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Dossier: The failure of Britain’s national parks

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in UK
Dossier: The failure of Britain’s national parks
12 Mar
2020
According to the World Conservation Union, Britain’s national parks ‘only just’ meet the nature conservation standards for international recognition. With tourist numbers far outpacing levels of wildlife, are we managing these vital green spaces in such a way that they can serve the needs of both people and nature at the same time?

Britain’s national parks were born in a heady, post-war atmosphere, offering physical and spiritual refreshment for a country that had endured six long years of conflict. Our most precious landscapes were finally to be protected not just for nature, but for people to explore and enjoy.

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Yet, more than 70 years on, the health and future of the UK’s 15 national parks is now uncertain. An independent review of England’s national parks last autumn reinforced this concern. The report, Landscapes Review by Julian Glover, offered a damning critique of both the health of national parks and their management and called on England’s national parks to be made ‘greener, more beautiful and open to everyone’ and to ‘reignite the founding spirit in which they were created’. Glover, a journalist and former special adviser and speechwriter in the Cameron government, was seen as having the suitable analytical skills and the ability to co-ordinate a wide range of experts and differing views.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and a trend towards increased urban living all meant fresh ideas were needed to give England’s protected landscapes new purpose, wrote Glover. Furthermore, the report found that national parks, despite being ‘open and free for all’, could actually seem exclusive: ‘A lot more must be done to meet the needs of our many fellow citizens who do not know the countryside, or do not always feel welcome in it,’ said Glover. Above all, he called for national parks to be reconnected with the people who live and farm there with more affordable housing needed to create viable communities in villages that had seen schools, shops and pubs close down and property gobbled up by second-home owners.

The report contained some positive elements: the principle of national parks was robust enough to justify new national parks in the Chilterns, the Cotswolds and Dorset, along with the creation of a national forest in Nottinghamshire. An eye-catching proposal called for 1,000 park rangers, echoing the approach of the United States national parks. Every schoolchild in England, said Glover, should ‘get the opportunity to spend a night under the stars in an idyllic landscape.’

shutterstock 136765844Visitors clamber on rocks at Dartmoor National Park, Devon

VISITING RIGHTS

If wildlife should thrive anywhere, it should be in Britain’s national parks. Yet nearly 75 per cent of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England’s national parks are in an ‘unfavourable’ condition (the total UK figure is little better, at 61 per cent). We have lost all our large carnivores and most of our large herbivores. While the global average forest cover is 31 per cent, and the European average is 37 per cent, in the UK it is just 12 per cent.

Unlike parks in the United States, none of Britain’s national parks are truly wild. More than 90 per cent of the Peak District is farmland, while the drystone walls, fields and hedgerows of the Lake District that inspired Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter have combined to create a landscape that may be picturesque but is far from natural. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) places the UK’s national parks in category V (the second lowest out of six) and defines them as ‘a protected area managed mainly for landscape/seascape protection and recreation’. In contrast, the IUCN considers its Category II rating – Yellowstone in the US, or Hohe Tauern in Austria – as being the international standard for national parks.

At the heart of Glover’s report lies what, to many observers, seems a contradictory demand: that the UK’s national parks become richer in wildlife and simultaneously more enterprising and encourage more visitors. ‘If these places are to be saved, we need to reconnect more people,’ says Glover. Yet the national parks are already heavily visited. The Peak District is home to just 38,000 people but sees more than 13m visits a year, with 20m people living within one hour’s car journey. Just over 41,000 people live in the Lake District but more than 19m people visit it each year. The South Downs is the most populated park, with 120,000 people calling it home, and receives around 16m visitors every year.  Since its inception as a National Park in 2005, the New Forest has seen 14 per cent more visits; there were 13.9m trips to the New Forest National Park in 2017, with a projection that this will rise above 16.5m within 20 years. Even where national parks are well served by trains, the vast majority of visitors come by car – in the New Forest that figure is 96 per cent.

The challenges are recognised by those who promote the parks. ‘We just don’t have massive areas of wilderness,’ acknowledges Andrew Hall, campaigns officer at the Campaign for National Parks, ‘but we do have beautiful landscapes framed by man over centuries. That means the mission of our parks is less straightforward than if there were no people living in them. Enhancing our parks is inherently difficult, we will never please all the people all the time.’ Hall denies that visitor numbers are too high. ‘Visitors are a small part of the pie – intensification of farming, land management, climate change, these are having a bigger impact.’

