11 ideas for how to put the wildlife back into National Parks

© Lilian Douglas

As Julian Glover and his Review Group sit down over Christmas to read the public’s views on the future of National Parks and AONBs, here are some of my thoughts on what they could recommend to ensure National Parks work for wildlife as well as the beautiful view…

I’ve been lucky to have lived and/or worked in three National Parks for more than 20 years (including four years as a National Park employee).   They’ve been the backdrop to my life and have witnessed the birth and growth of my own family – and now my grandson.

I’m passionate about the concept of designated landscapes and the ideals that led to their creation in 1949 by the radical post-war Government.  The system has undoubtedly worked well to safeguard the appearance of these beautiful and spectacular places under Governments of all political persuasions. 

As ‘freemen (and women) on Sundays’, my grandparents were one amongst many thousands of families that escaped the grit and grime of 1930s Manchester for the fresh air and rejuvenating open spaces of the Peak and Lake District. My grandfather’s black and white photos of places they enjoyed on those walks and bike rides remain familiar and recognisable today, at least visually.

My conclusion is that national parks have generally performed well to keep the landscapes in their care looking nice and pretty.  But scratch the green veneer and the widespread loss and/or degradation of habitats and species that once made up the vital components of those landscapes becomes clear.

Flower-rich hay meadow at St John's in the Vale before World War II

© Kendal Library

A flower-rich grassland at St John's in the Vale (taken pre-World War II)...

Missing hay meadow at St John's in the Vale

...is now an 'improved' hay meadow with only rye grass.

Sadly, much of the abundant and diverse wildlife that inspired my grandparents has gone or declined dramatically. 

In general, national parks have been unable to stem the decline of biodiversity within their boundaries. They seem almost powerless or sometimes unwilling to challenge the key drivers of change that have denuded the very fabric of their landscapes since they were designated.  Often it’s hard to detect any differences in wildlife, on a like-for-like basis, inside or outside the designated boundary.

So sadly, and it pains me to say it; National Parks haven’t really worked for wildlife.  Something has gone very wrong from the original intentions of the 1949 Act which implied that nature conservation should be a statutory purpose for these special areas. 

I strongly believe­­­­ that it doesn’t have to be like this and the story could be very different.  National parks should and could be rich, vibrant ‘living’ landscapes - full of wildlife once again.

In my view, our national park authorities and AONBs, as public bodies, ought to be leading the way in landscape-scale restoration and rehabilitation.  They ought to be at the cutting edge of a new big push to reverse the heart-breaking declines of the last 60 to 70 years – putting wildlife and wild places into recovery.  They need to actively work with a passion and dynamism to challenge, cajole and support farmers, landowners, charities, local communities and other partners to reverse this sorry picture – whatever it takes to achieve results in the real world.

There is an urgent need to make our protected landscapes fit for purpose and worthy of the name ‘National Park’.  National Parks and AONBs have a key leadership role in making it happen.

So here’s my 11 point plan for revitalising what National Parks deliver for people and wildlife:

Central Government must

  1. Re-define and strengthen the statutory purposes of protected landscapes 
  • Biodiversity conservation should be strengthened as a priority under the first purpose of protected landscapes (e.g. they must be required to conserve and enhance wildlife, the natural environment and the special qualities of their landscapes).
  • A third purpose should be added - requiring protected landscapes ‘to restore the natural capital of their landscapes as a basis for sustainable living by local communities”. 
  • Recovery of biodiversity and the natural environment should be recognised as a public good and the core function of protected landscapes. 
  1. Directly link grant-in aid funding to a protected landscape’s performance on biodiversity
  • Especially in terms of the value they directly add through their activities and the extent to which they successfully deliver the 25 Year Environment Plan in their areas.  This should particularly apply to the larger and well-resourced National Park Authorities.NPAs and AONBs should be directly accountable for demonstrating how they have added value (and net gain) to delivering improvements to their landscapes so that:
    • All of their Local Wildlife Sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Natura 2000 sites achieve favourable condition status by 2029. All water bodies in their protected areas achieve good ecological status by 2029 (and therefore meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive).
    • Soils are in good ecological health (as measured by a suite of indicators) across their landscapes;
    • All deep peatlands in their areas are restored, and human induced soil erosion issues are addressed
    • There is a significant increase in the numbers of appropriate trees and hedges and the extent of woodland cover on non-designated sites, where this is compatible with the conservation of open space habitats.
    • The extent and quality of wild flower grasslands in their areas are restored to 1970 levels by 2029.
    • Populations of all of the key Defra indicator species (i.e. bird groups, bats and butterfly species) are restored to 1970 baseline levels.
  1. Abolish the term ‘AONB’.  The distinction between National Parks and AONBs should be removed – it’s confusing and they are of equal importance in law.  We need just one designation for landscape in its revised and updated definition.

Additionally, National Park Authorities and AONBs should be required to

  1. Undertake a full and independent Audit of the ecological resource in their areas every five years - and produce a spatial ‘gap’ analysis which identifies the difference between what the natural environment is like now – and what it could be, if restored to its optimal state.  A suite of 25 year targets must be developed for the improvement and restoration of their natural capital resource – with five year milestones.  These should include plans for comprehensive monitoring (including the use of natural capital accounting) to measure progress against the targets and inform future remedial action. 
  1. Develop visionary and ambitious 25 year spatial plans for the creation of nature recovery networks in their areas – which will lead the implementation of the 25 Year Environment Plan and Lawton Review recommendations for “bigger, better, more joined up” habitats at a landscape scale. The future Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) should be aligned with this spatial recovery plan for the natural environment in protected landscapes. 
  1. Report annually to the forthcoming environmental watchdog (being set up under the Environment Act 2019) on their biodiversity and natural environment performance.  A protected landscape league table should be introduced which focusses on common lead (as opposed to lag) performance measures.
  1. Lead re-wilding and species re-introduction projects.
  1. Actively lead how wildlife crime issues are addressed and resolved in protected landscapes, with the Police, landowners and other partners.
  1. Actively and dynamically use their ‘soft’ convening power to lead and initiate innovative delivery partnerships for the recovery of nature in their areas.  Protected landscapes should have demanding targets to secure significant funding for partnership delivery in their areas as a whole - and not just for their own organisations. Competition with the private and voluntary sector for funding should end.
  1. Appoint members with substantial expertise in the natural environment to their Boards (and make up 25 - 50%) of every Protected Landscape Authority. 
  1. Employ teams of professional ecological advisors in every NPA and AONB.

Now it’s over to Julian Glover and Michael Gove … I’ll be with you in making this happen.

The Government’s independent review of England's National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty closed on 18 December 2018. Cumbria Wildlife Trust has submitted a response to the consultation.

Visit this link for more information on the review.