People want England’s National Parks to be natural parks

The RSPB has released new research that shows people want to see more nature and wildlife in National Parks in England. RSPB Policy Officer David Hampson explains...

England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are some of the nation’s most celebrated landscapes. From rugged uplands, to amethyst heathlands, to reed covered fens – these protected landscapes are vital for nature and people.

There is only one week to go before the end of an important Landscapes Review consultation on reforms to England’s National Parks and AONBs. As the Government accepts, these special places have lost much of their wildlife since they were first created. Wildlife has been pushed to their fringes or lost altogether, often despite the best efforts of the bodies responsible for these landscapes. Important plants and animals remain but what we have now is a pale shadow of the teeming wildlife previous generations would have enjoyed. These famous landscapes have lost much of their natural diversity, colour and sound.

A new independent survey, commissioned by the RSPB, shows there is huge public demand for nature to be restored to these landscapes. Our report Natural Parks?, draws on the results of a survey of 1,750 adults across England and finds out what people want.

A huge majority want nature-rich protected landscapes

We found that what people most value about these places is their wildlife and nature. But they think these landscapes are doing better than they are. Two thirds of people expected that wildlife would be doing better inside protected landscapes than across the rest of the countryside.

When they found out that it wasn’t, 85 per cent were concerned and 90 per cent said that it was important to them for wildlife to be restored. In fact, this was their number one priority for National Parks and AONBs.

This builds on the Campaign for National Park’s Big Conversation survey in 2016, which found that “Better conservation of wildlife” was the most popular answer to the question “What, if any, changes would you like to see to National Parks in the future?” amongst people who live in National Parks, visitors to National Parks and non-visitors.

If wildlife in these areas is to be brought back from the brink, the way they look and are managed has to change.

We found that people strongly support those changes. 81 per cent were in favour of nature-friendly land management practices – such as restoring wildflower meadows, reducing the number of grazing animals and increasing the number of broadleaved trees – even though this will change the visual appearance of the landscape.

People overwhelmingly rejected the idea that land management practices that harm nature should continue. Only 6 per cent of them did not want these practices to change.

The message is clear, there is little appetite for National Parks and AONBs to be preserved in their current state, people want to see them revived.

As the Government consults on changes to the statutory objectives of protected landscapes, these results provide strong support for making restoring nature their main objective and making sure their other objectives do not harm nature.

This does not mean putting wildlife ahead of people. This approach will deliver for both. Many farmers are already showing that nature-friendly techniques are not only good for the environment but make good business sense, for example reducing input costs and boosting pollinators. Lower intensity practices may also, in many cases, be considered far more traditional and in keeping with the cultural heritage of these landscapes.

Boards need more expertise and resources

The report also explores some of the other issues raised by the government’s consultation. For example, the consultation asks for views on how people are appointed to the boards of National Parks and AONBs. A review for the Government found that these boards were lacking people with expertise in restoring nature and had a shocking lack of diversity. Our report finds that 80 per cent of people would like board members to be recruited through open competition, based on their expertise in the objectives of these landscapes. 83 per cent want boards to have a balance of skills across landscapes’ objectives. There was also strong support for boards to have a socially diverse membership.

We found high levels of public support for the government to increase funding for the bodies responsible for these landscapes to restore nature, following a decade of cuts that have made it harder for them to do this as documented by Campaign for National Parks. People were also clear that resources must be focused on improving the state of nature in our existing protected landscapes, not on designating new ones.

The people have spoken, now the Government must listen and urgently bring forward bold reforms to meet the demand for protected landscapes to be alive with nature. In the meantime, we have until 9 April to make sure this opportunity is not missed and that all our voices are heard in the consultation.