Guest blog – National Parks, Beauty & Riches by Lee Schofield

Lee Schofield is senior site manager at RSPB Haweswater, where partnership work with landowner United Utilities is aiming to find a balance between large-scale ecological restoration and hill farming in the Lake District National Park. He is also a nature writer, working on his first book which will be published by Penguin/Transworld in 2022.

Lee wrote a previous guest blog here: Exmoor Rewilding in November 2020.

Follow him on Twitter: @leeinthelakes

Langdales. Photo: David Morris

This week, filmmaker and guerrilla geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison unveiled his newest creation. Narrated by Cerys Matthews UK National Parks in 100 Seconds shows Dan striding through sumptuous aerial shots of the UK’s 15 National Parks. Each second of the film corresponds to a percentage of the collective National Park area; a thought-provoking and eye-catching way to describe the habitat composition of our most treasured landscapes.

National Parks have become the focal point of arguments about how best we look after land, arguments which are too often unhelpfully distilled into a false choice between rewilding and farming. But our perception that we have any more right to demand changes to land management in our Parks than we do elsewhere is misguided.

From the soaring mountains of the Cairngorms to the rolling hills of the South Downs, UK National Parks in 100 Seconds leaves the viewer in no doubt as to how varied and visually spectacular our National Parks are, but it also lays bare the intensity of their land use. Dan spends 13 seconds walking through the 13% of our national parks that are overtly production focused: fields of crops and forestry plantations. A further 62% are semi-natural heaths, grasslands and pastures, the majority of which are managed, often very intensively, in order to rear livestock for our tables or red grouse for shooting. Carbon-rich bogs make up 12%, a good chunk of which are also grazed by livestock or managed for grouse. A puny 4% is broadleaf woodland.

Visitors to the UK from other parts of the world might find this all a bit perplexing. In many other countries, National Parks are owned by the state and are managed specifically to protect wildlife and wilderness. Ours have laudable purposes, the most important of which is “to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage,” but ensuring that this worthy ambition is realised is far from easy. National Park Authorities protect the Parks from inappropriate development through the planning system, but beyond planning matters, they convey little in the way of meaningful protection to land and nature, over and above that which is available elsewhere in our countryside. The Glover Review, published in 2019, contained many sensible recommendations that could help improve National Park performance on nature, but the government are yet to implement them.

Part of the challenge is land ownership. The vast bulk of our National Parks is in private hands, as it was when the Park boundaries were drawn. We don’t tend to go in for compulsory purchase or external control of privately owned land in this country, and so in general, landowners and managers are as free to do as they please with their land inside a Park as they would be anywhere else.

It is only natural to look upon something as beautiful as our National Parks and to assume that they are also healthy and intact. Sadly, this is not the case. If you use government figures on the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which is about as good a measure of the health of our habitats and species that we have available, then National Parks are decidedly under par. Only 26% of SSSIs are in favourable condition inside National Parks, compared with 43.5% of those outside (Cox et al, 2018).

Dan made his film to stimulate debate about what we want for our National Parks. I’d like to see them become places which are both beautiful and wildlife rich. It can be done. We have all the techniques to restore the hay meadows, hedges, rivers, bogs, woodlands, wetlands and heaths at our fingertips. What we lack is the recognition that the response needs to be one that is multifaceted, inclusive and based on mutual respect.

Because so much of the land in National Parks is privately owned, the change we need must happen through encouragement, not by force. National Park Authorities can help bring people together, supporting and incentivising the path into a brighter future. New government schemes that will reward nature friendly land management are in development. Many large landowners are turning to rewilding as a solution. Growing numbers of farmers are realising that farming with reduced inputs and using regenerative methods can be as good for their bottom lines as for their productivity, with benefits to nature as a side effect. Community initiatives are multiplying, helping to restore woodlands, hedges and meadows. There is room in our Parks for all of these approaches and more to rub shoulders, and each offers something of value.

There is no one solution to helping nature to thrive in our National Parks, there are many. Respect, support and collaboration are the oxygen they need to flourish.    

