“We can't afford to miss this chance.” Why the new protected landscapes consultation matters

In January 2022 the UK Government published their long-awaited Response to the Landscapes Review. Now, it is seeking public views on legislation that will determine the future of England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

By Lauren Jarvis
Published 25 Feb 2022, 17:06 GMT
A view to Buttermere in the Lake District National Park.

A view to Buttermere in the Lake District National Park. 

Photograph by Alamy

INSPIRED BY the landscapes in the Lake District, “The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,” the British nineteenth-century Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, was an early advocate for a national park system, noting in his 1810 Guide to the Lakes that, “persons of pure taste… deem the district a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”.

For centuries, the keys to the United Kingdom’s wilder places were clasped tightly in the hands of the Crown and landed gentry, to protect hunting and fishing rights. But in 1884 the Liberal MP James Bryce introduced the first “freedom to roam” bill in parliament, and while the bill failed, the campaign to grant public access to private lands had begun.

In post-war Britain, natural places were in high demand, as expanding cities and industrialisation drove many, including returning heroes, to seek the solace of the countryside and clean air. In 1945, the Government produced a White Paper on National Parks and a National Parks Committee was established, with MP Sir Arthur Hobhouse as Chair. In 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act finally made the creation of legally protected areas in the UK possible, and the UK’s first National Park, the Peak District, was designated in 1951, followed by another nine throughout the 1950s.

(Read about the creation of the UK's first National Park here.)

Over seventy years later, the UK is home to several types of nationally protected landscape areas: National Parks (England, Scotland and Wales), Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONBs (England, Northern Ireland and Wales), and National Scenic Areas in Scotland. The current tally of National Parks is 15 – 10 in England (including Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District), three in Wales and two in Scotland – with government agencies in each country holding the power to designate protected areas: Natural Resources Wales, Natural England and NatureScot.

Sycamore Gap, a famous interruption to Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland National Park. 

Photograph by Robert Clark&& National Geographic Image Collection

As the UK slowly emerges from the grip of COVID-19, the UK Government is once more turning its attention to these protected places, which provided invaluable sanctuary for so many during some of the darkest hours of the past two years. In 2019, the UK’s National Parks welcomed around 94.7 million people, but visitation increased during the pandemic as people turned to nature for exercise, escape and to soothe stress. Now the public – along with governing bodies, land owners and conservation and environmental groups – is being invited to share their views on how we navigate the next crucial chapter in the story of England’s protected lands, by contributing to a public consultation which will be running online until 9 April 2022.  

Why now?

As part of its 25 Year Environment Plan, the Government commissioned an extensive Landscapes Review into the state of England’s National Parks and AONBs, led by journalist and government Special Adviser to Number 10 and the Department for Transport, Julian Glover OBE. Published in September 2019, Glover’s final report revealed an urgent need to restore landscapes and rethink the management of England’s protected places, while praising the efforts of the many dedicated people working within chronically underfunded, fractured systems.

Frost lies on the ground on the Great Ridge while winter mist fills the Hope and Edale valleys either side, the Peak District. The National Park was the first such area to be designated in the UK. 

Photograph by Graham Dunn, Alamy

Blakeney Sands – part of the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). 

Photograph by Kier Allen / Unsplash

A view across the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A 'wold' is an Old English word that originally meaned 'forest' but was later applied to a hilly, uncultivated landscape. Some of England's most captivating landscapes, in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the Cotswolds, now bear the word – despite many being largely farmland.  

Photograph by Colin Watts / Unsplash

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) finally published the Government Response to the Landscapes Review of National Parks and AONBs on January 15 2022, setting out a new strategy based on findings from the Glover Report. A DEFRA spokesperson told National Geographic that while officers and volunteers are passionate about nature, the review found “that nature recovery could be prioritised more highly within our protected landscapes,” and identified areas “where protections and resources could be improved. Proposals outlined in our response to the Landscapes Review respond directly to these concerns.”

