National parks in England and Wales failing on biodiversity, say campaigners | National parks

National parks are failing to tackle the biodiversity crisis, with just 6% of national park land in England and Wales managed effectively for nature, according to the first full assessment of how well they are supporting nature recovery.

National parks, which cover 10% of England and 20% of Wales and this year celebrate their 75th anniversary, are not restoring nature because of a chronic lack of government funding and because they were designed for a different era, according to the report by the Campaign for National Parks (CNP) charity.

The parks’ direct grant from government has been cut by 40% in real terms since 2010, with most national parks only receiving several million pounds – equivalent to the annual budget of a small secondary school.

Ruth Bradshaw, the policy manager for the CNP, said: “National parks are special places and they are the last refuges for struggling species like curlew, hen harrier and cuckoo. Nature in the national parks isn’t immune from the crisis that is happening elsewhere but there are huge opportunities to bring it back to good health. We need urgent action and major changes – the government needs to strengthen legislation and significantly increase the resources that are going into nature recovery in the national parks.”

National parks are key to Britain meeting its commitment to protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 but nature is still in retreat in these protected areas.

Peatlands, which store carbon and cover 43% of the land within national parks, are in poor condition: an estimated 1% of Dartmoor’s deep peat area is in a healthy condition, according to the CNP report. There had been virtually no change in woodland coverage across national parks in the five years to 2020, and rivers and lakes are in worsening health. The 47% of rivers in national parks judged in “good” health in 2013 fell to 39% in 2022.

Apart from the lack of funding, national parks are struggling to restore nature because only 13.7% of national park land is publicly owned, with the vast majority privately owned and managed as farmland. Most of this land has suffered from the same nature losses linked to the intensification of farming over the past 75 years in the rest of Britain.

Part of the problem, the CNP report said, was that national parks were created 75 years ago to address fears of urbanisation. Although enhancing wildlife is one of the parks’ statutory duties, the parks have not changed their mission to reflect the 21st-century climate and extinction crises.

The CNP is calling for a new deal for national parks, with the government setting a clear new priority that they are for nature protection and restoration alongside a doubling of core national park grants to restore 2010 funding levels.

It wants a ban on all burning of moorlands within national parks, a common practice on shooting estates; a ban on all forestry plantations on any depth of peat soil, a practice which can degrade peatlands and cause more carbon emissions; and the licensing of driven grouse shoots to reduce the illegal persecution of threatened species such as hen harrier.

It also wants government agencies, including the Ministry of Defence and Forestry England, and water companies to pay for the restoration of areas that have suffered from historic damage such as pollution, the planting of conifers on peatland and the cost of removing unexploded ordnance which makes restoration much more expensive.

It suggests creating citizen’s assemblies for every national park to better ensure that every citizen of whatever age, race and class feels welcome and can participate in decision-making within the parks alongside commoners – those who use the land for grazing animals – as well as farmers and landowners.

National parks are facing a long-running funding crisis. The Yorkshire Dales is facing a £4m hole for 2025-26 and some parks have warned they will need to close visitor centres or cut back on footpath management, reducing public access.

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Tony Gates, the chief executive of Northumberland national park, where the core grant from Defra has shrank from £3.7m in 2006 to £2.6m today, welcomed the CNP report and its recommendation that national parks are given a leading role by government in recovering nature.

“We should be doing more, we could be doing more, and we’re best placed to do it. Governments just need to back us to do it,” he said. “Since I took over in 2006, I’ve lost a third of my staff. Most of the money we spend on nature recovery, we raise through fundraising, grants and philanthropic donations. If we were relying on core funding alone, we’re resourced to do very little. We don’t have the legal powers to do a lot around nature and yet as place-based organisations with a rich range of relationships built with landowners over decades, we’re best-placed to lead the way. But government aren’t backing us to do that.”

Prof Sir John Lawton, a conservation scientist and the author of an influential government review of how to recover nature in Britain, welcomed “the bold proposals” in the CNP report “to make more space for nature by restoring, recreating, and joining up habitats for the benefit of people and the creatures that live in these beautiful areas”.

“It won’t be easy,” said Lawton. “They are working landscapes, home to people and to wildlife, but the report makes clear how it can be done. Its vision fills me with hope.”

The CNP said it supported the government’s proposals to create more national parks but these must not come at the expense of funding the existing parks. Bradshaw said: “We really need to strengthen the way national parks are run to ensure that they are delivering for nature. Alongside that we should be thinking about places where there’s potential for future new national parks as well. We’re very clear that new national parks should only be introduced alongside increased funding for existing national parks. We certainly wouldn’t want to see new national parks resulting in reduced funding for existing national parks.”

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