This post is by Andrew McCloy, chair of the Peak District National Park Authority.
Over the frenetic weekend before the lockdown, the sight of thousands of visitors pouring into national parks like Snowdonia and the Lake District, against government guidelines, was perhaps an inevitable response from a panicky urban population. Setting aside what it said about their demographic and social background (largely white, affluent, middle class, car-owning) it was also testimony to people’s deep emotional attachment to landscape and a hunger for the outdoors. From the romantic poets to the Kinder Scout mass trespassers, personal relationships with landscape and places of great natural beauty – and crucially our right to access them – have been at the heart of how we interact with our national parks.
Despite police checkpoints and drone surveillance, we cannot expect that connection between people and place to be simply switch off overnight without resistance or consequence. So when the restrictions are lifted and countryside opened up again, how can this deep bond be turned into a positive force for climate and nature recovery?
The influence of national parks is far reaching
Britain’s national parks are living, working landscapes, largely outside of public ownership, and, although this throws up plenty of challenges for the authorities that run them, it also presents opportunities not available to the wilderness areas and natures reserves of other countries. Our national parks are more dynamic, accessible and everyday; but their potential to educate and influence our way of life is arguably more far reaching.
If the glimpses people have had of a cleaner, quieter and greener world are not going to be lost, how can those actual, living landscapes themselves make a difference? Here are some opportunities:
1. Managing land better
English national parks are already participating in tests and trials for the new environmental land management scheme, which will eventually replace subsidies and instead deliver public goods, such as clean water, healthy soils, biodiversity and public recreation. Protected areas like national parks should act as flagships; and traditional, intensive and often damaging approaches to land management such as moorland burning must change or cease altogether.
2. Storing carbon
Reversing the damage to British peatlands will make a major contribution in terms of storing and sequestering carbon, and national parks like the Peak District and Northumberland are already leading the way. But if it is to really deliver for the new Peatland Strategy this vital work needs scaling up and to be securely funded outside national parks, perhaps via imaginative new sources, like offsetting or biodiversity net gain, from activities and development subject to strict criteria.
3. Helping nature to recover
National parks should be at the heart of nature improvement and bucking wildlife decline through large scale habitat restoration and, where feasible, a wilder and more naturalistic approach, like the Wild Ennerdale project in the Lake District. Local as well as national policy needs to be strengthened and national parks should set more ambitious targets.
4. Changing how we travel
Nine out of ten visitors currently arrive in the Lakes, Peak District and New Forest by car and this is simply unsustainable. We need long term behavioural change through an innovative package of measures, based on an understanding of people’s recreational movements and journey motivations, instead of resorting to new bypasses or larger car parks.
5. Teaching us about the natural world
Over 100 million people a year visit UK national parks and every one of them could and should return home with positive messages about mitigating and adapting to climate change, as well as the beauty of the natural world and our place in it. The potential to make a lifelong impact on younger visitors, in particular, is enormous.
To make any of this possible, governments across the UK must recognise that national parks are more than simply place-based designations; and central funding and support has to be both adequate and lasting. At the same time, and as the recent Landscapes Review into English national parks recommended, we need to reform how we work at national parks and become more inclusive, accessible and responsive to all parts of society.
Recent weeks have shown how much we miss access to green spaces and our freedom to enjoy the outdoors; and there’s no doubt that our finest landscapes will play a significant part in restoring the nation’s physical and mental good health. But we also know that the post-coronavirus landscape will be different for all of us. Perhaps, now, the real opportunity for the national park movement is to try and make the landscape itself an agent of change.