In the foreground is the pitched roofs of local houses, whilst in the background is Totnes Castle on a small hill, an example of a Norman motte and bailey castle. Rolling hills and woodlands can be seen in the background. Photo is taken in late spring or early summer.
View across the town to Totnes Castle in Devon © Historic England K981474
View across the town to Totnes Castle in Devon © Historic England K981474

Heritage and the Environment

This new addition to Heritage Counts, completes the trio of reports which highlight the value of heritage. Heritage and the Environment explores the key aspects affecting England’s natural and built environments and the relationships that exist between them. From the ever changing uses of land, to the local materials contained within traditional buildings, the knowledge of England’s heritage and how it can be used will be invaluable for future generations.

The evidence presented in this document includes recent research findings as well as past seminal pieces, thus forming part of the heritage sector’s rich, multidimensional knowledge base. The evidence is presented as succinct facts with links to the detailed evidence sources for more technical readers, or those with more specific evidence needs.

This report was written before and during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Where possible we have added additionally evidence of how the crisis has affected the environment. For example, during the lockdown air pollution and carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions decreased by up to 40%. In April 2020, the daily global emissions of carbon dioxide decreased by 17% (17 million tonnes) to levels last observed in 2006. The UK's emission of nitrous oxides (NOx) and nitrogen dioxides (N₂O) – which are key air pollutants – fell by 30–40% and 20–30%, respectively, during lockdown.

Key findings include:

  • Human activity has shaped the landscape, forming the foundations of regional and local identity and helping to reflect the diversity that exists in shared culture and natural heritage. For instance, of the scheduled monuments designated in England, there are currently about 3,700 within or partially within Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), about 200 within or partially within National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and about 4,600 within or partially within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).
  • The historic environment exists within our towns and cities: as a region, London has the largest concentration of parks, public gardens and playing fields in England, with an estimated average of seven within a one-kilometre radius.
  • Historical management and human interaction with our ecosystems directly influences their current complexity and regional variation. For instance, coastal saltmarshes have decreased in size since medieval times; they are an important habitat for a diverse number of birds and invertebrates while they also offer natural protection against waves and storm surges.
  • Our distinctive English landscapes are at a very real risk of being lost. Coastal grazing marshes are a major heritage asset, contributing to the special landscape character of many parts of the English coast. They are sensitive to changes in rainfall patterns and extreme drought and flooding events, in addition to being at risk from sea level rise. The restoration of coastal salt marsh and grazing marshes is a cost effective defence method that acts as a carbon sink – an additional 300,000 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂ₑ) could be captured annually by 2050.