Refs:

Cox, K., Groom, A., Jennings, K. & Mercer, I. (2018). ‘National Parks or Natural Parks: how can we have both?’ British Wildlife, 30(2), 87-96.

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18 Replies to “Guest blog – National Parks, Beauty & Riches by Lee Schofield”

  1. Well said Lee, with your and others hands on experience we must be guided by you. However following yesterday’s blog about “planting two million trees” I do think one of the key aims in most National Parks (not perhaps ones on calcareous grassland), especially upland ones should be to drastically reduce the levels of grazing by both sheep and deer and to eliminate all burning. This would allow in selected areas the regeneration of native trees. By approaching this current mania of planting trees anywhere, (trees that would not be sequestering significant carbon for about thirty years) we could at least guide the activity so that nature can do the job in the right places rather than wholesale digging and planting. which humans especially politicians are bound to get wrong.
    I think we must also be guided by the experience in the brilliant Cairngorms Connect project.

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    1. "Eliminate all burning" the jungle of Molinia on Dartmoor does not concur as we have seen in recent days. It likes burning, it's how it gets rid of those pesky saplings and getting rid of grazing by cattle and ponies just adds fuel to the fire.

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      1. Those areas should have their hydrological function restored, which would lead to self regulating areas of blanket bog, with reduced fuel load (less shrubs and molinia) and more in the way of water retaining mosses. Molinia domination is largely a result of the burning that has historically taken place, drying out those areas.

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  2. Really key to all this is that you do not - in fact should not - do the same thing everywhere. But that is what we currently have with farming's assumed ownership of the landscape - and a very defensive agricultural industry objecting wherever it can to change.

    However, the money spent supporting conventional farming is easily sufficient to provide livelihoods (possibly better than now) for less intensive systems. It would be to farmers advantage to work with conservationists because joint action will be politically far more effective in protecting funding than either group on its own, and farmers will be more relaxed about change if they know their income is protected.

    There should be less grazing and more trees - but in much of the National Parks those trees should be overidingly for landscape and environment. As an example, I was very impressed by RSPB's management of its Geltsdale reserve, reported in British Wildlife August 2019.

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    1. Especially when nearly 40% of our food gets chucked on top of an obesity crisis (he said sucking in belly). Unless the public are more interested in throwing food away than reducing flood risk by returning land to more and healthier natural habitats, then there's no reason to keep the status quo whatsoever, in fact there's a desperate need for change.

      As I'm pushing a petition to do more in the uplands (specifically grouse moors) to alleviate flooding it's become depressingly clear to me that outside of a rather small conservation/rewilding bubble there's precious little public awareness about the potential to reduce it coming from the hills where there would also be least conflict with genuinely economic activities. Bet your bottom dollar though the next time there's a big flood it'll be down to trees not being cleared out of the river, the EU stopping it from being dredged and some local conservation project or other that means houses were lost to save rare newts or ducks - the usual tabloid bilge.

      Literally dozens of schemes across the country now showing that strategically planted lines of trees, woody material in waterways, volunteer made leaky dams and of course beavers without a doubt significantly/dramatically slowing run off and lowering flood peaks. If these had managed to cut just a pathetic 1% of the flood damage from the 2005 Carlisle flood that comes to more than 4 million quid. What fraction of the money spent on HS2 could make a real difference here, what would the public return (financial and quality of life) be in comparison, twenty minutes less to get to Birmingham or a dry house?

      So where is the national strategy to implement these initiatives comprehensively across our bare, subsidy hungry uplands? There isn't so why isn't this a national scandal? If the conservation sector found its voice/spine/testicles to do its job and speak up then it would be doing a great service not just for wildlife but people too.

      Incidentally had my first look at the Fieldsports Channel in a while and they've got a little video trying to run down the RSPB via their Geltsdale reserve - personally I didn't think it was very successful, shame it didn't go deeper into why the grouse moor surrounded reserve hasn't had much joy with hen harriers https://www.fieldsportschannel.tv/geltsdale/.

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  3. Thanks for this Lee, great article and not much I don’t agree with.

