heart of all this is the idea – the myth – that there exist narrow ‘optimal’ conditions for animal and human life, sudden changes to which will preclude any form of biological or societal adaptation. Of course we can see that mass extinctions followed traumatic events in Earth’s history. But what we’re seeing in the ‘extremely’ mild climate of rural Oxfordshire, the Cotsworlds, or the Thames Valley is not equivalent to meteors striking the planet’s surface, or super massive volcanoes filling the atmosphere with toxic ash, but changes in trends of less than one standard deviation. In this nervous state, anything north or south of mild becomes ‘extreme’. Anthropogenic climate change is assumed to be responsible for anything that it could by any stretch of the imagination be vaguely plausibly responsible for. Combined with the maxims that ‘climate change is happening’ and that it ‘will continue to happen’, the assumption allows any negative trend to be projected ad infinitum. So a species whose numbers have diminished are assumed to be on an inevitable path to imminent extinction, because climate change mythology (not science) makes it true. Trends are given so much significance that one could imagine that some kind of Copernican revolution had happened, identifying and determining the trajectory of all trends around the centre of a carbon universe. But this revolution is not the result of any observation of the real world, and the relationship between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the plight of dormice in the Thames Valley remains poorly understood, and very ill defined.  

And why would dormice – who’ve been around for a hell of a long time – be so vulnerable that 3 wet summers threatens them with extinction? Why wouldn’t populations of wild animals fluctuate considerably? Why should we assume that a healthy population maintains similar numbers year-to-year? More importantly, why should any of this assume such political and moral significance that conservationists feel that they can appoint themselves as some kind of authority on what our priorities ought to be, without being challenged?  

Climate Resistance wishes all our readers a happy and prosperous New Year, in spite of the doom-sayers’ attempts to render it as miserable as a Thames Valley Summer. 


  1. Ken Lloyd

    An excellent, well researched article. As usual, the reality has no relationship with the climate change hype.

    It seems that many people, especially in countries that are materially well-off, just can’t resist a good disaster scenario. I believe this condition is called “catastrophism” – we just love it! Add to this the incredible vanity that we can actually change the climate of the whole planet, and science doesn’t stand a chance – we’ve been given an irresistable Quest, which has now become a quasi religion. Heretics will be burned at the stake.

  2. Rich

    Ken Lloyd said, “Heretics will be burned at the stake.” Ken, you silly man, of course they won’t! All that CO2? Don’t be daft. They’ll be electrocuted with electricity produced from sustainable non-polluting sources.

    That should probably be, “We’ll be electrocuted…”

    They’re just a gang of fleas arguing about where the dog should go next.

  3. Alex Cull

    Very good post; I’m actually a member of the NT, and it’s annoying to see them among the ranks of organisations (like WWF, Oxfam, RSPB, BBC, etc.) that had a perfectly reasonable remit in the past but have now been recruited into the War on Carbon Dioxide.

    When people like Matthew Oates tell us that “climate change” is “happening now”, I always want to turn the question around and ask: what would the weather be like if “climate change” was “not happening”? How would we know it was “not happening”? What would the signs be?

    As a thought experiment, imagine that by a miracle, carbon dioxide levels were restored to 280 parts per million at midnight tonight, and remained at that level for the next hundred years. What weather patterns would we expect to experience in the UK?

    Would we experience a sort of “Goldilocks Climatic Optimum” – not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, etc.? Would animal and plant populations become fixed in place, neither advancing northwards, nor shrinking southwards, neither expanding nor dwindling?

    I’m no scientist, but I think that would be a fantasy. Looking back to historical times when CO2 was at pre-industrial levels, there appears to have been no shortage of extreme weather. The “Great Storm” of 1703 and the gales that dispersed the Spanish Armada are evidence that occasional disastrous storminess has always been with us.