Hall believes a balance between visitors and wildlife can be struck. ‘They are not mutually exclusive,’ he says. ‘We have to address concerns of there being too many visitors, but we also have to encourage people into the parks. There won’t be any wild areas to protect if people don’t experience national parks and, as a result, want to protect them.’

BAME VISITORS

One element of the call for greater access to national parks is unquestioned and reflects poorly on those that govern them. Barely one per cent of visitors to national parks are of BAME backgrounds and the Glover report called for action to help people from all walks of life experience the parks’ ‘inspirational beauty’ and condemned national park boards (the policy-making bodies) as ‘deeply unrepresentative’ of England’s diverse communities. Of the 1 ,000 people on the boards of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the great majority are male, many are of retirement age and only a tiny fraction are of black, Asian or minority ethnicities. ‘This is wrong for organisations which are funded by the nation to serve everyone,’ the report notes.

‘We’ve lost the “national” from national parks,’ admits Hall. ‘They’ve become a little too local. It should be like the NHS, there for everyone.’

The CNP says the need to attract new audiences is crucial and it points to the success of its MOSAIC scheme to attract people from ethnic minorities. This identified influential leaders within BAME communities who promoted the parks.

However, funding for MOSAIC was cut in 2016. ‘There are cultural barriers, often people tell us they did not know national parks existed, or how to get to them, or that the parks were for them as much as anyone,’ says Hall. 

National park boards have been criticised for other measures that have made it difficult for incomers to rent or buy property in them. These include rigorous planning laws that have made it hard to convert derelict farm buildings on the grounds that the ruins add to the landscape. On this point, however, Hall has some sympathy. ‘The first purpose of national parks is to preserve the landscapes, so it seems quite fair that they exercise their powers in this way.’ Most national parks now have rules in place designed to restrict the spread of second home ownership, including requirements to live or work in a national park before buying property.

WILD AT HEART

Support for making national parks better for both people and wildlife also comes from advocates for rewilding. ‘We believe people are part of the natural world – separating us will create a false barrier,’ says Rebecca Wrigley, chief executive of Rewilding Britain. ‘People have been influencing the land for millennia, it’s only in the past couple of centuries that we have taken more than our fair share of our ecological niche. Encouraging more people and improving wildlife are not incompatible.’

Others fear that the push for more access has been detrimental to the landscapes that those same visitors flock to see. In February, hundreds of people protest in the Lake District against proposals to allow holiday house boats on lakes, introduce a zip-wire and continue to allow off-road driving. ‘To be an effective national park you need to focus more on nature recovery than on recreation,’ says Debbie Tann, chief executive of the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. ‘National parks need to lead the way in the restoration of nature. Nature is crashing. We have insect declines. We’re over-using pesticides, draining peatlands, undermining biodiversity, all this is happening in national parks. Surely wildlife in a national park must do better than it does outside the parks? What’s the point of a national park if it is not better for nature than anywhere else?’

Yet Tann is sceptical that the health of national parks can improve unless wildlife is prioritised. She points to the New Forest, the smallest national park but one that is surrounded by large population centres. ‘From a recreational point of view the national park is great but its biodiversity is in decline,’ she says. Ground-nesting birds, such as nightjar and woodlark, are disturbed by dogs, while soil erosion and compaction is being reported both on road verges and along the busier footpaths.

The New Forest is under pressure, says Tann, because housing developments have failed to take into account the need for more open spaces for their new inhabitants. ‘Without bigger spaces, people naturally turn to the national park. The expectation was that the park can just absorb this pressure, and so it gets busier and busier. The forest is being nibbled away at the edges. The forest soils are fragile, they are rare in Europe, and not robust enough to deal with large footfall.’

shutterstock 562350370More than 19 million people visit the Lake District each year

FARMING OPINION

Farming – self-evidently – is at the heart of both the landscapes of the national park and their communities and Hall believes how crops are grown and livestock reared is under greater scrutiny than ever. ‘There were things that the pioneers [of national parks] couldn’t have foreseen,’ he says. ‘In the 1950s, agriculture was seen as a benign thing, contributing to the character of the land. But since then there has been widespread intensification of farming and that has driven the degradation of these landscapes.’

