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How people-powered conservation is helping to revive the UK's national parks

Seventy years since the UK’s first national parks were created, they’re receiving more visitors than ever. But with rising tourist footfall and declining biodiversity, hands-on help to preserve our parks is vital.

Published 7 Sept 2021, 06:08 BST
Volunteering, which has always been essential to maintaining these wild landscapes, offers a unique and rewarding ...

Volunteering, which has always been essential to maintaining these wild landscapes, offers a unique and rewarding way to explore the great outdoors.

Photograph by Getty Images

Since the first national parks were created in 1951 — the Peak District, Lake District, Dartmoor and Snowdonia — they’ve been joined by 15 others across England, Wales and Scotland. And they’re more popular than ever. Last year saw record numbers of visitors, many first-timers. Designated for their unique or special qualities, our national parks are the stuff of lockdown cabin-fever dreams. They take in such diverse spots as the Cairngorms — the UK’s biggest national park, home to five of Scotland’s six highest peaks — and Snowdonia, where you’re treated to magnificent coastal landscapes in addition to Wales’s loftiest mountain. Free-roaming animals are encountered in all parks, from New Forest ponies to deer, red squirrels and myriad bird species.

Each park also offers traffic-free terrain for hiking, biking and day-tripping, along with a growing smorgasbord of outdoors pursuits, from caving, coasteering and trail running, to horse-riding, kayaking, paragliding, rock climbing, skiing and more. Natural playgrounds they may be, but they’re also among the UK’s most fragile ecosystems — landscapes that volunteer work has long been crucial to help safeguard.

“Not all forms of volunteering require long-term commitment, and tourism doesn’t always have to sit at odds with caring for and protecting the environment,” says Tom Hind, chief executive officer at the North York Moors National Park Authority. He’s responsible for a site that saw some of lockdown’s most notorious littering incidents. “Simply following the Countryside Code — never dropping rubbish, keeping dogs on leads and keeping to footpaths — is a huge help, as is planning ahead to do simple things like borrowing a litter-picker or downloading an app to record wildlife while you visit,” he adds.

Look Wild, a micro-volunteering project launched this summer across all 15 national parks, is one of the most accessible ways to get involved with park conservation. At its heart is a free app that identifies plants, animals and fungi while simultaneously contributing to the largest-ever national park-led citizens’ science project.

Read more: Eight incredible rewilding projects to stay at in the UK

But the most basic piece of conservation work visitors can do is take litter home. This message, being conveyed loud and clear to visitors in the past 18 months, includes an appeal to use #LoveYourLitter to share their ‘work’ on social media.

“There were volunteers before there were staff,” says Caroline O’Doherty, head of marketing and development at Northumberland National Park Authority, noting that staff roles, and the national park network itself only exist today because of the work of volunteers in the very early years. “Many of the things that we do today as an integrated staff and volunteer team have their foundations as voluntary activity,” she says. “We have a stronger conservation and education element to volunteering now, whereas in the early years it was all about managing with an emphasis on policing rather than welcoming visitors to the countryside.”

Northumberland National Park, like many of the other national parks, was heavily reliant on volunteers even in its early years. As far back as the 1960s, it could count 100 volunteers among its ranks, including mountain rescue teams and full-time wardens. Today, it has more than 300 volunteers, who, collectively, do around 4,000 days of work a year. In 2017, it awarded special recognition to seven of its longest-serving volunteers who between them had clocked up a staggering 250 years’ service.

Red squirrels are a native species in decline in the UK – but they're thriving in the Cairngorms National Park. 

Photograph by AWL Images

Volunteer for change

“Our volunteers tell us that volunteering is life-changing and improves not only their physical health but their wellbeing too,” says Richard Austin, training and mentoring coordinator at New Forest National Park. “It gives people the chance to visit areas they haven’t seen before, as well as to make new friends, discover new skills and learn about, and become custodians of, this historic landscape.”

The New Forest, like many national parks, offers a range of volunteering opportunities. They include countryside access (maintaining public rights of way), archaeological tasks (restoring ancient monuments), practical conservation (restoring woodland, meadows and hedgerows) and working as a cycle guide.

“I started volunteering about three years ago, mainly to get me outside in the winter,” says New Forest local, Deborah Gordon. “I hate that season and find it difficult to motivate myself to do much. Volunteering encouraged me to spend days outdoors in all weathers and had a positive impact on my mood. I also developed so many new skills. Who knew I could learn how to coppice hazel and sow a wildflower meadow!”

A New Forest resident of 30 years, Deborah says she previously had little knowledge of the conservation issues facing the park — something that now drives her volunteering. “The park attracts millions of tourists each year and educating them — in particular, around the free-roaming animals [ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and sheep] — is a difficult one. Animals are essential to keeping the forest in its natural state, but they’re owned by ‘commoners’ rather than the park.”

The New Forest’s commoners (people who occupy land or property with grazing rights attached) are just one of many human communities that coexist within national parks. At any one time there can be around half a million people populating the UK’s national parks. They include farmers, villagers and, controversially, a growing number of mining communities, alongside staff from resident organisations such as the National Trust, Forestry Commission, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, English Heritage and NatureScot. The inevitable push-and-pull of their contrasting agendas aside, these diverse organisations offer myriad volunteer projects, making them a good port of call for tracking down opportunities to suit particular interests.

Rewilding Britain, the organisation that works for the mass restoration of the nation’s ecosystems, has partner projects across several national parks. Among them, Wild Ennerdale, in the Lake District, is an initiative that aims to help natural processes reclaim and shape the Ennerdale Valley landscape after years of sheep-grazing and the cultivation of non-native tree plantations. Volunteer work with Wild Ennerdale has involved fence removal, tree planting and footpath and wetland construction. The 10-year-old project has worked with local farmers to introduce grazers like Galloway cattle to the region; they clear land naturally, helping reset ecosystems. It’s an approach that’s seen nature return in abundance: salmon restored to rivers and thriving populations of the at-risk marsh fritillary butterfly.

