The shackles need to come off our national parks to combat climate change

mam-tor-3600896_1920_Ian KelsallThis post is by Andrew McCloy, chair of the Peak District National Park Authority. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Melanie Haiken recently outlined the dire implications of climate change on North America’s national parks if drastic action isn’t taken soon. US parks are warming at twice the national average and, without significant action, the outlook for their fragile ecosystems and varied biodiversity is bleak. Iconic parks like Sequoia, Glacier Bay and Joshua Tree could lose their namesake features altogether.

Britain may not have glaciers or deserts, but our 15 national parks represent many of our most sensitive landscapes and their sheer accessibility (people live and work there and freely visit in their millions) means that they are vulnerable. Whether it’s rising water levels in the Norfolk Broads and along the New Forest coastline, or moorland fires in the Peak District and Yorkshire, the risk is inherent. Already we are seeing the signs: changes in plant and animal species’ distribution and the spread of invasive species and tree pathogens; increased groundwater abstraction in heavily populated lowland parks like the South Downs; and the devastating impact of extreme weather events, such as the wildfires that have ravaged the Peak District’s heather moors, or flooding and footpath erosion in the Lake District.

National parks can help to educate and change behaviour
However, this vulnerability also suggests a way forward. The statutory purposes underpinning our national parks go beyond simply conserving and enhancing the landscape to encouraging popular understanding and enjoyment of the parks’ special qualities. In this, Britain’s national parks are uniquely placed to transcend conventional local authority or government agency approaches, to deliver key messages and shape low carbon lifestyles among their 90 million visitors each year.

Seventy years after national parks were first established, Julian Glover’s review of protected landscapes is due to report on their future later this year and it will make interesting reading. In the meantime, here are four areas where national parks should be helping to tackle climate change:

1. Sustainable land management
National Park Authorities (NPAs) must be allowed to play an active part in the delivery of the new and emerging environmental land management scheme, so that farmers and land managers in national parks are rewarded for caring for the landscape in a way that benefits people, wildlife and the wider environment. We know that intensive agriculture is a key source of emissions, so we should focus on locking up carbon by restoring degraded peat uplands and greater flood resilience in river catchments; supporting better soil and livestock management; and, where desirable, encouraging afforestation and exploring technologies like anaerobic digestion.

2. Influencing visitor behaviour
Nine out of ten national park visitors arrive by private car, so we need to pilot integrated transport solutions that have, at their heart, an irresistible walking, cycling and public transport offer. Whether park and ride schemes, e-bike hire or a roll out of charging points for electric vehicles, there are options to explore. More radical solutions could be national park congestion charges, low emission zones or the seasonal closure of minor road networks to visitors in honeypot sites at peak times.

3. Low carbon communities
National parks and partner organisations should promote greater energy efficiency and champion appropriately scaled renewable energy, most obviously through their role as planning authorities. From solar panels on the roofs of farm barns to mini hydro projects, there is scope to take this much further. Individual NPAs have already made significant carbon reductions in their own operations (the Peak District has achieved 29 per cent and the Lake District 25 per cent) and this could be rolled out much further.

4. Education and research: National parks are natural pioneers. For instance, the Moors for the Future Partnership has made the Peak District a leading hub for research into sustainable moorland management, building ties with academic institutions and developing a citizen science programme. National Parks England advocates that every schoolchild should be able to experience a national park. Surely an outdoor classroom is the ideal place to learn first-hand about environmental issues and climate change?

The government’s 2010 National Park Vision and Circular couldn’t be clearer on the way forward:

“The National Park Authorities are educators and in the area of climate change they have a vital role to play. They should spread important messages about the impacts of climate change and how individuals, especially visitors, can play their part in tackling it in ways which motivate lifelong behaviour change.”

From the restoration of peat bogs in the Yorkshire Dales and Peak District, through to the New Forest Tour & Beach Bus and the Go Lakes sustainable travel programme, national parks are already committed. But, to realise their full potential, they need practical, policy and organisational support from government departments (notably Defra but also across Whitehall). They also need freedom to develop new and active partnerships, and adequate funding and powers to make it all happen.

Now is the moment to take the shackles off and let national parks rise to the challenge of climate change.

[Image of Mam Tor, Castleton, Peak District Nationa Park by Ian Kelsall from Pixabay]



  • Thanks Andrew
    Very well expressed- and a welcome rallying call

  • Way back on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Costing the Earth’ on the 31st August 2009, David Butterworth, CEO of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, was interviewed & made this timely statement:

    “Particularly in places like Austria and Germany, when you enter a protected area – a national park – it’s often obvious you’re in a national park not simply because of the landscape but because there’s a very obvious green technology revolution going on in those areas. And that’s in stark contrast to the situation generally-speaking in England and Wales. Even where renewable energy is encouraged it tends to be hidden away. There’s a different approach in some parts of Western Europe which is quite interesting and I think is worthy of debate in this country, and it’s that renewable energy technologies should be very obvious so that people who are visiting protected areas see them – and it may just impact and influence the behaviour they then exhibit when they’re back home. If I say to you that 76 million people are visiting national parks in England and Wales each year, then that’s a very big audience to try and influence behaviour. And again there’s a debate to be had about how much national parks should be trying to influence the behaviour of those people who visit them, so that they change the way they lead their lives when they get back into the cities and towns of Britain.”

