National ARKS
BBC Wildlife|April 2021
Seven decades after the UK’s first national parks were created, our largest protected landscapes should nurture thriving biodiversity. How can we make them true havens for wildlife?
Paul Bloomfield

Seedheads nod in waves washing across a green ocean. Grazing those undulating expanses are herbivores in their dozens, even hundreds, glancing up periodically to scan the horizon. A well-camouflaged predator peers hungrily from the shade of a lonely tree. It’s a seemingly timeless scene echoed in national parks the world over – until you examine the fine detail.

Yellowstone’s bison and deer range over nearly 900,000ha, hunted by wolf, coyote and grizzly bear; the Serengeti’s vast grasslands are mown by a multitude of wildebeest and impala on their epic annual migration through some three million hectares of rolling savannah, stalked by lion, cheetah and leopard.

The sheep and cows of the Peak District – the UK’s first national park, established 70 years ago, on 17 April 1951 – graze discrete parcels of pasture within the park’s 140,000-odd hectares. You might, if you’re fortunate, spy a polecat, or a short-eared owl quartering moorland. One species you’ll certainly encounter is Homo sapiens: about 38,000 people live within the park’s boundaries, joined by more than 13 million visitors each year.

Yellowstone, Serengeti, the Peaks: all are designated national parks – but all are quite different. That patch of the southern Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield is wildly arresting, sure – but wild? Not really. And that’s true of the chalk slopes of the South Downs, Dartmoor’s rocky tors, the deer-grazed glades of the New Forest. Indeed, none of the UK’s national parks meets the IUCN’s criteria for that designation – instead, they’re considered Category V Protected Landscapes. Which cuts to the heart of two thorny questions: seven decades after that first designation, what do Britain’s national parks do for wildlife – and what should their role be in the 21st century?

Protect and enrich

The wording of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which mandated the designation of these protected landscapes, defines their purpose as: “preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the areas specified [and] promoting their enjoyment by the public” – no explicit mention of biodiversity or nature conservation. Indeed, it was declared at the time that they shouldn’t emulate the wilderness of equivalents overseas. It was only with the 1995 Environment Act that their remit became “conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage”.

“Seventy years ago, with the first major official conservation legislation, we went down two parallel paths,” explains Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England. “There were designations, exemplified by national parks, to conserve landscapes and to open those places for public enjoyment. And, in parallel, we had the designation of land for the protection of wildlife, exemplified by Sites of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] and National Nature Reserves. Today, we see the need to bring those two lines of thinking much closer together.”

The idea that national parks should also protect wildlife and habitats seems a bit of a no-brainer. Yet, even now, we don’t have a clear picture of the state of their biodiversity. The most comprehensive data available comes from assessments of SSSI, which constitute an average of 24 per cent of England’s national parks. The results aren’t edifying: just 26 per cent of SSSI in those parks are in so-called ‘favourable’ condition.

“The data we do have – on populations of species, extent of woodland cover and other indicators – suggest that national parks aren’t doing any better than areas that are not designated and protected,” says chief executive of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust Jo Smith.

“Our analysis found that England’s national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty [AONB] see 50 per cent of raptor persecution, despite covering under 25 per cent of land area,” adds Kate Jennings, RSPB head of site conservation policy. “So, based on the few measures we have, it doesn’t look great – but there isn’t a decent monitoring programme or baseline data to work from.”

It seems clear that a detailed assessment of the biodiversity and condition of our protected areas is needed, not least because a reliance on subjective ideas of what parks should look like is prone to both nostalgia and ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: we’re so used to today’s paucity of nature that it seems normal.

“We often equate beautiful with bountiful – but we need to build an understanding of what we should be able to see in these beautiful places, because an awful lot of people don’t know what’s missing,” says Kate. “As an example, watching the latest TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, I realised that I wasn’t hearing any curlews. Yet in the 1930s, [the Yorkshire Dales] would have been hooching with curlews. There’s a shifted perception of what it should be like.”

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