Farmers listen to such views, and to their many critics, and express exasperation. The Glover report called for the creation of viable communities, which would, one assumes, have farming at their heart. Yet farmers often feel demonised. ‘People outside of farming form an opinion from social media, or what might have happened in the past when government was paying farmers to produce more,’ says Caroline Harriott, who farms a mixture of arable and livestock at Lychpole Farm in the South Downs. ‘It’s difficult for us to change that perspective. We want people to come and see the true story. We want to put the record straight. Farmers recognise the importance of wildlife and hedgerows.’

Harriott, who is the local chair of the National Farmers’ Union, has established a network of farms, that seek to grow crops and rear livestock in ways conducive to biodiversity. While she supports Glover’s call for more people to be able to enjoy the countryside, she cautions: ‘People want to walk all over our land – that’s fine. But they need to respect it and the communities that make up the countryside and give the same respect to the biodiversity of wildlife, insect and birds. Perhaps they need to look inwards at themselves. As well as questioning what farmers are doing for wildlife, they need to look at their own impacts on birds and livestock.’

‘The way debate is polarised is not helpful,’ admits Wrigley, ‘but it’s dysfunctional to have farming driven by a subsidy system designed years ago to prioritise plentiful and cheap food.’ Hard questions must be asked of farming, she says, particularly when some elements, such as upland sheep farming – a real fixture of most national parks – are only viable if supported by subsidies. In such circumstances livestock farming may be phased out and farmers paid instead to manage the land better for wildlife and for what Wrigley describes as ‘more nature-based experiences’ for visitors. ‘We need to scale up our thinking. It’s difficult to make changes of the scale that we need at an individual level – it puts huge pressure on farmers.’

PONDHEAD INCLOSURE, NEW FOREST

Enhancing wildlife while making their habitats more accessible to people is no easy task, but a small project in the New Forest has shown benefits for both humans and biodiversity. Pondhead Inclosure dates to the 11th century and was once the centre of a royal deer park. Traditionally it was managed as a hazel coppice, with the wood used to make charcoal. The inclosure is unusual, in that it is a crown freehold, which means that, unlike much of the New Forest, it is not subject to common rights. It is fenced off, which means that the New Forest’s 12,000 cattle and ponies have never been able to nibble its inviting shoots and branches.


Neglected for many years and with coppicing discontinued, the inclosure became overgrown. ‘People would never walk down these because it was dark and gloomy,’ says Derek Tippetts, who set up the Pondhead Conservation Trust to bring the coppice back to health. ‘Hazel coppices like this once covered a great deal of Hampshire,’ he says. ‘But most of it and its associated wildlife has been lost. I just fell in love with the coppice. Our prime objective has been to improve biodiversity and increase public enjoyment. We tell the public why we are there and we hold open days. With six full-time people and more than 200 signed up as volunteers, the inclosure has undergone a transformation, with almost all the hazel trees now coppiced.

The main benefit of coppicing in rotation – typically each tree is coppiced every ten years – is that a woodland with different aged vegetation attracts different species and becomes more biodiverse. Now, 32 species of breeding bird have been recorded and wildlife is returning: firecrests, goldcrests are being seen for the first time, and nightjars have nested in the cleared areas. The pearl bordered fritillary has been coaxed back.

In addition, Tippetts and his colleagues turned to the 1869 Ordnance Survey map of the forest to see where the rides (tracks) were within the inclosure and cleared these to allow access for walkers. The light allows bluebells to come through. Charcoal is now produced from the hazel and sold locally for barbecues. This is more sustainable than most charcoal sold in the UK, Tippetts points out, much of which is imported from Namibia.

‘The reasons most woodlands become neglected and lacking in biodiversity value are generally down to lack of knowledge by the landowner plus the high labour cost of restoration,’ says Tippetts. ‘A volunteer project can overcome these issues. If your woodland has public access, you also get to know the locals who use it for exercise and recreation.’

LOCAL VOICES

Disconnection is a huge problem, says Harriott. ‘People are cut off from the countryside from an early age, it’s a separation that manifests itself in adult life as the treatment of the countryside as a strange place, the ‘other’. Every town and village used to have a slaughterhouse, a butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Instead we now have out-of-town supermarkets.’

On this point at least, most are in agreement. Hall at the CNP talks of the need to improve people’s understanding of national parks ‘and how to behave in them’; and he sees merit in the proposed ranger scheme which will, he says, enable staff to visit cities and get people to love and respect national parks.

