Earlier this month, Environment Secretary Michael Gove proposed the creation of a new line of national parks. Where these might be remains unclear, although campaigns for national park status have taken place for decades, from Coll and Tiree to Greater London. You might expect me to be excited by a proposal such as this, and certainly I agree with the sentiment and can understand the well-meaning aims of the people who have rallied for their areas to become national parks. Unfortunately, I must confess I wouldn’t support these proposals. Why? Because of the lack of meaningful protection in our current national parks.
Wildlife crime is by now well-known to be rife in our national parks. The persecution of protected birds of prey occurs in almost all of them, but is particularly prominent in some. In the Dark Peak region of Peak District National Park, an area with a high concentration of grouse moors, peregrines no longer breed, and goshawks have also suffered large-scale decline. The Yorkshire Dales National Park contains Mossdale Estate, site of a laying of illegal pole traps, while the Cairngorms National Park includes North Glenbuchat Estate, site of six missing eagles in the past seven years. Otpecies such as mountain hares also face persecution, being extensively culled on many Highland estates, including in the Cairngorms National Park.
But far worse than the targeting of protected species in our national parks is the damage caused to the landscape as a whole. This is evident on both a local scale, such as the deliberate burning of blanket bog on Walshaw Moor, in the Peak District National Park, for the purpose of grouse shooting, and a regional scale, typified by the widespread grazing by sheep and deer of the Lake District, Peak District, Snowdonia and Loch Lomond and Trossachs, to name a few. Equally problematic is the fact that, in most cases, very little that can be done about this; in most British national parks, large areas are under private ownership, with none of them being above Category 5 National Park status (Categories 1 and 2, typified by places such as Yellowstone or the Serengeti, being the desirable goal for national parks around the world).
Having ranted all that, I must confess that I don’t have many ideas to offer about how to fix it. Despite what my comment on the ownership of British national parks, we couldn’t simply clear off all the sheep and evict all the inhabitants from them. Ideally we would want to see land managed for deer and grouse allowed to revert to more natural conditions, and for upland grazing to be reduced, but I couldn’t say how we could bring this about. While the already steadily-declining number of upland farmers is likely to accelerate this to a degree, it would be a shame for people with a genuine love and passion for their pastime gone. Perhaps the routes to take would be replacing upland sheep farming with cattle, as has been done in the Pumlumon area, and to provide some form of incentive for farmers to keep livestock in enclosures. Licensing game shooting and increasing police power would go a long way in reducing wildlife crime, by giving would-be criminals a reason to think twice. Hopefully there can be constructive discussion about how to better look after our national parks, including with the National Park Authority, so that by the time it rolls around to create new national parks, our existing ones are something to be proud of.