    One issue I will take however is your point that “ Respect, support and collaboration are the oxygen they need to flourish.” Whilst partnership working should always be the first stop in any conversation between government and landowners wanting subsidy, I think there needs to be a bit more use of the stick than we have seen in the past. By stating from the outset that you ‘have’ to work in partnership you give away power. This can be readily seen in the plethora of poor agri-environment schemes across the Lake District we currently have. No fault of the NE staff trying to get farmers to sign up to brilliant schemes, rather the fault of a system enforcing ‘partnership’, requiring compromise, and leading to bad schemes where neither nature nor taxpayer benefit.

    Agri-environment schemes will be the major driver of landscape change in years to come. We need a system where nature is put first, not the economic livelihoods of farmers nor the need for NE staff to hit targets for schemes agreed (at any cost). To do otherwise will mean nature continuing at best, maintain the status quo except in the few places where farmers have converted to regenerative methods.

    We need agri-environment schemes to be value for money, we need farmers to be told what needs doing, and then supported to do it. We need NE to be allowed to say “no” to landowners who are not prepared to make the necessary changes for the money they wish to take.

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    1. Hi Neil. Fancy seeing you here.

      If the article came across as being a bit 'if we all hold hands, everything will be rosy', then that wasn't my intention. Who we choose to work in partnership with is critical, and there are certain partnerships that are so broad and disparate (you can probably think of at least one that I might have in mind) that there is no chance they will ever deliver much of value. A genuine partnership however, which shares a common vision, can be far more powerful that its individual parts.

      I agree that there is certainly a need for better enforcement and tighter regulation in many areas, and that this would undoubtedly help to improve matters. However, we have to try to make the best of the situation that we find ourselves in, and at present, cooperation and encouragement is almost all we have to work with. That isn't the same as saying we should compromise on everything, but I believe there is something to be said for pragmatism. So yes, we need more stick, but we need respect, support and collaboration too.

      Hope you're not missing Cumbria too terribly...

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      1. Of all the blogs in all the world......nice to see you still fighting the good fight.

        I guess my issue is the comment that “co-operation and encouragement is all we have to work with" - not sure I agree. We talk about farmers as if they were one amorphous mass, but as we know they are all different. There are farmers looking forward at more sustainable, low input, farming methods. Those that have bought into the environmental manager paradigm. Then there are those who are productivist sheep farmers and want nothing to do with being a ‘park ranger’. We should co-operate and encourage the former, but challenge forcefully the latter. Highlight bad practice, the breaking of agri-env schemes and put pressure on statutory agencies and politicians to stop the gaming of the system. We don’t do that at present and I am worried, from my own experience, that uncritical partnership working has become dogmatic within parts of the environmental profession. Certainly the partnership you allude to is able to continue along its way due to env. NGOs refusing to confront it publicly and there is plenty of evidence that suggests gentle co-operation doesn’t work with all farmers.

        Must admit I am not missing all these politics in Cumbria, nor the snow and ice you are having. Miss all the people mind.

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    2. "Agri-environment schemes will be the major driver of landscape change in years to come"

      Really? I keep hearing conservationists saying similar things. It strikes me as a remarkably optimistic view point and one that seems to place an awful lot of faith in this Government putting the money where it's mouth is, and in the competence of Natural England. I'm afraid I have very little confidence in either.

      In the uplands undoubtedly, where the vast majority of farmers will have little choice but to follow what money is available, however little of it there is.

      But what about the lowlands? Personally I'm deeply sceptical that ELMS will achieve much, if anything, in the intensively farmed arable and grassland lowland landscapes, there won't be sufficient funding to bring about any meaningful change. It's starting to become apparent that the treasury are expecting a significant proportion of the ELMS bill to be footed by the private sector finance.. what could possibly go wrong?

      I suspect we are about to enter a period of accelerated agri-business consolidation in the lowlands, as smaller family farms struggle to the new free market landscape, their land will become swallowed up by their bigger, leaner neighbours as ELMS just isn't going to fill that post-BPS income gap. Market forces will drive efficiencies, so I expect to see improvements to air and water quality, but as far as lowland farmland biodiversity is concerned, I can't see any landscape scale improvements occurring, not on the size and scale that is needed.

