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‘Rewilding is the Key to Upgrading Our National Parks’

Ollie Newham, of the Rewilding Britain charity, argues that a more focused approach is vital to delivering nature’s recovery in the UK’s national parks

Wild Ennerdale, a rewilding project in the Lake District National Park. Photo: Mark Lynas

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Earlier this month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the world’s most respected environmental network – quietly and brutally downgraded the UK’s protected landscapes (which include our national parks). It followed a decade of “no evidence” that they are effective for nature recovery.

This news slipped under the radar of the established media, while simultaneously ringing very loud alarm bells in the ears of all conservationists, environmentalists and rewilders. 

It stings all the more as it comes mere days after the announcement of a new national park as part of the Government’s package of measures to improve public access to nature and reverse its decline. This was accompanied by a funding announcement of £10 million for existing national parks and protected landscapes over this year and next.

But those who work in, and for, national parks know all too well how negatively huge cuts in core funding have affected them over the last decade. 

It is not simply a case of our national parks being downgraded due to lack of funding, though that is certainly a major factor. It’s more simple than that. There has long been a lack of clarity and a muddled approach to the purpose of our national parks and protected landscapes – what are they for and how should they be managed?

In one way, the answer is obvious: they exist to protect and restore nature. A YouGov survey commissioned by Green Alliance this year revealed that more than 70% of respondents thought the priority of national parks should be providing habitats for wildlife. This reflects polling undertaken by Rewilding Britain in 2021, which found that 83% of the public supported Britain’s national parks being made wilder. 

But the reality, which the IUCN’s review so clearly demonstrates, does not reflect this.

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The majority of our national parks aren’t working to protect and restore nature, and haven’t been for some time. This is very concerning – not least because we all feel a strong collective pride for our national parks and want to see them flourishing, but also because our national parks and protected landscapes are crucial areas if we are to see 30% of land and sea protected for nature by 2030. 

This is a key environmental commitment by the Government, one reinforced by the new Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Steve Barclay when announcing the new national park.

Our national parks and protected landscapes are prime areas for the Government to actively deliver on its promise. Yet the IUCN can find “no evidence” that the designations are effective for nature recovery. If we cannot protect and restore nature in our national parks, then our hope of doing so outside of them is practically non-existent. 

So, what can be done?

First and foremost, the muddled approach to their role must be solved by giving all protected landscapes the overriding purpose of delivering nature’s recovery. This nature-positive approach will align with what most British people think they should be for and help shift our national parks from being largely unproductive landscapes to places where nature thrives. It would also deliver a multitude of knock-on benefits including tourism opportunities, new jobs and nature-friendly farming. 

We know this works because there are already growing numbers of experienced farmers, landowners and conservationists pioneering a different approach in our national parks.

Wild Ennerdale, a rewilding project in the Lake District National Park, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Since 2003, it has applied rewilding principles – allowing the landscape to evolve naturally – within the valley which had suffered from loss of habitat and biodiversity. Measures such as planting native trees, re-wiggling the river and introducing conservation grazers have transformed the biodiversity of the area. Bird species have increased by almost 20%, including the welcome return of the green woodpecker. The marsh fritillary butterfly, extinct in west Cumbria, has also returned; and wild juniper, reduced to 10 bushes in 2003, has increased by 10,000%. Last November, 70% of the area was designated a “super national nature reserve”. 

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Rewilding Britain – a charity that aims to “tackle the climate emergency and extinction crisis, reconnect people with the natural world and to help communities thrive” – wants to see what is being achieved at Wild Ennerdale in all our national parks and, indeed, across 30% of Britain by 2030.

We want a richer, wilder, Britain full of the abundance of life where landscape-scale restoration of natural processes, habitats and species and sustainable, nature-led farming, forestry and leisure work hand-in-hand to benefit us all.

We want to see an inspiring, diverse mosaic of rewilding where nature comes first while delivering major benefits for communities – including opportunities for vibrant green economies, healthier air, water and soils, and improved health and wellbeing.

It’s not too late, but we need to act now.

People are at the heart of our national parks. Unlike the vast wildernesses of Yellowstone or the Taiga, almost 400,000 people live and work in Britain’s national parks, many having made the land their home for generations. They must be supported to lead nature recovery and have access to the tools and resources to create their own new nature-based economies so rural communities reap the benefits of a necessary, just rural transition. 

Though the IUCN’s review has confirmed that our national parks and landscapes are not effective for nature recovery right now, we know they can be in the future and we know how. This is a world we know is possible – if we only choose to make it happen.


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