Yesterday DEFRA closed their call for views on England’s National Parks and AONBs. Kevin Cox, Chair of the RSPB and a resident of Dartmoor National Park, shares our thoughts on the review and our hopes for the future of these protected landscapes.

 

The Peak District National Park (Colin Wilkinson; rspb-images.com)

Back in May, Environment Secretary Michael Gove launched a review looking at how England’s 10 National Parks and 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) can deliver more for the nation. The independent panel leading the review, headed by writer Julian Glover, has been touring England’s protected landscapes to hear about what works and what doesn’t, from the people who own, manage, work and live in these landscapes – including some of our regional teams. The RSPB responded to DEFRA’s call for views, and my colleagues and I have also explored these issues in an article published today in British Wildlife, which discusses the role of England’s National Parks in conserving and enhancing biodiversity, and their track record of delivering on this.

The RSPB warmly welcomes this review, which has allowed for a much-needed stock-take of the state of nature within these landscapes, and a timely discussion about what they should be delivering for the nation. We have been concerned at the growing disconnect between public perceptions of these areas as beautiful, wildlife-rich, natural spaces and their often poor ecological condition. National Parks and AONBs have huge potential to deliver substantial benefits for people and wildlife across the country, but to date they are falling short.  We hope that this review will transform them to fulfil their role as national assets.

We are desperately short of monitoring data for these landscapes – a crucial outcome of this review must be a robust monitoring system for species and habitats in National Parks and AONBs. However, in response to the review the RSPB has gathered and analysed what data we do have on biodiversity in these landscapes, and the picture does not look good.

The RSPB was shocked to find that, on average, the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) inside National Parks and AONBs is in fact worse than it is outside. SSSIs are protected for nationally important wildlife and so are more likely to be actively managed for nature conservation than other areas within National Parks and AONBs. It is therefore reasonable to guess that wildlife may be faring even more poorly elsewhere within the protected landscapes, and does suggest that National Park and AONB status is, on the whole, not delivering demonstrable additional benefits for nature. It is important to note that trends do vary across the suite of protected landscapes. For instance, the lowland National Parks – the South Downs, New Forest and the Broads - and several AONBs are performing much better in terms of SSSI condition.

Sadly, SSSI condition is just one indicator that nature is not thriving within these landscapes. The RSPB found other evidence that increasingly intensive management of these landscapes is causing species and habitats to decline, mirroring trends seen in the wider countryside. Many of these issues – such as illegal persecution of raptor species and the alarmingly poor condition of vital peatland habitats -  were particularly associated with the uplands (where 7 of England’s 10 National Parks are located) and their management for farming or driven grouse shooting. Uplands are internationally important for biodiversity and for providing flows of ecosystem services, such as much of our drinking water and carbon storage. Uplands also provide refuges for wildlife marginalised from the wider countryside, for example our analysis showed that Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks are particularly important for supporting priority bird species within the South-West region. The state of nature within these landscapes is therefore extremely concerning and must be urgently addressed through the review.

It is not all bad news. First, it is important to acknowledge and commend the growing number of partnership initiatives that are working to conserve, restore and enhance nature in these landscapes. It is clear that there is a genuine ambition from many National Park Authorities and AONBs to deliver much more for wildlife. The failure to buck wider biodiversity trends signals that such initiatives need to be delivered on a much bigger scale, and that National Parks and AONBs do not have the tools they need to achieve this: substantial changes to governance and resourcing are required.

Second, there is a strong public mandate for improving these landscapes for wildlife. A survey carried out in 2016 showed strong public support for increasing the focus on nature conservation in National Parks and making them ‘wilder’. Improving these landscapes for biodiversity will also deliver other public benefits, from clear air and water, to health and wellbeing.

Finally, there is a huge opportunity for the UK Government to deliver its ambitions for England’s environment within National Parks and AONBs. The 25 Year Environment Plan set out a number of welcome commitments for nature, and the sheer size and scale of semi-natural habitats within these landscapes make them the perfect test-beds for implementing this vision. As a start, National Parks and AONBs should be underpinned by a robust Environmental Land Management System that rewards sustainable land management by paying public money for public goods. Designated landscapes should form key hubs in the new Nature Recovery Network and be a focus for targeted creation and restoration of semi-natural habitats, improving the condition of protected nature sites and enhancing connectivity with the wider countryside.

The RSPB looks forward to hearing the review panel’s recommendations and Mr Gove’s response in 2019.  We have heard many warm words about the Government’s ambitions for nature – we see this is an early opportunity for this ambition to be translated into meaningful action.

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