National Parks in the UK – rewilding could transform them into ‘Natural Parks’

Photo by Edmund Gall and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This week, it was ‘National Parks Week’. But buried beneath the celebrations and engagement events there are stark questions to be asked about the state of the 15 National Parks that the authority claims to represent “Britain’s breathing spaces.”

At the 2015 UK National Parks conference in Dartmoor, George Monbiot lambasted the National Park Authority for perpetuating land management that is destructive to ecosystems and maintaining heavy ecological degradation, while failing to educate the public.

National Parks in the UK aren’t areas of conservation with the purpose of addressing biodiversity and wildlife decline. They are ‘cultural landscapes’, shaped by people and as Monbiot opines; “ecological disaster zones”. An informative comparison table on the National Parks websites hints at the UK National Park’s priorities: where IUCN Category II National Parks (most parks internationally) are described as “large natural areas mostly untouched by humans, hardly no-one lives there”, the UK Category V National Parks offer “lived in and working landscapes shaped by interaction between people and nature”. Category II are “mostly publicly owned”, while Category V is largely in private hands. National Parks in most countries across the world are for “protecting large ecosystems and species”, but in the UK we favour “protecting landscapes with special character and our cultural natural heritage”. These distinctions critically identify the conflict between ‘natural biodiversity’ and ‘natural heritage’. There might be something a little oxymoronic about ‘cultural natural heritage’ when the human culture has been for thousands of years and particularly so in modern times, a tale of destruction of the natural world. And in the UK, it is a legacy we continue.

UK National Parks are more like outdoor museums where you can learn about farming – modern intensive farming that is. And there’s not a lot living there. Bird species, which are used as a biodiversity indicator, have declined dramatically in number across the UK. Farmland birds saw the most marked decline of 55%, with some species on less than 10% of their 1970 population levels.

A few years ago, I was surprised to learn that National Parks in the UK are primarily owned by private landowners. Perhaps naively, I assumed that a ‘National Park’ would be nationally owned – spaces not just accessible, but truly public land. National Parks under Category II are almost entirely publicly owned. Take the Lake District for example; just 4 per cent of the land is owned by the National Park Authority. Some is owned by organisations such as the National Trust, Forestry Commission and United Utilities, but there are also a number of private landowners.

The same is true of the Peak District. This National Park Authority is a tad more transparent with land ownership, although the data currently available is from 2001 so significantly out of date. It confirms that 54,272 hectares or 38% of the national park was owned by 11 major landowners, such as the National Trust and water companies. So what of the remaining 62%? This is owned by what the authority labels ‘individual landowners’ to include organisations like the highways agencies, local authorities and government bodies like Natural England. It does admit that most of this 62% is held by ‘individual farmers’ – so private landowners that dominate the major land use with agriculture.

The Duchy of Cornwall boasts of its vast ownership of Dartmoor National Park – around a third of the park is Duchy land. 8,100 acres of his portfolio is farmland and a further 20,200 hectares is common land used by farmers to graze their livestock. Prince Charles assisted in the establishment of the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project and The Dartmoor Farmer’s Association.

I struggled to find detailed information on the land ownership of my two local national parks. The South Downs National Park merely states that “The land in the South Downs is owned and cared for by many different private individuals and businesses, and a few larger organisations and public bodies.” Later it explains that at least 30% of the area is owned by family estates – the aristocracy who have “held the land in continuous ownership for centuries.” Country Life magazine identifies the 4th Viscount Cowdray as owning 16,500 acres at Cowdray Park, at the heart of the South Downs National Park. The Pearson family appear as the 10th richest aristocratic landowners of the UK. The South Downs website continues and prides itself on the success of land managers in looking after the South Downs and commends that “our predecessors shaped our landscape, making it productive and at the same time beautiful.  We continue to shape that landscape and to bring our own ideas to it.” It makes you wonder when much of the parks are owned by the wealthy landed, are they managed in the national public interest or instead maintained for the private privileged few? When a tree falls in a forest, no-one’s there to listen, but money talks.

My other local national park; The New Forest National Park, says only that they and the Forestry Commission manages half of the land area and the rest is held by ‘significant landowners’ such as “the National Trust, Hampshire County Council, the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and private estates and landowners.” Last May, I attended Rewilding Dorset, an event organised by Bournemouth University to discuss the possibilities of rewilding across the county. I listened avidly to guest speakers from local conservation groups, university lecturers at the forefront of rewilding research from around the country and Rewilding Britain’s director Helen Meech.

During the event, conservation groups like the Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust failed to inspire excitement by showing a willingness to apply rewilding concepts to the natural spaces they preside over throughout Dorset, my home county. I wrote a blog for Rewilding Britain and after watering down the first few drafts where I ranted about the conservation ‘sheep-talk’ and my local nature organisations ‘pulling the wool over’  ecological destruction, I adopted a more sympathetic tone and fell head-first into a great big cow pat of the dominant conservation rhetoric that is so very rampant in this country.

Those that commented on my post pointed out that my use of the New Forest as an example of fine rewilding, was far from the mark. While introductions of wild boar as well as the presence of other browsers and grazers such as ponies, deer and cattle have a function in the habitat mosaic; cut, burn, graze is the predominant practice. Rewilding requires vision and bold action. I join Monbiot in calling for the National Parks to become the great rewilders – perhaps the wolf in sheep clothing that this country and its species so desperately needs.

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