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Understanding Natural Heritage

Understanding Natural Heritage

Written by Common Ground Leader, Gaby Copeman

Recently, a small piece of common track became private. The change was possible under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. It’s not a particularly large or significant piece of land, but it has taken a strong place in my mind since I was stopped at the grassy banks of its entrance, by a sign that stated I no longer had a right to traverse the first few metres of dusty track winding away into the hedges in front of me.

I wondered why I had such a strong reaction to the loss of this place, probably for a few reasons, but I felt connected to this path. It’s a place that features in memories of family strolls and juddering bike rides and blackberry picking. It’s a place that me and mine had walked for years and generations before too; it was for everyone and now someone had claimed it exclusively. It made me think about how integral some of these outdoor spaces felt to my heritage.

What is Natural Heritage?

I had already been thinking about the phrase ‘natural heritage’ after joining Common Ground and seeing some of the ways that working in heritage overlaps with nature conservation. But, the more I tried to figure it out, the squishier the idea seemed to become.

There are 257 Natural World Heritage sites as designated by UNESCO. Their definition frames it as:

‘Natural features, geological and physiographical formations and delineated areas that constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants and natural sites of value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.’

UNESCO

Even that is pretty broad, but you can go further. Clearly some sites are more significant to a wider range of people and species and so named as natural heritage by bodies like UNESCO. It seems a lot of the focus of natural heritage is on conservation of the natural world we have inherited, and what the next generation will inherit, so it’s possible to view it more broadly, even to see it as the whole functioning of nature on earth.

So, it’s kind of everything. Yet, natural heritage can be much more individual at the same time. One person might value natural spaces that wouldn’t reach world heritage status but are significant to them. For example, someone that grew up walking the same common tracks as generations before them may feel that path is part of their personal heritage.

Given how broad and flexible the idea is, here are some examples in East Anglia of places that you could see as natural heritage.

Holme Dunes

Curving across a section of the north Norfolk coast, Holme Dunes is a conservation area, managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The dunes create a home for migrating birds, natterjack toads and much more, acting as an important area for species, biodiversity and habitat conservation.

Roydon Common

Designated a ‘Living Landscape’, another site managed by NWT is Roydon Common. If you visit in late summer, swathes of purple heather cover the ground in a vibrant haze. As well as conserving species and habitats, the name Common hints at a historical shared space and points to questions about who has access to sites of natural heritage.

Whilst you are able to visit this common, most land in England is owned and ruled by laws of trespass or has conditions for entry. What does this mean for access to natural heritage and our relationship with it?

Carlton Marshes

Carlton Marshes is an example of carefully managed natural heritage. At this nature reserve, the ‘habitats developed over hundreds of years of traditional management’, including pools from old peat digging pits. The site was ‘rewilded’ including the successful reintroduction of the rare fen raft spider.

This example helps show how natural heritage can have a lot of human intervention, to create or maintain different environments and shows how central conservation is to natural heritage, especially as it becomes increasingly threatened.

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

I also wanted to mention the farm at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, because I spent a lot of time there as I was thinking about this blog. The farm uses traditional farming methods, including using the beautiful Suffolk Punch horses to work the land. It made me wonder whether that too is a kind of natural heritage, as at Carlton, the way that people interact with the land creates the natural landscape there. In this way, the farm preserves a natural heritage that includes the land management methods and interactions with nature that are a part of the heritage of local communities.

Importantly, it is also using this knowledge and these practices to contribute to the Wendling Beck Exemplar Project. This is a large project of ‘habitat creation, nature restoration and regenerative farming’ in the area. I think this shows the evolving character of natural heritage. In this one place, it is both man-made, naturally occurring, historical and future-facing; it can be both the preservation of past landscapes and practices of managing and interacting with nature as well as adapting natural landscapes for the future.


These are just some examples that can help illustrate the very loose idea of natural heritage. Hopefully this has helped to show a little bit about what natural heritage is and how important it is to continue protecting and preserving.

When was the last time you visited somewhere you think of as natural heritage? Perhaps there’s a nature reserve near you or somewhere smaller and more personal? Either way, make sure to make the most of your natural heritage, however small. If you’re not sure where you could go, you can visit places like Fields in Trust to find green spaces near you.

Illustration credits: Gaby Copeman

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