Carrying on the Big Conversation

We ran a survey in March that nearly 10,000 people filled in to tell us what they think about National Parks. Our chief executive Fiona Howie carries on the conversation. 

In March we launched our Big Conversation about National Parks and asked people to tell us what they loved about our National Parks, but also what they thought would make them even better. We had a fantastic level of interest with nearly 10,000 people responding. And, as you might expect, key themes emerged but there were also a wide range of views from people with a variety of interests.

We also had concerns raised at the time about people interpreting the survey as anti-field sports. This was not our intention. We launched the survey with an open-mind and we were genuinely interested to hear what issues people raised. As I highlighted when we launched the survey, we wanted to involve as many people as possible in the Big Conversation, especially those people or groups we do not have contact with on a regular basis.

So, when the Moorland Association got in touch with me on the back of the survey and invited me to visit part of the North York Moors managed by one of their members, I was happy to go.

I have never been, and I don’t think I will ever go, grouse shooting. But I do love the open, heather moorlands of our National Parks, including the North York Moors. And these are managed landscapes. The vast majority of the more than 16,700 sq km that make up the National Parks of England and Wales is owned and managed privately. So working in partnership with those land managers, whether they are farmers or estate owners, to make sure our Parks are not only protected but also improved is essential.

On my visit to Spaunton I was lucky to see both a barn owl and a few merlin. I understand healthy curlew, golden plover and green plover populations had fledged before my visit. We also talked about the decades of management it had taken to remove bracken that was head height and re-establish heather to the moors. I know some commentators claim the uplands are devoid of biodiversity, but that is simply untrue. Our National Parks could and should be more biodiverse, but I do not believe that will be achieved by abandoning the uplands. Rural communities are an important part of our Parks. Bill Bryson, well known author and lover of the British countryside, recently told us about his first memory of the UK’s National Parks.

“In the US, National Parks are wilderness areas, which charge entrance fees — and often pretty steep ones at that. Apart from a few rangers’ cottages, no one lives in them. But [the Lake District] was an area of intense beauty that had towns and farms and country inns and the like. It was not only sensationally attractive, but also vibrant and lived in and real. That combination of amenity and utility struck me as brilliant and far-sighted, and I think remains one of the great distinguishing features of British National Parks compared with National Parks in much of the rest of the world.”

And, of course, the debate cannot solely be about biodiversity. As well as wildlife the Parks contain inspirational landscapes, rural communities, an abundance of cultural heritage, extensive recreational opportunities and numerous tourist attractions.

Unpicking and understanding the implications of the outcome of the EU referendum will take much hard work. And the debate about the future of payments for farmers and land managers is already raging, especially following the National Trust’s intervention last week. But it is an important opportunity for us to make sure the beauty and value of our National Parks are recognised and there is support to improve them even further. And we will only achieve that by working with partners, listening to a wide range of views and having informed debates about what we want for the future of our National Parks.