Guest blog by David Hampson from the RSPB's Site Conservation Policy Team

Seventy years on from the legislation that paved the way for the creation of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in England and Wales, two important things are happening this week. Landscapes for Life (the National Association of AONBs) is holding a conference where they will be considering how these protected landscapes can work together to promote real change, and Campaign for National Parks is tonight holding their annual Park Protector Award ceremony. They’re also handing out a second award to mark the UK Government’s Year of Green Action.

We are working in protected landscapes across the country to recover nature, for example with the Broads Authority at Halvergate Marshes. As past winners of the Park Protector Award, the RSPB would like to wish this year’s six shortlisted projects the very best of luck! They include the Carlton Marshes Project in the Broads National Park where the Suffolk Wildlife Trust is creating 1,000 acres of prime wetland habitat, providing homes for wildlife and storing carbon, and Butterfly Conservation’s ‘All the Moor Butterflies’ Project which is saving endangered butterflies and their habitats in South West England, including the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks and the Cornwall AONB.

Carlton Marshes (Steve Aylward)

So now is a time to celebrate projects that are making National Parks a better place for people and nature – but also an opportunity to reflect on the wider role that our National Parks and AONBs could and should be playing in tacking the twin climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Along with National Scenic Areas in Scotland, National Parks and AONBs cover almost a quarter of the UK and vast expanses of precious habitats, much of which have vanished from elsewhere in our countryside. As shown by our recent mapping work, these protected landscapes also contain a large amount of land that is both high in nature and high in carbon and so are crucial to fighting climate change. That makes them obvious places to focus on the implementation of Natural Climate Solutions.

The above map shows the carbon that is stored in England’s best places for nature. A substantial proportion of this high carbon and high nature land falls within National Parks and AONBs. For more information about how we calculated this have a look at our story map. Protected landscapes in England are currently being reviewed by an expert panel headed by Julian Glover.

But habitats need to be in a healthy condition if they are to achieve their huge potential to help restore nature and tackle climate change. As Kevin Cox, Chair of the RSPB, blogged here a few months ago, recent analysis by the RSPB suggests that – in England’s protected landscapes – this is far from the case.

Responding to a review led by Julian Glover of how England’s protected landscapes can deliver more for the nation, we were shocked by the findings of our research. We found that on average the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest is worse inside England’s National Parks and (albeit to a lesser extent) AONBs than it is outside them. Damaging land management, such as intensive farming and grouse moor management, is seriously undermining the ability of these landscapes to tackle the growing emergencies for our climate and wildlife.

Last year, in response to a review of protected landscapes in Wales, the Welsh Government published 'Valued and Resilient: The Welsh Government’s Priorities for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks'. RSPB Cymru welcomed this publication, which recognises the important role of protected landscapes’ habitats in storing carbon and commits to addressing biodiversity declines by maintaining and enhancing the connectivity, condition, extent and diversity of their habitats and species.

It is vital that the Glover Review follows suit, and that its recommendations address the essential tools that will be needed by England’s National Parks and AONBs if they are to reverse the loss of biodiversity and to restore the ability of habitats to store carbon including:

  • a robust monitoring system for species and habitats in National Parks and AONBs to create a stock-take of what they hold and to inform management plans, which should include targets for their recovery
  • stronger and better enforcement of statutory duties, strengthened governance, increased resources and robust application of the Sandford Principle, which states that in National Parks where conflicts arise between objectives, conservation must come first
  • protected landscapes being established as key hubs in delivering the UK Government’s ambition to restore England’s environment. They should be a focus for creating and restoring habitats at a large scale, especially those that store carbon such as woodlands and peatlands. They must be underpinned by a robust Environmental Land Management System that rewards sustainable land management by paying public money for public goods.

There’s also an excellent summary of potential solutions in the Campaign for National Parks’ Raising the Bar report.

Tonight, projects which are making a real contribution to nature and to people within National Parks will rightly be celebrated – but delivering at the speed and scale required for our protected landscapes to realise their potential in tackling the nature and climate emergencies will require fundamental changes and robust Government support.

In England, the Glover Review’s recommendations – and how the Government responds to them – will be key tests of whether in response to the nature and climate emergencies warm words are set to be matched by meaningful action.

  • Interesting to reflect that historically some National Parks played an important role in the 1970s when they advocated they be given powers for moorland protection orders as an attempt to halt the tide of agricultural intensification.  Is it National Parks or Natural England who is failing upland SSSIs?  It is definitely time for new thinking to emerge in England.  Also that SSSI condition in Cotswolds and Chilterns AONBs is better than average - would be interesting to explore how far the AONBs have helped focus past conservation effort.