Exmoor is showing what a 21st century National Park can look like

This post is by Tony Whitehead, England communications manager for RSPB.  

In September last year, Boris Johnson committed to protecting 30 per cent of the UK’s land for nature by 2030. The government statement that accompanied his announcement gave details of just what this entails, it said:  

“Existing National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and other protected areas already comprise approximately 26 per cent of land in England. An additional 4 per cent – over 400,000 hectares, the size of the Lake District and South Downs national parks combined – will be protected to support the recovery of nature.”  

England’s National Parks and AONBs certainly have the potential to lead the way on tackling the nature and climate emergency and make an important contribution to achieving this 30 by 30 commitment. But, as the 2019 Glover Review showed, at present the nature in England’s protected landscapes is in crisis as it is elsewhere in our countryside.   

For protected landscapes to make a meaningful contribution toward the ‘30 by 30’ goal will require the government to give these areas the direction, tools and resources they need, and we are still waiting for a response to the recommendations of the Glover Review.  

It also requires bold leadership, urgency, ambition and commitment from our National Parks and AONBs, recognising that the science tells us that only transformative change will be enough to stop the crisis worsening. National Parks England and the National Association of AONBs have demonstrated ambition to recover nature in their Nature Recovery Delivery Plan and Colchester Declaration respectively, and have outlined what the government and others need to do to make this possible. Many protected landscapes are making their limited resources and powers go a long way for nature but they have not been equipped to deliver the step change to address the nature and climate emergency.

A vision for a nature-rich Exmoor

So, where is there a good model of what a better future might look like for these areas? Where can we find the strongest ambition and leadership called for by the Glover Review?   

Exmoor’s vision is inspiration for a new approach 
Last year Exmoor National Park caught headlines with its Vision for nature recovery on Exmoor. Its illustration of a vision for a nature-rich Exmoor, created by nature-friendly land management at scale, fired imaginations and was widely circulated on social media. The document and this illustration exemplified hope for a better future for our National Parks and AONBs.  

The document’s opening line was unambiguous:  

“By 2050, Exmoor National Park will be a climate resilient, nature-rich core area supporting nature recovery in the wider countryside. At least 75% (or 51,750 ha) of the area of the National Park will be in nature-rich condition, with the remaining areas providing networks and corridors for wildlife to move through and beyond its boundaries.”  

This is a vision of nature and people thriving across the landscape, with landowners, communities and resilient farm businesses at the heart of delivery. Nature is the starting point. It echoes the original post-war ambitions of what National Parks should be.  

Crucially, it also set an interim target that, by 2030, 95 per cent of existing wildlife areas on Exmoor will be brought into ‘favourable condition’, 11,500 hectares of ‘nature-friendly farming areas’ will be provided and 4,500 hectares of priority habitat will be restored as ‘nature corridors and buffer’. And there will be 7,000 hectares of ‘nature recovery opportunity areas’, where nature and natural processes are allowed to take their course. That’s ten per cent of the park where the “wilder areas”, called for by the Glover Review and responses to a 2016 survey by the Campaign for National Parks, can be put into practice.   

The government must implement the Glover Review’s proposals
This vision thoroughly understands that short term action is necessary. While we might have an eye on 2050, we have to act with urgency in the next few years. But what will it take to turn these aims into reality?   

The Exmoor National Park Management Plan contains the vision for wildlife and high level strategic priorities. The authority has a structure, involving partners, to deliver the plan and its adoption by the authority committee has been a vital step. The governance and commitment are there.  

Discussions with farmers, landowners and communities are underway and farmers will also need the support of the government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme.  But more is needed than this.   

Turning words into action across England’s National Parks and AONBs also requires the government to implement the important proposals in the Glover Review urgently so the authorities running these landscapes have the tools and resources to get started. Building on this, the National Trust, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust have set out a ten point plan for how the government can unlock the potential of National Parks and AONBs to lead the nation’s response to the nature and climate emergency.  

Our precious protected landscapes should rightly be a national focus for restoring nature. Not to the exclusion of everywhere else, but to make them the very best they can be, and something we can all be proud of. Exmoor’s vision is an inspiration and shows what a 21st century National Park can be. Others should follow suit.   

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