In the New Forest, Derek Tippetts, who works on a hazel coppice conservation project, believes education is key to the creation of a long-term healthy relationship between people and nature. ‘The New Forest is unique – it is steeped in history, you can lose yourself, even now I still find new things to wonder at,’ he says. ‘But it sees a lot of pressure, people tend to think of it as their right to use the forest as they see fit. The local economy is very tourism-based so you can’t do anything to affect that. The public pays for national parks so they should not be excluded from being there. There has got to be that interest in wild areas and woods for people to come. You need the young schoolchildren to come. Get people engaged and they will take pride in it.’

The John Muir Trust, which manages land around Glenridding and Helvellyn in the Lake District – one of the most popular walking areas in the whole of the UK – operates an award scheme that takes children and young adults from towns and cities and introduces them to the countryside. ‘We just need to give kids more and earlier access to wild spaces,’ says Tom Hayek, the trust’s England and Wales development manager. ‘It goes back to teaching people about landscapes. We have a nature deficit disorder. If people don’t appreciate where they are, then they won’t respect it. But if they do respect it, you have a win all round.’

shutterstock 638444743Yellowstone in the US is considered the 'gold standard' for national parks

Even in the busiest places it is possible to balance nature and people, says Hayek. Above Glenridding, the trust has restored paths so that walkers are less tempted to skirt around boggier bits (which leads to scarring of the land). They have also encouraged fell running races to avoid sensitive areas and climbers to avoid winter routes during periods of thaw when the crags and faces are more vulnerable. 

The co-operation of local people is also essential in order to improve wildlife in national parks, he feels. ‘Increasing access is not just for tourists, it’s important for people who live there,’ he says. ‘These are cultural landscapes. National parks are always going to be popular and populated. People are not going to stop coming.’ The Trust also works with commoners – local people who have legal rights, mostly to graze livestock, on land that has not been enclosed and has been communally owned since time immemorial – to persuade them to remove stock from the uplands during winter. ‘We manage juniper scrub in some craggy areas and this gives it a better chance of regenerating,’ says Hayek. Another link is the willingness of villagers around Glenridding to propagate cuttings of the wild plants that are being restored to Glenridding common as part of efforts to make the area a little bit wilder.

PUBLIC ACCESS

There will always be times when public access is detrimental to wildlife. This raises the notion – uncomfortable for some – of no-go areas, or sanctuaries, which may be seasonal or longer term. Tippetts says same harsh truths need to be faced, which may prove unpopular. ‘I’ve never seen a dog owner who says their dog is out of control but you see dogs running around in areas where birds are nesting. I see a minority of cyclists who just press on past signs that read “no access, conservation area”. I’m fully in favour of sanctuaries.’ These need not always be explicit, he suggests, but national parks can use signage or other policies to subtly nudge people elsewhere. In the New Forest, for instance, he suggests reducing the number of tented campsites within ancient woodlands.

Tann recalls how, during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, when access to the New Forest was severely limited, woodlarks were reported to be nesting in the empty gravel car parks. ‘We are certainly not saying “no” to more people,’ she says. ‘But we need to make conditions better for wildlife. It can be unpopular to say this sort of stuff. People have got used to going to certain places. The New Forest has 130 or so car parks. Why not close 30 of them during the breeding season and give birds a bit more of a chance?’

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The CNP believes there may be limited scope for this approach. ‘It’s not an idea we are inherently against,’ says Hall. ‘It may be that you get less access to some places at certain times of year. Some might be abandoned and left to go completely wild.’

Yet qualifying the concept of public access, the right of which was achieved – in England and Wales, at least – barely 20 years ago, leads conservationists on to sticky ground. ‘The question of closing access to some areas is tricky, particularly in the uplands where the Right to Roam gives pretty much open access,’ says Hayek. ‘It could be argued that if you have a greater number of more responsible users of a landscape, that is a more powerful [influence] than nobody being there at all. But we have a biodiversity crisis, so it’s a tricky one.’

Wrigley is also uneasy about people effectively being fenced off from the countryside but feels designated wild areas within national parks are still entirely possible. ‘Rewilding is not about kicking people off the land and introducing large predators,’ she says, ‘but it is about working with nature. There are many places where the footfall [in national parks] is relatively low. There’s a need for an integrated spatial policy – where does it make sense to have wild areas, where to have low-impact forestry, where you have the honeypots – so that you end up with a rich mosaic in the landscape.’

Returning to the theme of education, Hayek believes a greater understanding of the countryside can relieve some of the pressures by encouraging more adventurous visitors to explore less-trodden areas. ‘You can find your own “wild” if you know how to,’ he says. ‘If you build confidence for people to walk a bit more off the beaten track, if we make those paths better, you can reduce the pressures and you’ll soon find solitude.’