With both the climate and nature crises gathering pace, National Parks England has already begun to act on Glover’s recommendations. “Since 2019, National Parks individually and collectively have made great progress in delivering against many of the proposals in the Landscapes Review,” says Andrew McCloy, Chair of National Parks England. “National Parks play a vital role for the nation, supporting people, places, climate and nature. We share the aspirations that were identified in the Landscapes Review, some of which are outlined in the Government’s consultation document. Protected landscapes should be empowered to deliver more for nature, climate and people, but need adequate resources and powers to make this happen.”

What’s in the response?

The Government response to the Review reaffirms ambitions for protecting 30% of land by 2030, increasing biodiversity, designating more areas of the country for their natural beauty, and improving public access to protected areas. DEFRA’s proposed new national landscapes partnership will coordinate the work of existing organisations, such as National Parks England and National Association for AONBS, enabling closer collaboration to address national issues in the public interest, such as recovering nature, tackling climate change, and improving access to green or open space. 

The partnership will share expertise and knowledge to build capacity across the protected landscapes family; champion protected landscapes and run national campaigns (such as promoting tourism and community engagement); generate additional private income through green finance initiatives and joint funding bids; develop strategic partnerships and programmes with a particular focus on commercial partners; create opportunities to provide training and development; and recognise the essential role played by National Parks and AONBs in ensuring the UK achieves its climate commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050

Sheep graze at the roadside outside Penrith, in the lake District National Park. Sheep have been blamed for landscape transformations in areas like the Lake District National Park, with rewilding organisations calling for more low-impact hill farming that would encourage regrowth of native plants on upland slopes.  

Photograph by Jonny Gios / Unsplash

An otter hunts in Dorset's River Stour. Otter populations have been increasing over the last few decades, both in protected areas and urban centres. 

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

A red squirrel forages for nuts near a stream in the Lake District National Park. Red squirrels have been decimated in their native habitat by the impact of invasive grey squirrels, imported in the 19th century from the United States and released as a curiosity. 

Photograph by Jonny Gios / Unsplash

“The Glover Review opened up a crucial conversation about what designated landscapes should deliver for a 21st century society and the environmental challenges it faces,” says John Watkins, Chief Executive of the National Association for AONBs. “Central to the changes Glover recommended was a clear recognition of the enormous potential and frustrated ambition of the AONB network – 34 designated landscapes, covering 15% of England’s land area – to deliver so much more for nature, climate and people, at this critical time."

Watkins adds: "The announcement in 2021 of plans to designate two new AONBs (Sandstone Ridge and Yorkshire Wolds) and extend two existing AONBs is a clear endorsement of [the designation's] value. The Government’s response agreed with the Review recommendation that AONBs should be prioritised for greater resources in order to unlock their full potential. With all 34 AONBs sharing the same funding as a single medium-sized secondary school, and an average of four FTE staff in each team, this is welcome.”

Protected landscapes cover roughly 25% of land in England, so they are well placed to help tackle climate change by planning and delivering nature-based solutions, such as tree planting and the restoration of peatland, woodland, salt marsh, and other habitats. Nature-based solutions can not only help to capture carbon, but also provide increased resilience to the effects of climate change by providing services such as flood management.

“Nature is in big trouble in the UK – we’re one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”

Katherine Hawkins, The Wildlife Trusts

The Government response proposes to amend and strengthen the first statutory purpose of protected landscapes, to make it more focused on nature recovery and natural capital, of which climate mitigation and adaptation are key ecosystem services. But conservation organisations are pressing for urgent action and asking for more clarity on recovery timelines and the scale of funding.

Wildlife ‘crisis point’

“Nature is in big trouble in the UK – we’re one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world,” says Katherine Hawkins, Living Landscape Manager for The Wildlife Trusts (TWT). “26% of UK mammals are in danger of disappearing altogether and hedgehogs, red squirrels, bats and water voles all at risk – as are a host of other species, from basking sharks to cuckoos. It is not only individual species that are threatened: the collapse in the abundance of nature also means many of our ecosystems are not functioning as they should. Climate change is driving nature’s decline, and the loss of wildlife and wild places leaves us ill-equipped to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to change. One cannot be solved without the other.”

