It’s time to bite the bullet for nature in National Parks

13 July 2018

Prof Alastair Driver from Rewilding Britain says it’s time for National Parks to bite the bullet and focus much harder on the enhancement of natural beauty and wildlife #summerofbeauty

I have had the benefit of visiting all of the National Parks in England and Wales in a professional capacity in my 40 years in conservation and I have always been struck by the huge contrast between the small patches of sublime natural habitat bristling with rare species (usually the bits I am taken to) and the vast areas of intensively managed farmland, moorland and forestry that surround them (the bits I see en route).

We are of course a small and very densely populated country and so we cannot of course aspire to have National Parks of the scale and “wildness” of those in the USA and Canada and other parts of Europe, but I am certain we can achieve a better balance overall between those areas where natural processes prevail and those where intensive management dominates. I am equally confident that we can do so in a way that makes economic sense to society as a whole.

Popular oak woodland in the Peak District

Beautiful and popular oak woodland at Padley Gorge in Peak District National Park. Photo credit: Prof Alastair Driver

So how might we achieve this? Well we’re already on the right track with the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan which promises a public money for public goods approach to land management. This essentially means paying farmers and other land managers for managing their land in a way that delivers a range of ecosystem services including flood risk management, water quality, water resources, carbon sequestration, health and wellbeing, biodiversity, etc. To do this effectively public money has to be supplemented by contributions from the private sector – but that’s a subject for another blog.  

Having said that, there still won’t be enough money to incentivise an approach that restores natural processes across the entire country and so we should focus on doing it properly in a few areas, rather than half-heartedly everywhere. This is where National Parks come in. If we can’t apply this approach effectively in National Parks with all the legislation, policy and organisational infrastructure that underpins them, then what chance have we got of doing it on a major scale with a multitude of landowners in undesignated areas?

Are there too many barren landscapes in National Parks?

Rewilding britain wants to see less intensivley managed landscapes in the National Parks. Photo credit: Prof Alastair Driver

I would like to see designated wild areas within some (not necessarily all) of our National Parks where restoration of natural processes is the top priority. These areas should be 10,000-100,000 ha in size and certainly for our upland National Parks equate to 10-50% of the park area. One of my professional roles is to act Specialist Advisor for Rewilding Britain and in this capacity I am already developing ideas for this approach for a few of our National Parks through early discussions with key organisations and I am very much hoping that these areas will become the first to apply it on the ground on a large scale.

I should stress that to achieve all of the above, we will need to apply the key principles espoused by Rewilding Britain – especially people, communities and livelihoods are key”. We cannot possibly expect to enforce this approach on entire rural communities – we have to take them along with us, carefully developing the local economic rationale alongside the obvious environmental and wider societal benefits.

But, and this is a big but, it will require some of the major landowning organisations in these large upland National Parks to toughen up a bit and by this I mean for example the National Park Authorities themselves, the National Trust, government agencies and water companies etc.

It is time now for these major players to do what is right for society as a whole rather than bending over backwards to try to keep all their stakeholders happy and avoid bad press. In reality that is never achievable anyway due to tiny vociferous and well-connected minorities and deliberate mis-reporting in the media, so they may as well do what is right and take the flack. It’s time to bite the bullet.

By Alastair Driver,

Alastair is the former long-serving National Head of the Conservation for the Environment Agency and now has many roles in a private capacity including Specialist Advisor for Rewilding Britain and Arup, Honorary Professor at Univ of Exeter and an environmental advisor pro bono for several organisations including No 10 and the National Trust. He tweets regularly on rewilding and wildlife @AliDriverUK