FARM CLUSTERS

Caroline Harriott took on Lychpole Farm in the South Downs 13 years ago. ‘It was just arable then, fields of set-aside land filled with weeds,’ she recalls. The landlord, she says, ‘wanted the soul put back into the farm’ and was prepared to accept a rent lower than market rates to help put this vision into practice. Over time, Harriott has converted the farm to a mix of different crops, introduced livestock and also grows pumpkins. ‘It’s not for the faint hearted,’ she says. ‘You make life harder for yourself with livestock, you need water, fences, troughs, pipes, there’s never a quiet time.’ Each year, funding enables Harriott to focus on supporting a particular species, whether that be butterflies, or a bird such as the lapwing.’

As the owner of just one farm, Harriott’s impact would be limited, but she has established a network of like-minded and neighbouring farmers. This has enabled wildlife-friendly practices to be rolled out over a meaningful area. More than 85 per cent of the South Downs National Park is farmland. ‘We are all different, what we farm, our soils and this benefits biodiversity,’ says Harriott. Six farm clusters have now been established across the national park. These groups of farmers, land managers, foresters and other local partners are able to collectively secure funding and benefit the environment in ways that they would not be able to achieve alone.

One of the first was set up around the village of Selborne in Hampshire. The cluster created habitats that benefited species such as the barn owl and harvest mouse; the latter was classed as a flagship species because it was first identified as a separate species by the naturalist Gilbert White in Selborne in 1767. ‘It’s gone back to the way farms were traditionally, with rotated crops and livestock. We’ve cut down on fertilisers and sprays because we get what we need from manure. We’ve put vibrancy back into the land. We feel we are the custodians of our beautiful landscapes. We wanted to show that you can both farm green and farm in the black.’

PROPER USAGE

Ultimately, though, excluding people from some parts of national parks goes against their raison d’être and Tann, for one, wonders if it will be in other areas of Britain where wildlife will truly thrive. ‘Perhaps it’s unrealistic that national parks can lead the way,’ she says. ‘Maybe national parks are only part of the picture. We need a lot more space for nature, not just in national parks but everywhere.’

Yet others feel such a move would send the wrong signal. Wrigley believes national parks must be at the heart of improving nature. The health of national parks is wrapped up in wider issues of climate and ecological emergencies, she argues: if you improve the former, you make progress on the latter. ‘We have to have nature recovery and enhancement on a massive scale,’ she says. ‘If we use national parks, we could be ahead of the curve as a nation. Restore ecosystems and you restore the natural predator-prey relationship and meandering free rivers. It would be shaming if national parks weren’t the shining examples of what nature has to offer.’

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That wildlife richness and improved access should be intertwined is not a new idea. John Muir – the conservationist regarded as the inspiration for the US National Parks system – recognised this over a century ago, saying, ‘Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul’. In the UK national parks’ honeypots, many might feel this is harder to achieve when someone two metres away is ‘Instagramming’ the view you are trying to appreciate.

‘In a few years’ time we can’t still have everyone driving to national parks and milling around in the same spaces,’ says Hayek. ‘There’s a risk with concentrating on the headlines. Giving every child a night under the stars is eye-catching and laudable. But the more logistical elements are key – the calls to improve public transport must not be underestimated. The knock-on effect of fewer cars is less noise and a more natural landscape.’

Tann hopes that the passage of time will prove her concerns unfounded. ‘We have always assumed that our national parks are the best place for nature but they are just not. In 20 years’ time I’d like to think that they will be. Perhaps humans need to change some of the things we do. It just needs some compromise.’

Harriott is encouraged by the emergence of localism. ‘I hope things become much more local and community led,’ she says. ‘We need to perhaps step backwards a bit in order to go forward – to an older way of dealing with life, people talking to farmers. We’re starting to see this with an awareness of eating local food produced in season rather than asparagus in December.’

Recent cultural and social trends are encouraging, agrees Wrigley, who points to movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the Greta Thunberg phenomenon. ‘It’s as though the UK suffers from cognitive dissonance. We are a country of nature lovers but our biodiversity is poor compared to that of many countries. The environment is now really high up the agenda, the pressure for change is building.’ Wrigley’s ambition is for the UK to improve its national parks to the point where some may be elevated to a higher IUCN category. ‘We can use the genius of nature to restore biodiversity. This is a huge moment of opportunity.’

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