First News partners with the National Trust: Check out our interview with Director General Hilary McGrady

By arayerevanian 8th March 2024

Exploring Nature

First News has teamed up with the National Trust (NT) to launch an exciting new partnership all about helping nature! To kick things off, we asked six pupils from Meath Green Junior School to quiz NT Director-General Hilary McGrady about what the organisation does, how it’s protecting nature and why it’s so important that we take care of our green spaces. Check out the full interview below!

Hi Hilary. So, can you tell us about any exciting projects
that the NT is currently running to help nature?

Hilary: Yes, there are so many! Lots of rivers across the country have been made straight by farmers and various people. That makes the water flow really fast in one direction, which isn’t good for nature or wildlife. So we’ve been trying to break that up and allow the rivers to follow their own course – we call it rewiggling the rivers. All over the country you’ve got these rivers being rewiggled and that allows some of the water to slow down and stops some of the flooding we’ve been seeing. It allows nature back in and habitats to build up again, and it allows us to reintroduce species like beavers who can make them their homes. Those kind of projects are really important to me.

Are there any others?

In Manchester, there’s hardly any green space. There’s a place called Castlefield Viaduct that was a railway bridge but you couldn’t get on it – it wasn’t open to the public and had been disused for nearly 50 years. We convinced some people that we work with to open it up and make it into a garden. So all the people living in that area who had no access to green space can now have this garden, and it’s amazing. It’s like a garden in the sky! Sudbury is another project I love. It’s a house that we’ve made into a country house for children. The whole place has been adapted so that children will really enjoy it.

How does the NT help wildlife specifically?

Hilary: We’ve introduced beavers at three different places across the country. Where we’ve reintroduced them has been very successful – the ones in the southwest have even had little baby kits. One of them is called Rashford, like the footballer! On the coast, we do lots of work. We look after about 780 miles of coastline around the UK, and in certain places we look after specific species, mainly birds. In Norfolk, we’ve been doing a project for nearly 20 years to try to increase the number of seals. When we started working there, there was maybe around 25 young seal pups and now there are 4,500. It really shows when you give nature space to thrive, it will. We also encourage our gardeners not to use pesticides and we make sure there are areas where the grass is allowed to grow long so that the butterflies and the bees can pollinate.

Did you know?

Last year, the National Trust spent a whopping £168 million looking after its properties and gardens.

Have you seen many effects of climate change?

Hilary: Almost every day you see something that’s happening because of climate change. I’m sure you’ve seen all the flooding that’s going on. Now you can’t say that’s all to do with climate change, but what we do know is that because of a change of temperature our seasons are definitely getting wetter. In particular in winter we’re getting more flooding. In summer, it’s getting hotter and the more extreme temperatures are not good for our gardens. We’re having to think about what plants will survive in the heat and we’re starting to have to think about changing them to adapt. Climate change is having an impact on our buildings too, so it’s harder to stop them from leaking or the wood from cracking in the heat. Indoors, all the little bugs that like to eat things like fabric and wood, in these different temperatures some of them are thriving, so we’re constantly having to watch them.

What can young people do to look after nature?

Hilary: I want you all to look after nature wherever you are! It doesn’t matter if you have a window box or a garden or live close to a park, you can do something to help nature. You can feed birds, as their habitats aren’t as plentiful. You can leave out little fat balls or peanuts, or make sure you buy some good seed (some seed can actually make birds ill, so look out). If you can have a tiny pond or a basin of water in your garden, then that attracts birds and gives them a bit of space to have a drink of water. If you think you might have hedgehogs, you can make tiny holes in your fence so that they can get through and move about, or you can make a hedgehog house so they’ve got somewhere to stay. Just always think about what you could do that might help nature. I’ve got two bird boxes at home; it’s lovely seeing all the birds come to them. Bug hotels are brilliant too, and they’re really easy to make!

Why is the outdoors so good for mental health?

Hilary: People need some space and time and fresh air. That’s exactly what the lady who started the NT believed. She lived in the Victorian times when all the cities were being built. She was worried people were living in not very nice houses in the middle of town, with no access to green spaces and very little free time. She was very worried about their health. The air was very smoky at the time and they’d often get sick, so she said everyone should have access to fresh air and green space and beauty. She thought it was really important that all people should have access to beauty. She was right and we still believe that now, that everyone should enjoy space and time and nature. Our work with universities has even proven those things are good for mental health. I think everyone had an awful time during Covid, particularly young people spending lots of time indoors on their phones or computers, so we’re very passionate about getting people enjoying the outdoors and learning about nature.

Why should we look after NT properties?

Hilary: Well, the National Trust is 129 years old this year! It’s been around for a very long time, and the people who set up the organisation all those years ago, they believed it was important to look after places so that future generations would be able to enjoy them. That means I can enjoy them and you can enjoy them and your children will be able to enjoy them. We’re not just talking about National Trust places either, but anywhere that is green and important to nature or important to people. When the National Trust says we are going to look after a place, we promise we’re going to look after it forever. That’s why we have to keep them in good condition, because trying to look after something forever when everything wants to get it to decline, whether it’s the weather or the bugs that want to eat the wood, it’s really hard to keep things forever.

Jacob: It’s like a promise that is unbreakable!

Hilary: That’s exactly right! I love that!

And finally… why is it important that children learn about nature and history in general?

Hilary: David Attenborough said that if we really want to get people to look after these places, you need to get people to understand why. When they understand why, they’ll start to care and they’ll want to look after them. It’s so important just to get people to be interested in the history behind properties; how do they get to be here, who lived in them, what was life like? Nature in particular needs people to look after it because nature needs our help to survive.

Who is Hilary McGrady?

Hilary is the Director-General of the National Trust (NT), which means she gets to visit all of the different properties, meet with important people and chat to charities and organisations all about the work the NT does.

Hilary will have been working at the NT for 20 years next year! She’s had lots of different jobs within the organisation but started off looking after the Northern Ireland region, where she’s from.

Hilary is married with three children.

She says she’s loved nature and the arts since she was a young girl and loves her job looking after them now!

Did you know?

Hilary loves visiting the National Trust’s cafés for the scones with clotted cream. She puts the jam on first and then the cream! How about you?

Don’t miss our amazing Nature Around Me photography competition, coming soon! The prizes are unbe-leaf-able

To read more helpful articles like this visit the Talking Points section of our website or sign up for First News at home and at school!

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