The RSPB's England Director, Emma Marsh, sets four key tests for the UK Government’s response to Julian Glover's Landscapes Review 

The beauty of England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) is lost if nature is lost – if curlews have gone or if wildflower meadows have been destroyed. Yet wildlife is vanishing at an alarming rate from these special places. This is the powerful conclusion of the Landscapes Review, which we welcomed last week.

The report calls for bold changes so that our ‘national landscapes’ can lead the way on restoring diminished biodiversity and fighting the climate crisis. The strong public appetite for this is shown by the report’s finding that “In our call for evidence, the message was clear: more than any other single thing, people and organisations agreed that our landscapes should do more for nature”. A survey of 10,000 people in 2016 contained the same message.

The Environment Secretary’s response so far has been to welcome and agree with “the spirit of ambition” in the report and to commit to “carefully consider the recommendations”. We urge the UK Government to act quickly and to keep in mind that, as Parliament declared earlier this year, we are in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency and that an emergency calls for decisive, swift and bold action. As the report says, England’s National Parks and AONBs must lead the way.

For the report’s vision to be turned into reality, the UK Government needs to urgently commit to do four things:

Give landscapes the tools they need to tackle the nature and climate crises

The report makes recommendations that will, if implemented, help England’s national landscapes lead the fight against the nature and climate crises. These recommendations include:

  • giving landscapes a new purpose to ‘recover’ nature and for this to be prioritised over other purposes where there is a conflict
  • regular and robust assessments of the state of nature within landscapes
  • ambitious management plans, with actions and targets to recover nature, and with a stronger status in law and stronger duties on other bodies to support them
  • selecting the members of the boards who will drive the delivery of these plans for their passion, skills and experience, including in biodiversity

Empower and resource landscapes to create more, bigger, better and joined up places for nature

It’s almost 10 years since the highly-respected Lawton Report recommended that National Parks and AONBs should play a leading role in creating more, bigger, better and joined up places for nature. Scientists repeated this message last year. The Landscapes Review has now added its voice in support but finds that these landscapes’ potential to do this has not yet been fulfilled. The review says that national landscapes should be key parts of the Nature Recovery Networks that were promised in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. It also calls for the creation of wilder areas and for our landscapes to fight the climate crisis by creating new woodlands and restoring damaged peatlands.

This needs to be backed-up by ambitious targets nationally and in landscape management plans. Last year scientists recommended expanding the area of high quality semi-natural habitat in National Parks and AONBs so that it covers 40% of these landscapes (an increase of 33%). These large areas would be a focal point for the development of resilient ecological networks, in other words they would be engines driving nature’s recovery and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

It also needs to be backed-up by funding to deliver these changes on the ground. We’re pleased that the report recommends that national landscapes should have a central place in the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme, which involves payments for farmers to deliver public goods such as a wildlife-rich countryside. However, dedicated funding for creating, restoring and connecting habitats will also be needed, which will require EU LIFE funds not only to be replaced but to be significantly scaled up.

Provide strong and well-resourced national leadership for landscapes

The report’s central finding is that landscapes need to work together, with national leadership to set the vision and strategy, provide support and hold landscapes to account for recovering nature. The report proposes the creation of a new body to do this, called the National Landscapes Service. This new body would work closely with Natural England but the report doesn’t explain how. While we support the need for these functions – we question the wisdom of the proposal for a new body to deliver them. How would this work in the context of the existing and undelivered obligations on Natural England and other environmental agencies, and of the successive rounds of bruising budget cuts to which they have been subjected?

It’s important that our existing agencies have the resources needed to do their jobs. Natural England’s chair has admitted that reductions in its funding have meant its work in National Parks and AONBs “is cut now to pretty much nothing”, while it is failing to carry out checks needed on the condition of the nation’s most important places for wildlife. Properly resourcing existing nature conservation agencies must be a priority.

The individual landscapes themselves will also need statutory duties, funding and expertise to deliver the report’s recommendations, for example to produce management plans to recover nature, carry out robust and regular state of nature assessments and deliver ambitious management plan actions.

Transform England’s uplands for nature, climate and people

With so many National Parks and AONBs in the English uplands, the report was strangely silent about the management of large parts of these areas as driven grouse moors. This management, especially moorland burning, is scarring these special places and causing long-term damage to wildlife, climate and ecosystem services. The report was also oddly silent about the illegal killing of birds of prey, which Natural England’s research has found is most likely to occur in National Parks with high proportions of land managed as grouse moors.

The report simply notes that these are controversial issues and moves on. This is not an option for the UK Government. It must act now to ban burning on peatlands and to review driven grouse shooting.

As evidence grows of the collapse of previously abundant wildlife, the call for our landscapes to deliver more for nature cannot be ignored any longer. They should be places for people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy spectacular wildlife, boosting tourism and local economies, and providing significant benefits to the nation’s health and well-being. These places will also provide vital ecosystem services, from fighting global heating by storing carbon to reducing the risk of floods (to mention only a few). The benefits and public support for this are clear.

The ball is now in the UK Government’s court. The message from the Landscapes Review is clear: it’s time for bold and urgent action to unleash the potential of our National Parks and AONBs to bring nature back and flight climate breakdown. It’s what people want and what our wildlife and planet desperately need.