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
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.
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.