Let’s avoid a simplistic debate about the future of National Parks

lake district hiking.jpgThis post is by Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks

Following the launch of the government’s review of designated landscapes, and controversy around the subsequent resignation of James Rebanks from the advisory panel, the issue of farming and nature within the National Parks is once again back on the agenda.

Campaign for National Parks, as you might expect, believes the parks are beautiful and important national assets. Although we do not claim they are perfect. As our recent report, Raising the bar: improving nature in our National Parks, highlights, we recognise that they could and should be better for wildlife. But, if we are to secure improvements, we need to move away from overly simplistic debates that the media seems to be so fond of.

The writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot, is one of the most outspoken critics of the condition of nature in the National Parks, referring to them as “ecological disaster zones” on Radio 4’s Today Programme recently, and “a complete farce”. He is not the only critic of the National Parks, but writing them off entirely because of degraded habitats in some areas, overlooks the other incredibly valuable qualities of these special places.

People value National Parks for many reasons
We currently have a secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs who talks of his emotional connection with places and the importance of beautiful landscapes. The 25 year environment plan acknowledges how important the countryside and scenery is to people, highlighting that nearly 60 per cent of adults surveyed in 2015 said these were what made them most proud of Britain. The thirteen National Parks in England and Wales (including the Broads as part of the National Park family) are among the most beautiful and valued landscapes in the British Isles. With their breathtaking scenery, rare wildlife and cultural heritage, they provide space for a wide range of recreational opportunities and offer a chance to experience dark skies, tranquillity and reconnection with the environment. They are also home to communities and are important to the rural economy.

All of this makes them important assets worthy of their designation. While some environmentalists may not value these qualities, much of the population does, demonstrated by the 100 million visitors to English and Welsh National Parks each year. These qualities should not be dismissed by critics.

National Parks offer vital refuges for wildlife. The New Forest National Park contains extensive areas of lowland heath, ancient woodland, valley mires, river valleys and coastal marshes that are internationally important habitats. Over a third of the Peak District is covered by protections for nature conservation. Snowdonia National Park contains 107 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which together represent just under 30 per cent of the Park’s area. And approximately 30 per cent of Wales’ blanket peat bog is found within its boundaries.

A new approach is needed for the benefit of wildlife and people
The trends of wildlife decline across England and Wales, as demonstrated by State of Nature 2016 and Britain’s Mammals 2018 reports, indicate that we do need a fundamental change. At Campaign for National Parks we are arguing for a new approach to conservation, one that moves away from the current emphasis on managing specific sites in a prescriptive way for specific species and, instead, focuses on the re-establishment of natural ecosystems and enhancing natural capital.

Outcomes for wildlife and people should be monitored closely to inform future approaches to nature conservation. The detail of the land management policies that replace the Common Agricultural Policy will also be critical for future management of the parks and supporting them to deliver even more public benefits.

The alarming risk of losing our native wildlife means we need to move away from the often polarised debates about the challenges and opportunities for the National Parks, particularly those in upland areas. And instead think about wildlife objectives alongside all the other factors that make National Parks special: conservation, enhancement, understanding and enjoyment of the landscape and cultural heritage. The implications for local economies and communities must also be considered.

An important starting point for considering the future of the National Parks is recognising the variety and diversity across them. Each has different special qualities and face different challenges. For starters, there needs to be acknowledgment that there are upland and lowland National Parks. The quantity of residents and visitors varies across them and there are different mosaics of habitats that influence the make up of species in these places.

In the debate about the future of the parks, rather than focusing on one issue, let’s look at the wide range of qualities that make these areas special. The Glover review of the National Parks is an important opportunity to look at how we can make them even better, and critical to that, of course, will be restoring nature.

Image courtesy of Daid Iliff via Wikimedia Commons.

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