    Looking at just the 18th century, we can read about a number of extreme and alarming weather events. The snow and rains of 1774, when the Thames Valley was flooded and when the bridge at Henley was swept away by flood water. The record European heat wave of 1757, when Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine reported “Very great heat in July”. The extremely cold winter of 1739/40, when there was a devastating famine in Ireland. If National Trust conservationists had been alive then, how dismayed and alarmed might they have been! In addition, the widespread destruction of forests to build ships for overseas trade and foreign wars, and species coming under threat – such as wolves (last one reported to be exterminated in Scotland, 1743), wildcats, ospreys, pine martens and capricorn beetles – might well have convinced them that an eco-catastrophe was under way and the end of Nature was surely nigh.

    What I find highly ironic is that, then as now, human beings were said to be ultimately to blame for weather excesses. After the storm of 1703, many believed that the disaster had been sent by God to punish the corruption of the English; Queen Anne proclaimed a national day of fasting, to pay respect to those who had died and to pray to God so that He would not send another storm. Extreme weather has been God’s response to human sinfulness, apparently, ever since the Ark. And the remedy? Lifestyle changes – an increase in piety and a reduction of sin, so that God’s wrath might be averted. Sounds strangely familiar.

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – in human nature, as well as the climate.

    A very Happy New Year to the Editors and to all those who make Climate Resistance such an interesting and worthwhile place to visit!

  4. Stefan

    “Goldilocks Climatic Optimum”

    I like that. :-) Maybe it is about that ecofeminist idea that brutal man rapes nature.

    From the Wikipedia page,

    “While feminism is a primary entry point, women and men also come to ecofeminism through environmentalism, alternative spirituality, animal rights, and other progressive affiliations. The kaleidoscopic lens of ecofeminism includes a prepatriarchal historical analysis, an embracement of spirituality, and a commitment to challenging racism, classism, imperialism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, anthropocentrism (i.e. human supremacism), speciesism and other forms of oppression.”

    See, if you deny climate change, we all know you’re a white supremacist … phallologocentrist!!!

    I jest but this is a serious school of thought. The problem is that it is also a highly polarizing philosophy, and apparently, its seeds have spread through our culture. It is so polarizing that we risk economic suicide as the people turn on themselves.

    I would like to see a TV series on Nature’s most brutal practices. Nature certainly is abundant, and beautiful, and we can project onto it our feelings of purity, harmony, and virgin innocence. But nature is also chaotic, brutal, horrific. Ecofeminism blames men for the brutal parts. Ecofeminism blames man for the chaotic parts, the “climate chaos”.

    It is great to be able to come to this site and read a careful and reasoned analysis demonstrating the errors in the latest greenie institution claims. But I fear that unless we get down into the heart of their feelings and worldview, they can simply dismiss us as men who just don’t get it.

    We’re like the slave owners who claim we can’t set the slaves free because it would ruin the economy.

  5. Luke Warmer

    I read the same piece (just a few pages before Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science summary of the year, rather ironically).

    I too was dumbstruck by the lack of numerical comparison with any previous 3-year period for rainfall, so congratulations on your analysis.

    Secondly, this delusion of stability is essentially a “Fall” myth which leads to the strange notion of optimum populations.

    Although I’m not endorsing any cycle theories per se, there’s a fascinating pdf on the web from the Foundation for the study of cycles from 1977. (“Cycles: the mysterious forces that trigger events”).
    They found a 9.6 year cycle in the population of many living species including salmon, lynx, snowshoe hare, coyote, marten, chinch bug etc and basic population geography used to show the graphs of rabbits v. foxes.

    Whatever lenght of the cycle, 3 years of (what you subsequently describe as anecdotal) evidence cannot really show a trend.

    Sadly, as you point out in your, as ever, insightful analysis the National Trust has become yet another campaigner without regard for accuracy or any true ethical considerations. And their PR led approach plays into the hands of the churnalism of “Flat Earth News”.

    Keep up the good work in 2009. We’re going to need you in the run up to Copenhagen.

  6. Eric Anderson

    Excellent sleuthing and great post! Thanks for all the hard work.


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