“Despite some superb conservation initiatives, our national parks are nature-depleted and ecological shadows of what they could be,” says Rewilding Britain in its current call on the UK government to make our national parks wilder. It notes that decades-old laws are hobbling the ability of national parks to ‘lead the way in tackling the extinction crisis and climate emergency’.

In October 2020, a Friends of the Earth report revealed that several of England’s most iconic national parks contain a lower percentage of woodland cover than our large cities; the Yorkshire Dales has just 4.1% compared to London, at 4.5%, for example.

In September 2018, Natural England — the government body that oversees our national parks — reported that barely a quarter of its sites of special scientific interest were in good condition.

Cyclists in Roydon Woods Nature Reserve, part of the New Forest National Park.

Photograph by 4Corners

Last year, prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to boost biodiversity by protecting30% of Britain for nature by 2030. National parks and other protected areas make up 26% of land in England. Rewilding Britain says that ‘it’s not credible for government to claim that national parks, in their current state, can count towards this commitment.’

Moorland, marshland, downs and dales, woodland, lakes, peat bogs and heaths: our parks encompass diverse ecosystems. In 2019, a State of Nature report, which compiled data from more than 50 organisations, including the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, ranked the UK as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with 15% of its wild species facing extinction.

Rewilding Britain is urging the public to sign a petition calling on the government to give national parks greater powers to tackle biodiversity loss and climate change, and to create core rewilding areas on public land across 10% of the national parks.

Green-space champions

Providing people with access to nature-rich wilderness areas is one of the principles the national parks were established to uphold. It was our country’s ‘untamed’ places that inspired the English poet William Wordsworth to wander ‘lonely as a cloud’ in the Lake District and add his voice to the growing call for the creation of a national park network back in the fast-industrialising 19th century. And in the wake of Public Health England’s 2020 review, highlighting the positive effects access to green space has on our health and wellbeing, it’s clear our national parks remain as vital as ever.

“The proximity of three national parks was very much part of my decision to move to the North of England,” says voluntary ranger David Bream, who began walking in the North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales and Lake District National Parks before becoming aware of volunteering opportunities through a friend and signing up to become a ranger.

Read more: How travellers can support the UK's rewilding projects

David’s volunteer work has included river fly monitoring, peat-depth mapping, ancient tree surveying and dark-sky mapping. Having completed over3,000 hours of volunteering since 2013, David was one of several volunteers commended at this year’s Park Protector Awards, which recognise the work of national park staff and volunteers. The awards are organised by the Campaign for National Parks (CNP), a charity that champions national parks in England and Wales (the Scottish Campaign for National Parks is the equivalent north of the border).

The CNP played a crucial role in working for the creation of the first four national parks, which all celebrate their 70th anniversary this year. Its latest campaign calls on the government to enable national parks to be at the centre of a green recovery.

“It’s a critical time for national parks,” says CNP campaigns and communications manager Laura Williams. “They’re limited by another year of cuts to their budgets, and by mixed messages from a government, which talks about nature recovery while giving the go-ahead for mass road-building, airport expansion and high-speed rail.”

The CNP champions the volunteers that national parks have relied on to help look after their protected landscapes — citing the Moors for the Future partnership as a success story that’s restored 10sq miles of peatland, securing it a runner-up prize in this year’s Park Protector Awards. Elsewhere, volunteers at Be Wild Buckfastleigh, another prize winner, helped connect hundreds of local people with Dartmoor National Park through videos, socially distanced nature walks and wildlife activity packs distributed via local food banks.

Stanage Edge, a distinctive gritstone escarpment in the Peak District National Park.

Photograph by Getty Images

“Anyone can engage with volunteer work,” says Denise Dane a national parks volunteer of five years. “Park staff offer a lot of support for training and help tap into your life skills to find out where they might apply. Everyone has skills that can be used in some way.” With a background in education, Denise has done everything from ancient tree surveys to collecting and documenting oral histories as part of the Ryevitalise project based around the River Rye in North York Moors National Park.

“One of the highlights has been meeting two sisters whose father was a river keeper on the Rye,” says Denise. “There isn’t a memory from their childhood that doesn’t relate to the river, and they believe that national parks — working alongside farmers, locals and keepers — have allowed the river to remain largely unchanged.”

National parks as living, working landscapes is a concept Denise thinks people are beginning to better understand, along with the need for balance between footfall and conservation. “There’s a lot of emphasis on signage in the parks currently, encouraging respect for them as natural working environments. For example, being aware of when birds are nesting, or keeping dogs on leads in lambing season.

“The more you engage the public with volunteer work like nature surveying and hands-on conservation, the more that understanding increases.”

Three ways to get involved


1. Become a friend
Almost every national park has a society or ‘friends of’ group that helps care for and connect people to their local park. Activities could include organising volunteer litter-picks, leading guided walks or creating informative magazines or campaigns. Find your local group.

2. Spend time in the garden
Fancy getting out into one of the National Trust’s estates? The organisation has roles for gardeners, guides and even dog welcome assistants. Almost half the land in the National Trust’s care sits within national parks, and its volunteers have varied roles working to ‘conserve precious natural environments for people and for wildlife’. 

3. Get out into the woods
A key issue facing our national parks is nature depletion, a chief aspect of which is a lack of woodland cover. Conservation charity The Woodland Trust, has opportunities for volunteers, with activities including tree planting, woodland upkeep, warden duties and tree seed collecting. 

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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