    Andrew’s suggestion in item 3 approaches this, but could be even more ‘progressive’ and could even also include a single, appropriately-located medium-sized wind turbine, and certainly encourage all farms to install anaerobic digestion plants that not only generate energy (electricity & heat) but an ideal fertiliser for grassland which the Park has so much of. Sustainably, well-managed forests & woodlands could provide biomass fuel for well-designed boilers, and not just those in the Park itself.

    Thank you, Andrew, for speaking out & best wishes in developing it in PDNPA!.

    Best regards, Brian Mallalieu

  • Should have added the following sentence after my previous comment advocating Anaerobic Digestion:

    “Digestate fertiliser is not only a much better one but much safer in a region with large drinking water reservoirs, than either current muck-speading or expensive, energy-intensive artificial fertiliser, as well as enabling much more accurate nutrient management of the land.”

  • Apologies, in the middle of my last post the word between ‘muck-speading’ & ‘expensive’ ought to be ‘or’ (not ‘of’).

  • Yes, couldn’t agree more. Can I suggest you send a copy to every MP whose constituency includes a national park, and any post-holder in government or the opposition who now or in the future could help push this agenda? Have you had any meetings about this yet? I’m sure Ruth George MP would be interested and might suggest other ways forward.

  • Vulnerable, but iconic and well-loved, and, arguably, respected by politicians (cheap green vote at least, genuine commitment to their conservation and enhancement at best). National Parks are a model place for tackling this climate crisis, with both mitigation and adaptation. They are also the perfect test-bed, what our Parks should be used for, relatively well resourced, with skilled, committed people and national support to encourage such innovation. They need to act fast for lessons learned to be applied to the country generally (IUCN’s dire 12-year warning – the clock is ticking).

    My local National Park, the South Downs certainly has its problems, not just the total reliance on the chalk aquifer for over a million people’s drinking water, but that it’s been impregnated for years by agricultural nitrates, a time-bomb of concentrated pollution building up, year on year. The SDNPA, working with Southern Water and others are running farm catchment trials, but these need to be rolled out, Downs-wide, now.

    Picking up on Andrew McCloy’s other themes:

    Julian Glover’s report is eagerly awaited by all, it needs to provide the ammunition for government to constructively respond, to free the National Parks of their shackles and enable them to act in a bigger and better way.

    As a lowland landscape and a National Park designation coming 60 years late, the South Downs has suffered more than most, it has the greatest catch-up need. Sustainable land management fundamental in a land where over 80% is farmed, much still too unsustainably, the product of EU CAP subsidy, neither sympathetic to the national protected area status nor responding to the climate crisis. Our internationally rare and vulnerable chalk grassland, probably the most diverse habitat in NW Europe, is down to 4% across the entire South Downs – that’s a shameful legacy. Glover’s words need to be tough, Gove (or whoever) must commit these “public funds for public good”, with bespoke regional agri-policy, empowering the Parks to deliver, with the resources to persuade the farming community to change for the greater good. The South Downs has a firm foundation, farm clusters established across most of the National Park – now Defra, provide the tools.

    We have a good track record in encouraging more sustainable access to, from and within the South Downs. I gave a presentation to the National Parks conference, back in 2010, on some of our sustainable transport initiatives. Now we have a National Park, this is getting more traction, with stronger messages and a much wider impact with a number of commendable projects. However, still too many people come by car, there is much to do, significant cranking up is called for, with serious commitment from highway authorities and private sector transport providers.

    The South Downs is the most populated National Park, the Authority processing thousands of planning applications every year. The NPPF has some good words, but it’s not comprehensive and, in the great drive for more development (much down to the influential house-builders and led politicians) our climate is largely ignored, apart from tokenistic gestures. Why don’t ALL new houses have renewable energy totally built in, with a carbon-neutral standard to be attained for sign-off approval?!

    The South Downs punches above its weight with its Learning Zone and other educational work, a small team delivering a great deal. Behaviour change has to become the central goal. Our children are leading the way (not just by protesting in the streets), but their parents require a lot of work if this climate crisis is to be understood and acted upon with effect. The South Downs National Park Authority is new, still in its infancy; it’s done some good work to date, but its impact has still to have major effect. Over time (that precious little we have), working with key partners, with proper support from central government, it can successfully tackle our greatest challenge, this self-imposed climate crisis. The remedy lies in our hands and our National Parks can show us the way – shackles off and go for it.

  • excellent points well put Andrew. Resources and buy-in from Central Government Departments needed to make this work.

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