      Sorry if that all comes across as a bit pessimistic, but until the Govt makes a firm commitment to adequately funding ELMS then I think a reality check is needed.

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      1. It takes a lot more than a firm commitment by one government to fund a scheme. To get real lasting change you have to change the economics in a radical way for a long time. Our countryside is shaped by economic reality and always has been. Our hedgerows, pasture, woodlands etc have been fundamentally shaped by economics for thousands of years.

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      2. I agree, I don’t Have much hope that the new agi- environment schemes will work without significant more funding being put into them. Nor do I have much hope that the environmental NGOs will do much about it I’m afraid. What I meant was that that is where all the money is coming from, there is no other pot to draw from.

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  4. I suppose it comes down to your interpretation of the word ‘park’. I’ve always associated the word with a large public area for recreation, and in truth that’s what our National Parks are, they’re designed for the human majority to indulge and enjoy. They are also made-up of privately owned pieces of land, homes, businesses and tourist attractions. The public perception of these parks is somewhat chocolate box toppy; the vistas are all man-made and have a pleasant landscape appeal to the eye. The quintessential village pub and corner shop, the cottages made from local stone set in a carefully manicure green space are all selling points to the potential tourist. I’ve often wondered if this farm were transposed to the Dales or Peak District, the uproar it would cause, people would look at it in horror, as it doesn’t align to their perception of good management. We would even expect to receive letters of complaint that the look of the farm’s fields is having an adverse affect on their tourist trade. If we take the New Forest, a park I know very well, from the ground up bio diversity wise it’s piss poor, some of you would suggest over grazing, I wouldn’t disagree, but there’s more to it than the commoners cattle. The New Forest in essence is a holiday/recreational park; human disturbance is a huge problem for wildlife here. Read the PR tourist literature – everyone is inviting leisure man his wife and their brats, plus the dogs to enjoy what the forest offers, that’s fine, but it’s naïve to think that you can have flourishing wildlife running along side this deluge of human activities. And there lies the problem, can we, or should we, give up room for what nature demands? Like us, those species would like to conduct their lives in space unhindered by us, I don’t think we have any intention of allowing that, too much money to be made.

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    1. As far as our woodlands are concerned we live in fairly unusual times. We have unusually high tree planting, low woodcutting and high numbers of deer. I'm not sure it's the level of human activity in the countryside that's the problem it's the type of activity. I'm pretty sure that where I live there would have been a lot more people involved and in many ways a lot more intensive activity where I live in past centuries than there is now. I'm not sure either that that loss of activity is entirely a good thing. We've lost a lot of bio diversity IMO. Our woods have fewer species because they are in general becoming equally neglected. The fact that there is very little economically to drive woodmanship is a big problem.

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    2. "a holiday/recreational park"

      Where else would you search for a pub carpark full of donkeys, other than in the vicinity of Sandy Balls?

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  5. If anyone can get their hands on the most recent copy of "The Cairngorms Campaigner", there is a five page article written by the outgoing Convenor that is well worth the trouble of obtaining it.
    Her final paragraph says it all,
    "So, as a resident of the Cairngorms before and post its status as a
    National Park i do not find any benefit for the natural heritage and
    i have realised in the writing of this article that i should not have
    expected any".

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  6. I don't completely get the rewilding concept. I was reading a blog about the recent fire on dartmoor which may well have been arson. One commenter was suggesting trying to 'rewild' the moor by putting a massive plantation of trees on it which might suppress fire because broadleaved woodland doesn't burn. Who's the real rewilder here? The person helping the fire-climax vegetation of gorse, moor grass and bracken naturally suppress competing trees by promoting fire with the help of a box of matches and a can of gas? Or the person preventing one climax state and promoting another with a spade and a few million nursery grown trees?

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    1. The climax vegeation of those areas would be scrub woodland, wet woodland, mixed with mires and blanket bog, depending on the topography. By using the word 'plantation', you're trying to evoke scenes of dense conifers, but broadleaved woodland is both native and much less prone to fires than dwarve shrubs and molinia. Your comparison isn't helpful.

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