National Trust defends "clearing" woodland floor

The National Trust's new advertising campaign has been accused of being "the last thing we need" to show people how to look after woodland habitats.

National Trust TV advert
National Trust TV advert

The 30 second TV advert, launched this month as the first step in a long-term brand marketing strategy, portrays several scenes of National Trust staff at work, including one of staff tidying leaves in a beech woodland and putting sticks from the woodland floor into wheelbarrows.

Buglife fundraising and communications director Paul Hetherington said: "Clearing leaves does not seem to be doing a great deal for biodiversity. And also in the background is a wheel barrow full of deadwood from the woodland floor. Quite ironic that there follows a focus on the Stag beetle, an endangered species dependent on dead wood for its lifecycle. It is possible that materials are being gathered to make a large deadwood pile and leaf mound elsewhere in the wood, which could benefit biodiversity, but without explanation this is not a well chosen activity as the last thing we need is for people to get the idea that it is good to clear up the woodland floor."  

Leading environmentalist and How to Make a Wildlife Garden author Chris Baines said: "The image of raking leaves in woodland is a very strange one to choose. The National Trust is one of the best organisations when it comes to managing broad leaved woodland, so I am at a loss to know why they would be doing this.

"Decay is a key part of the woodland ecosystem.  Fallen leaves and wood are far better left in situ and allowed to decompose.  The fungi and invertebrates that process the leaf litter form a vital vase for the woodland food web, with many creatures, including song birds, hedgehogs, shrews and toads depending on them."

Tree Council director general Pauline Buchanan-Black said: "It's clear to me, looking at the advert, that it's probably been story-boarded by people who are aiming to make an impression rather than accurately represent a work detail. For example, volunteers would be unlikely to be asked to rake up leaves from a woodland floor where there were no problems arising from leaf debris.

"The National Trust wants to convey the range of tasks done by volunteers and staff in a variety of locations, which they believe is important for public understanding of how natural heritage is managed and conserved. What appears in adverts is not always the same as real life. We hope that the audience will appreciate that and not be left with an impression that is misleading. In the end, this is a brand communication made by marketing people, not a manifesto for action."

The advert was part of a campaign estimated to cost a seven-figure sum created by advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising and directed by Tell No One through Good Egg. The primetime advert, called ‘Behind the Scenes’, shows what goes "day-to-day" to care for National Trust places.

The locations were chosen to reflect the wide variety of places in the Trust’s care – from coastline to historical properties, gardens to landscapes, woodland to farmland. Real staff and volunteers are amongst those featured and the voiceover is provided by National Trust gardener Alan Power, who leads a team of staff and volunteers caring for 2,650 acres of grounds at Stourhead in Wiltshire.

A National Trust spokesperson said: "Our advertising campaign showcases the fantastic work our rangers and gardeners do to look after our special places. The advertisement was intended to be a general depiction of the work that our staff and volunteers do throughout the year. It included rangers raking leaves, a job occasionally undertaken in wooded areas to clear paths and create play areas.

"The advertisement was filmed at Toys Hill, Kent, in July. Rangers and film crew carefully considered the impact of the filming on wildlife, such as hedgehogs, and natural habitats.

"Over the coming year the kinds of conservation work depicted in the advertisement will change, showing viewers the breadth of work our rangers, gardeners and volunteers do to look after special places." 

Toys Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which requires permission from Natural England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Section 28 (4)(b) substituted by Schedule 9 to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for "destruction, displacement, removal or cutting of any plant or plant remains, including tree, shrub, herb, hedge, dead or decaying wood, moss, lichen, fungus, leaf-mould and turf".

The National Trust website says: "Toadstools thrive in the damp woodland undergrowth at Toys Hill in autumn."

Forestry Commission advice states: "If you really can’t resist the urge to tidy up, remember that it’s better to stack dead wood into neat piles and leave it in the woodland than to remove it altogether. Remember, you may want to keep your garden ‘spick and span’ but natural processes are worth encouraging in your wood. Intensive care of a wood is not necessary and may be harmful."

Baines added: "Raking up leaves in gardens is wholly acceptable, so long as the leaves are then used to create hibernation heaps in quiet corners, or to mulch planted areas."

Mark Scott, marketing agency director at The National Trust, said: "We know the more someone is aware of the National Trust’s cause and how their support helps, the deeper the connection they have with us. This is central to our new long-term brand strategy and our new campaign starts us on that journey, by showing what we do, why it matters and how, thanks to our supporters, it can happen."

During the next 12 months, Mischief PR, Mindshare, Headstream and the National Trust’s marketing agency and in-house teams will build on the launch with paid, shared, earned and owned content.

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