A National Park. When I hear these three words my mind immediately floods with fond memories. Whether it’s memories of rowing across Lake Windermere, or struggling up Brecon in the snow, or even clinging on to a rock-face for dear life in the Peak District, all while being immersed in a stunning landscape are experiences I shall never forget.
I have no doubt that these experiences have strongly influenced me as a person and fostered my sense of awe and excitement for the natural world.
However when I reflect on these enjoyable moments, I realise the majority are a result of a direct interaction with the physical landscape, rather than any direct encounter with wildlife. The experiences I have had with wildlife are mostly fleeting experiences – the glimpse of a fluffy red squirrel tail or the sudden screech of an owl call at night whilst hiking the woodlands of the Lakes.
This is not to belittle the wildlife value of our National Parks, that would be outright misleading and untrue. These spaces play pivotal roles in the survival of much of our beloved wildlife. In England alone, National Parks cover approximately 10% of our land, yet support over a quarter of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). They harbour many of our incredible species, including all 14 reptile and amphibian species, 90% of our resident dragonfly species and 100% of our resident bat species.
Unfortunately, however, the national decline in wildlife shows no let-up in these areas, with species loss at an alarming rate. Much of this land is prioritised towards agriculture rather than wildlife conservation, potentially attributing to this loss. When I speak to people no older than my own father, they tell me tales of their youth wandering through clouds of butterflies or paddling through streams teaming with water voles. I have never experienced such levels of wildlife abundance in the United Kingdom.
This begs the question, if these sites where once more to become havens of abundance, where wildlife can be as ‘wild’ as possible in our highly populated nation; would they have greater power to inspire and engage people today? In a society filled with multimillion-pound movies, increasingly engrossing virtual experiences and where children’s life expectancy is decreasing due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles, could our National Parks address our disconnect from the natural world? Could they inspire and encourage more people to explore the outdoors and become active, with clear and positive impacts on public health?
In this period of political uncertainty, I hope that policy change can help create a vision of aspiration which strives for our National Parks to be the best in world, comparable with those across Europe and the United States. Progress has been made towards this already, the acclaimed Lawton Report of 2010 set out a framework for creating a robust and coherent ecological network with recommendations that aspire for bigger, healthier and more connected areas of land that can support a rich variety of wildlife. As of yet however, these principles have not been adopted.
National Parks can be at the forefront of this charge, the National Planning Policy Framework already states that “great weight” should be attached to the conservation of wildlife. A recent survey (by Campaign for National Parks) of just under 10,000 National Park visitors indicated the area in which people wanted to see most improvement was wildlife conservation, displaying a public will for increased conservation action. This would not entail the removal of farming from these areas; the cultural importance of farming should be celebrated and National Parks offer a good platform for this. While representing an opportunity to showcase and advance practices in which the farming industry and wildlife can coincide and thrive. However, I strongly believe that significant areas in our Parks should be dedicated towards the conservation and restoration of nature.
Our 15 National Parks are some of our nation’s greatest assets, bringing joy to many. Though, it is easy to become complacent, we should always be aspiring to enhance these landscapes for the betterment of wildlife, local communities and visitors. We now have an exciting opportunity to put plans into action by creating an environment where both humans and wildlife can thrive, paving the way for these principles to be applied across the United Kingdom.
By Elliot Newton
Elliot is a board member of Citizen Zoo and is the creative director of A Focus on Nature, a movement for young conservationists in the UK. He has often written about the importance of including young people in nature conservation throughout the UK.