This post is by David Hampson, policy officer at RSPB.
It’s just over two weeks to go before the end of an important consultation on reforms to England’s protected landscapes, ie National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). A new independent survey, commissioned by the RSPB, shows there is overwhelming public demand for the nature in them to be restored.
Our report Natural Parks?, published today, draws on the results of a survey of 1,750 adults across England and explains exactly what people want.
A huge majority want nature-rich protected landscapes
We found that what people most value about these places is their wildlife and nature. But they think they are doing better than they are. Two thirds of those surveyed expected that wildlife would be doing better inside National Parks and AONBs than across the rest of the countryside. When they found out that it wasn’t, 85 per cent were very or fairly concerned and 90 per cent said that it was important to them for the wildlife to be restored. In fact, this was their number one priority for these landscapes, more so even than tackling climate change or promoting cultural heritage.
As the government accepts, England’s protected landscapes have lost much of their nature and are now badly degraded. This has, in large part, been caused by intensive land management, driven by inappropriate subsidies, which the protected landscape authorities have not been equipped to deal with. Landscapes have lost much of their natural diversity, colour and sound. If biodiversity in these areas is to be brought back from the brink, the way they look and are managed has to change.
Today’s report shows that people strongly support those changes. Eighty one per cent were in favour of nature-friendly land management practices – such as restoring wildflower meadows, reducing the number of grazing animals and increasing the number of broadleaved trees – even though this will change the visual appearance of the landscape. The message is clear, there is little appetite for National Parks and AONBs to be preserved in their current state, people want to see them revived.
People overwhelmingly rejected the idea that the land management practices, like high numbers of grazing animals and moorland burning, that harm nature should continue, because some say they are part of the cultural heritage. Only seven per cent of respondents did not want these practices to change.
As the government consults on changes to the statutory objectives of National Parks and AONBs, these results provide strong support for making restoring nature the main objective. This also means requiring that other objectives are not pursued in ways that prevent nature’s recovery – for example, to justify environmentally damaging land management – as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has advised.
This does not mean putting wildlife ahead of people. The approach will deliver for both. Many farmers are already showing that nature-friendly techniques are not only good for the environment but make good business sense, for example reducing input costs and boosting helpful pollinators. Lower intensity practices may also, in many cases, be considered far more traditional and in keeping with the cultural heritage of these valuable landscapes.
Boards lack nature expertise and diversity
The report also explores some of the other issues raised by the government’s consultation. For example, the consultation seeks views on how people are appointed to the boards of National Parks and AONBs. These boards provide leadership for the protected landscapes, and it is vital that their members are knowledgeable and passionate about their objectives and are diverse enough to represent the country as a whole.
In 2019, the Landscapes Review found that National Park Authority boards lacked nature advocates and had a shocking lack of diversity. The review recommended that, instead of drawing most board members from local councillors, they should be selected from outside councils, based on their expertise and to achieve broader representation. But the government has not yet committed to this reform.
Our report finds that 80 per cent of people would like board members to be recruited through open competition, based on expertise. Even more want them to have a balance of skills across the landscapes’ objectives.
Those who live in protected landscapes feel strongest
Other headline findings from the survey included strong support for increasing government funding to enable protected landscape authorities to restore nature (especially for woefully underfunded AONBs). And this was for dedicating resources to improving the state of nature in the existing protected landscapes, rather than designating more of them.
People want to see better monitoring of nature sites and for protected landscape authorities to have action plans with targets to restore nature. They also think public bodies should be required to implement these plans.
One other thing that stands out in the results is that, on these issues, people who live inside National Parks and AONBs feel very strongly. As people who live up close, they value the wildlife and want to see its recovery prioritised, even more so than those who live in the rest of England. This group was also most supportive of changing the way these landscapes look and are managed.
The people have spoken, now the government must listen and urgently bring forward bold reforms to meet the demand for England’s protected landscapes to be alive with nature. In the meantime, we have until 9 April to make sure this opportunity is not missed and that all our voices are heard in the consultation.
Read RSPB’s new report here.