While TWT welcomes and largely supports the Government’s response to the Landscapes Review, the conservation organisation is keen to see an urgent change to the legislation, which will be necessary to carry forward the Landscape Review proposals. “We need to act faster with greater funding to deliver meaningful action to restore nature across these landscapes,” Hawkins adds. “We’ve reached a crisis point and urgent action must be taken to restore natural habitats and help the wildlife that depends on them to recover. This, in turn, will help us tackle climate change. We’re urging the Government to act much faster to protect and effectively manage at least 30% of our land and sea for nature.”

An archaeological excavation at a site near Vindolanda Fort, near Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland. 

Photograph by Robert Clark&& National Geographic Image Collection

A train crosses the Dent Head Viaduct, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. All of the UK's national parks are functional regions where people live and work, and in that sense are fundamentally different to similar protected spaces in the United States, for example. 

A waterfall at Tintagel, Cornwall – said to be the site of the legendary King Arthur's birth. The county comprises 12 separate areas all designated under the same AONB. 

A chance for change

A DEFRA spokesperson told National Geographic that its forthcoming Nature Recovery Green Paper will set out how the Government aims to achieve its goal of protecting 30% of land for nature by 2030. Meanwhile, the current consultation provides an opportunity for everyone to contribute to the conversation and express their views on proposed legislative changes. The consultation survey can be accessed here, but the public are advised to read the complete Landscapes Review and Government response before taking part, to gain an understanding of the key issues. For added context, most of the UK’s leading conservation organisations, along with the National Parks and AONBs websites have released statements in response to the Landscape Review and the Government’s proposed plans.

“These are landscapes for everyone, and we all need to make our voice heard during the consultation, so that the Government backs its rhetoric with action,” urges Emma Marsh, England Director of wildlife and nature conservation charity, RSPB. “This is an opportunity for all of us to demand more nature-rich National Parks and AONBs, so that we can all experience the wonder of thriving wildlife, whether that is bringing golden eagles back to the Lake District, or recovering sand lizards on the Dorset coast. Opportunities for transformative changes to our National Parks and AONBs don’t come around often – we can’t afford to miss this chance.”

Like many conservation organisations, the RSPB believes a radical overhaul of our agricultural systems are necessary to restore biodiversity and help nature thrive. “Most of the land in England’s National Parks and AONBs is farmed,” explains the RSPB’s Emma Marsh. “The science tells us that the intensive management of farmland has been the most important driver of biodiversity loss in the past 45 years. It also tells us that managing farmland less intensively and creating and restoring habitats have the greatest impact in reversing this loss. Many farmers are trying to do the right thing for their land and for nature, but the Government needs to help them much more.”

It's perhaps a surprise to some that 15% of our National Parks are intensively managed grouse moors – used for rearing and shooting over half a million game birds annually for sport. This management, which includes burning heather on precious peatlands which are natural carbon sinks, is contributing to climate change, impacting water quality and causing long-term damage to wildlife.

Natural predators of ground-nesting grouse and chicks – including foxes, stoats and legally protected raptors such as rare hen harriers – are widely persecuted: poisoned, trapped and shot to protect grouse populations. “The Government has not given the bodies responsible for our National Parks and AONBs the tools and resources to tackle these and other problems such as water and air pollution and the illegal killing of protected wildlife,” says Emma Marsh. “This consultation is a golden opportunity to change all this and start a new, nature-rich chapter for these landscapes.”

“The science tells us that the intensive management of farmland has been the most important driver of biodiversity loss in the past 45 years.”

