Celebrate our national treasures: 60 years of national parks
Throughout this year, we have been exploring the National Parks in our travel series. Here, we celebrate what these remarkable, protected places have offered country-lovers for more than six decades. By Jane Taylor
Kinder Scout is a high point without a pinnacle. An ascent of this 636-metre hill in the Peak District rewards walkers with a scene of natural devastation: a vast open plateau of peaty blacks and boggy browns, scattered with heaps of gritstone boulders that have been wind-blasted into strange forms. The lights of Manchester twinkle in the distance. On a mist-enveloped morning, treacherous gullies underfoot can turn a gentle ramble into a dangerous adventure.
This magnificent landscape is one of the jewels of the UK’s National Parks. For it was here in 1932 that ramblers – working men from the surrounding industrial cities – held a mass trespass, on what was then the Duke of Devonshire’s private land. The ensuing battle set off a chain reaction that led to Parliament creating the National Parks in 1949. Henceforth, the nation’s most wild and beautiful places would be nurtured and open for the greater good of all.
Fittingly, the Peak District became the first in 1951. A further nine English and Welsh parks joined it during the Fifties, followed by a 30-year lull before the Norfolk Broads was added. Since 2000, Scotland has gained its first two parks; and two more English designations – the New Forest and the very new South Downs – complete the current set of 15. This summer, Northern Ireland announced the short list for its first two parks.
The National Parks are huge swathes of land ranging from the 303sq km Norfolk Broads to the 4,500sq km footprint of the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands. By the end of 2013, there may be an English giant to match if the proposed extension to join up the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales goes ahead.
With most of their work funded by the Government, the park authorities must juggle competing needs and demands. Landowners want to diversify and build; local villages want affordable housing; tourists want great views with car parks and facilities; ecologists want to limit access to rare habitats; farmers want to protect livestock from careless visitors; entrepreneurs want to reshape the same landscape for fun and adventure that local preservation societies would see framed and maintained, unspoiled in perpetuity.
To resolve these interests, the authorities have just a few tools to hand. Of the highest importance is the Sandford Principle. Legally enshrined, it states that, in conflict, environmental conservation takes precedence. Then there are planning powers, which the parks apply robustly. But for the most part it is about the artful practice of negotiation. Over more than 60 years, this slim toolbox has delivered spectacular results for the nation.
The parks contain every form and feature of countryside to be found: ancient woodland, moorland, peat bogs, forest, lakes, coastal heath, dunes, alpine meadows, farms and fells, limestone pavement, granite peaks, sandstone ridges… This vast range supports a complex array of wildlife particular to these places, and much of it needs to be sensitively cared for to preserve the right balance.
Take the distinctive upland areas: across the parks there has been a huge effort to halt the rapid and permanent loss of peat bog, a highly valuable habitat that reduces flood and fire risk and stores carbon. Damage dates back to pollution from the industrial revolution, but has continued apace, due to a number of factors including generations of hiking boots, accidental fires, changing farming practices and a lack of proper management.
Today, small armies of volunteers painstakingly re-seed heather and block gullies to repair the precious bogs. For this never-ending task, the parks work in partnership with private landowners and farmers, the Forestry Commission, National Trust, RSPB and countless others. The record of success is such that the Government is now applying the collaborative model in a different direction. Next year, England will have its first designated Marine Conservation Zone – a National Park for the sea.
Helping fauna and flora to flourish
One of the most celebrated wildlife success stories achieved by the National Parks has been the return of the osprey to England. These beautiful fish-eating birds of prey were absent from the 1830s until 2001, when a single breeding pair turned up in the Lake District, following years of work by the park and its partners. The lessons of that successful recolonisation are being applied at Loch Lomond, where numbers of the species are steadily increasing, and as far south as the New Forest, which is adopting the same techniques, such as the creation of artificial nest platforms, to entice the birds to return to the south coast. Most of the parks’ conservation work is far less glamorous, including the fen restoration that the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has been involved with at Ranworth in the Broads. “Many species will benefit,” says the Trust’s chief executive Brendan Joyce. “These include the marsh pea, cowbane, hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and milk parsley – the food source of the swallowtail butterfly – which is found only in this county.”
Saving countryside crafts
Simon Fowler lives in the Peak District park, where he works as a hedge layer and woodsman, practising traditional coppicing and making cleft fences, gates and hurdles (www.peaktraditionalfencing.co.uk). “The park authorities have been a huge help,” he says of the team that has provided him with advice, grant money and contracts. “Part of their remit is to keep these skills going.” The North York Moors park has been fulfilling that responsibility since 2002. Steve Young helps run the apprenticeship scheme for young people: “We’ve trained 30-odd 16- to 24-year-olds, taking on six at a time for a period of 15 months. They learn the estate skills of dry-stone walling, forestry and habitat management.”
Boosting local economies
The parks attract up to 75 million tourists each year, who spend £4.8bn in total. They really are our local playgrounds: more than nine out of ten visitors are based in the UK. The Lake District pulls in the highest number, while small Exmoor and remote Northumberland are the least explored. Tourism is vital to sustain many rural livelihoods, but can be a source both of inspiration and destruction. Hafod Eryri, the award-winning visitor centre that now crouches inconspicuously on the summit of Mount Snowdon, has replaced the café that Prince Charles once described as “the highest slum in Wales”, giving pleasure to 350,000 visitors each year and safeguarding local jobs. Arthur Threlkeld farms near the tourist hot-spot of Grizedale Forest in the Lake District (01229 860208). Like many, he has diversified: holidaymakers pitch their tents in the fields his dairy herd used to graze.
He still rears beef cattle and sheep, but has no regrets about his decision to develop the campsite and a riding school. “I think it’s inevitable that we take tourism on board in the Lakes,” he says. As a National Park farmer of 50 years, Threlkeld can also appreciate how agricultural practices continue to shape and preserve the countryside: “If it weren’t for farmers, the National Park would be non-existent.” The challenge for National Parks and their authorities is to continue to balance their myriad elements. Anne Robinson, who heads up the Campaign for National Parks (Country Living’s Charity of the Year, which aims to both protect and expand these areas), anticipates tough times ahead, with austerity and climate change. But she has no doubt as to the unique value of the parks and the importance of their role as Britain’s breathing spaces in the future: “These special, safeguarded landscapes offer us all tremendous enjoyment, the chance to get out and about, to be in nature and be challenged, and, in so doing, boost our spiritual and physical wellbeing.”
A star turn
Exmoor National Park is pioneering the protection of a new dimension of landscape. Last year the moor was awarded “Dark Skies Reserve” status for the quality of its starry nights. Measured on a Sky Quality Meter, it rated 21.9 out of 23. To ensure it stays that way, locals and the park authority have agreed to keep lighting to a minimum and focused downwards. For more details about the Campaign for National Parks, visit www.cnp.org.uk.
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