Emma Marsh, RSPB

The shape of the future

Since the Landscapes Review was published, DEFRA has established the Farming in Protected Landscapes programme as a part of its Agricultural Transition Plan, which provides funding to farmers in National Parks and AONBs to deliver projects that support the four key themes of the programme: climate, nature, people and place. Farmers and landowners in protected landscapes will also be encouraged to apply to voluntary new Environmental Land Management schemes, which its hoped will incentivise sustainable farming practices alongside profitable food production, and deliver a number of beneficial environmental outcomes.

Globally, by weight, 60% of the world’s mammals are now livestock, 36% are humans and only 4% are wild. Some estimate the situation is even more dire in the UK. Grazing by domesticated animals has ravaged many of our natural landscapes, and while ramblers can appreciate the ‘wild’ beauty of regions like the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, the rolling hills and treeless plains are far from the wildernesses they were before development and agriculture slew Britain’s ancient forests.

“The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheep-wrecked: the forests that once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green,” wrote author and environmentalist George Monbiot in a 2013 article about the designation of the Lake District as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Farming has done more extensive damage to wildlife and habitats than all the factories ever built. Few kinds of farming have done more harm in proportion to their output, than the keeping of sheep in the hills.”

(Read more about the Lake District National Park.)

Cars negotiate Hardknott Pass in the Lake District National Park (left); kayakers on the River Wye beneath Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley AONB (right). 

Photograph by incamerastock / Alamy (left); Simon Ingram (right)

Around 10,000 years ago, forests of native trees including Scots pine, birch, hazel, alder and oak covered much of Britain, roamed by wolves, brown bears and lynx. By the Iron Age (around 4,000 years ago), people were clearing the forests to farm crops and animals, and by the Middle Ages, much of our ancient woodland – along with our large predators – had disappeared, leaving precious patches of forest behind and an ecosystem now out of balance. (Read: Lynx and wolves may roam Britain again. Is it a good idea?)

Today, Friends of the Earth reports that less than 15% of England’s national parks is covered in forest, and there is less woodland cover in the Yorkshire Dales than London, less in the Peak District than Leeds, and less in the Lake District than Sheffield. In addition, three-quarters of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest within England’s National Parks are in a poor condition, and often in a worse state than elsewhere. The Government’s England Trees Action Plan, launched in May 2021, pledges to treble tree-planting rates in England by the end of this Parliament, supported by the Nature for Climate Fund, while the England Peat Action Plan sets out the Government’s vision for the management, protection and restoration of peatlands.

“Wilder national parks could lead the way for a healthier, more nature-rich Britain, which boosts biodiversity and creates more carbon dioxide sinks,” Rebecca Wrigley, Chief Executive of Britain’s first and only country-wide rewilding organisation, Rewilding Britain, told National Geographic. The charity wants to see a Government commitment to creating and enabling core rewilding areas across 10% of our National Parks by 2030. “Rewilding pulls carbon out of the air and stores it in trees, peat and other habitats. Our Rewilding and Climate Breakdown report shows that restoring and protecting native woodland, peatlands, heaths and species-rich grasslands over seven million hectares of Britain (30% of our land) could capture and store 53 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That’s more than 12% of current UK greenhouse gas emissions. This would also provide opportunities for communities and local economies, reduce flooding and improve water quality.”

People power

Increasing community engagement, diversifying visitation and improving accessibility to the National Parks and AONBs are other recommended actions highlighted in Julian Glover’s Landscapes Review: “Our landscapes, and their natural beauty, matter in themselves. They shape who we are, how we feel about each other and they make us happy. They are about people as well as place.” But the report acknowledges that while many people feel drawn to the country’s natural spaces, “there are large parts of society that have no relationship with them at all… Some remain excluded… We want to see our landscapes reaching out and welcoming everyone.” Those missing out are the older, the young – especially adolescents – people with disabilities, and those from lower socio-economic groups and Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

(Read: For Muslim hikers in the UK, an empowering community makes all the difference.)

Ruth Bradshaw, Policy and Research Manager at Campaign for National Parks – the only national charity dedicated to protecting and improving the National Parks of England and Wales, and which helped to inform the Landscapes Review – said: “The Government’s proposed National Landscapes Partnership will be responsible for national co-ordination of engagement activities to attract new visitors, but what’s missing is any financial support for new long-term engagement programmes, similar to Campaign for National Parks’ Mosaic project, which successfully introduced thousands of first-time visitors to the National Parks. We’d like to see additional funding for such engagement activities and the measures to support them, including improved public transport, and we’re particularly disappointed that the Government has made no commitment to this in its response to the review.”

Near Leamington Spa, signs protest against the route of the High Speed rail route (HS2) currently being constructed to link cities in the Midlands with London. The scheme has attracted criticism for its cost, and the clearing of ancient woodlands and disruption of habitats to make way for its path. 

Photograph by Dylan Hayward / Unsplash

DEFRA’s spokesperson told National Geographic, “DEFRA is funding Generation Green through the Heritage Lottery Fund. This partnership project includes the 10 English National Park Authorities, the Scouts, YHA (England & Wales), The Outward Bound Trust, Girl Guiding and the Field Studies Council, and aims to provide more than 100,000 progressive opportunities to connect young people to nature, prioritising young people from BAME groups, disadvantaged backgrounds and coastal communities. We are also exploring how we can expand volunteering and connect with currently underserved communities to create a more inclusive and diverse community of visitors and volunteers.”

A balancing act

Meeting the needs of nature, wildlife, agriculture and people has never been an easy task in a highly populated country the size of the United Kingdom. Designated National Parks and AONBs can include towns, villages, farms and busy roads within their boundaries. Hampshire’s New Forest National Park, which has just been voted Best in Europe in the 2022 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards, has 35,000 residents living within the Park, and an estimated 16 million people within a 90-minute drive, while over half the Park is designated as internationally important for nature.

“It is a huge challenge to balance the needs of nature and people,” explains Alison Barnes, Chief Executive of the New Forest National Park Authority. “Our new Partnership Plan – the strategy for all those with responsibility for caring for the National Park – has five objectives which correspond well with the issues and opportunities identified in the Landscapes Review. We’ve committed to ensuring the National Park will become net zero with nature by 2050; we’re working closely with farmers to help them switch to the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS); we’ve established an exciting annual Awakening Festival, with events focussed on the environment; and to help people connect with nature, we’ve developed a Nature Health Network with Bournemouth University, plus a regional green health initiative with public health teams and a range of providers. This includes the PedALL inclusive cycling programme, which we run with the charity Friends of PedALL. We really can only move forward with the support of our residents and visitors.”

Nature vs. ‘progress’

A complication in all of this is that legislation is frequently undermined when opportunities for economic growth or lucrative development projects come into play – often despite protests from the public, scientists and conservation organisations. The High Speed 2 rail project (HS2) will thunder through the Chilterns AONB, and the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power plant will cut through the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB. Meanwhile, the Lake District National Park and Solway Coast AONB were being eyed as potential locations for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for high-level nuclear waste, and Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club’s £50-million Falmer stadium was built within the South Downs AONB on the edge of the South Downs National Park.

Wildlife protections enshrined in law are also often compromised when farming profits are at stake, and rather than choosing non-destructive, sustainable solutions ‘problem’ native species are shot, gassed or poisoned. The Government agency Natural England has granted licenses to cull tens of thousands of protected native badgers in an attempt to control bovine tuberculosis, against scientific recommendation and despite alternative humane methods of control being available. In January, MP George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, granted an application from the National Farmers Union (NFU) and British Sugar for emergency authorisation to use the banned bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam, to treat sugar beet seed against yellows virus – just one day before the Government launched its Response to the Landscapes Review pledging to protect the country’s biodiversity.

In any case, the Government consultation is a chance for anyone to get involved to ensure our National Parks and AONBs are in robust health to face the challenges of the decades to come. 

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