The 25 year Environment Plan and National Parks

One part of the Government’s 25 Year plan for the environment which has received very little attention or comment is their plan to commission a review of National Parks in England. The Council for National Parks have broadly welcomed the plan but have also raised some concerns – see here.

Reviewing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
The UK’s first National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament in 1949 following the government’s 1947 Hobhouse Report, which remains the basis for most protected landscape designation in England today.

Now, 70 years on, the Government will commission a review for the 21st Century. This will consider coverage of designations, how designated areas deliver their responsibilities, how designated areas are financed, and whether there is scope for expansion. It will also consider opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations and expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment.
A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment pp65-66

Five years ago, commissioning a review into National Parks would have been a recipe for their further emasculation (see here for example) but this announcement makes me feel that they are going to be strengthened and properly funded. Who is to chair the review? Dame Fiona Reynolds would be a good choice in my view.

So, what exactly does the second paragraph above from the 25 Year plan actually mean? At this point, as with many things in the plan it is unclear but here are a few thoughts of mine as to what might be around the corner.

The coverage of designations
I’m assuming that this means geographic coverage. There have been recent calls for the greenspace in London to be designated as a National Park – see here. As a plan it perhaps isn’t as counter-intuitive as it first sounds as it would certainly further encourage a great many people to engage and connect with the natural environment.

I have been struck for many years by the huge hole in the Midlands which is devoid of any landscape designation. I used to work in Northamptonshire for many years and believe a case could be made for designating the Nene Valley or Rockingham Forest as AONBs.

It would be somewhat strange for the Government to include this question if it didn’t have something in its mind about new areas.

How designated areas deliver their responsibilities
This question is a fundamental one. I’m not familiar with the situation regarding AONBs but for National Park Authorities (NPAs) this matter is critical. Currently NPAs have powers relating to planning and strategic planning issues but no real powers when it comes to enhancing the landscape. They can attempt to influence things by acting as the ‘ring master’ but they have to rely on other bodies who have power and the funding (through the agri-environment schemes) such as Natural England and Defra.

There has long been criticism that these national schemes do not always take account of local circumstances and are viewed as being run by ‘outsiders’ who do not understand the specific issues within a regional National Park.

As a result, National Parks England (NPE) have been looking at the future of farming within National Parks – see here for the outputs from a recent task and finish group.

NPAs regard traditional approaches to livestock farming as essential for the management and conservation of landscapes, habitats and the cultural heritage that makes National Parks special. NPAs see themselves as having a central role in shaping the future of farming and land management so that a ‘triple dividend’ results: enhanced environment, improved productivity and more vibrant communities.

They argue that the current system is silo-based (different funding streams being poorly integrated), management is by prescription rather than the use of local knowledge and empowerment and that currently schemes are risk averse rather than innovative.

As a result, they propose 3 new initiatives (what follows is taken from NPE document above)

1. National Park FARM Scheme [1]
An entry level voluntary scheme, open to all farmers for which there would be certain management obligations and some cross compliance. The scheme tailored to individual National Parks.

2. National Park FARM Plus – locally led agri-environment schemes
A higher level, locally-led agri- environment scheme. FARM Plus would be focused on enhanced levels of environmental management to deliver public goods.

These schemes would be focused on delivering multiple environmental benefits with options that allow for delivery of:

  • Landscape
  • Biodiversity and geodiversity
  • Carbon management
  • Water management
  • Woodland management (and creation)
  • Historic environment
  • Access and education

Whilst also facilitating the production of high quality food through sustainable farming systems.

The aim is to maximise delivery across all these benefits rather than a narrow focus on one or two and to allow local flexibility in setting priorities (my emphasis).

The scheme should:

  • Be focused on local needs and opportunities whilst recognising national priorities.
  • Encourage collaboration between farmers or within farm clusters to deliver sustainable improvements at a landscape scale.
  • Be outcome focused – engaging with farmers to involve them in agreeing environmental outcomes that they will deliver mechanisms and take part in the monitoring of outcomes.
  • Be evidence-based – ensuring that monitoring results are understood and used by the farming community to inform management in a virtuous circle of innovation and learning and offering reassurance to the public that they are delivering the agreed outcomes or identifying actions to address any concerns.
  • Be proportionate – as far as possible light touch, easy to understand and to sign up to, with common sense flexibility on measurement and reporting.
  • Offer multi-year agreements with the length of agreements related to the outcomes being delivered (i.e. long-term agreements for complex landscape-scale delivery on areas such as commons).
  • Include the potential for capital as well as revenue payments (e.g. capital payments for key landscape features such as stone walls and hedgerows or investment in water source protection and natural flood management).
  • Provide the opportunity to integrate private sector payments for natural capital/ecosystem services alongside public payments, following the Natural Capital Committee’s recommendations.
  • Integrate with other environmental and rural support programmes to multiply benefits and avoid perverse incentives.

3. Wider Rural Development
A key part of our vision is for local delivery of integrated solutions to deliver a triple dividend: enhanced environment, improved productivity and farm profitability and more vibrant communities. National Park Authorities are well placed to facilitate community-led local development programmes that link environment, economy and community. These programmes would include grants but should also include loans (i.e. a revolving fund rather than one-off injections of capital). There should also be the opportunity for revenue spend.

This sounds like an integrated scheme which would put NPAs in a much stronger position than the one they currently occupy. The implication also appears to be that NPAs would run and administer the schemes – this has the advantage of ensuring that all public goods are included as outputs but does beg the question as to where this leaves Natural England in the overall scheme of things. Would such an approach favour National Parks to the detriment of the wider countryside?

I’ve seen people furrow their brows at these proposals and heard others say ‘things have moved on’ since NPE published their ideas. It will be interesting to see whether these plans re-emerge during the NP Review hearings.

How designated areas are financed
Funding for NPAs over the past few years has been a roller coaster, for example Dartmoor NPA has had its funding cut by 40% since 2010. This has led to a dramatic cut in staffing levels and various work streams. Whilst many NPAs have been able to access other funding streams such as from the Heritage Lottery (e.g. Dartmoor’s More than Meets the Eye Project) and private sector money (e.g. Dartmoor’s Mires Project) this has not made up for the earlier cuts.

If NPAs are to play a role in delivering the Government’s 25 Year Plan they undoubtedly need stability in their funding.

Is there scope for expansion?
And if NRAs are to take a more active role in future agri-environment and wider rural development schemes they undoubted will require additional funding and staffing. Efforts have been made to increase income streams via fund raising and in Dartmoor’s case through the introduction of car parking fees, but additional Treasury revenues will also be needed.

Opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations
I’ve outlined above the opportunities to enhance the environment via the NPE’s FARM and FARM Plus schemes above. Whether these specific proposals are adopted or not it seems more than likely that enhancing the environment will be publicly funded as it delivers public goods. The current direction of travel also seems to indicate that schemes will be locally led, use local knowledge by engaging with farmers to involve them in agreeing environmental outcomes which can then be monitored. With regards to biodiversity outcomes this may prove somewhat problematic and the search for ‘favourable condition’ [2] on Sites of Special Scientific Interest has proven to be very fraught over the past 30 years. A combination of atmospheric pollution, climate change and disagreement about appropriate grazing regimes has meant that the desired ‘habitat outcomes’ may no long actually be achievable.

Time and effort needs to be spent to ensure that thought is given to what ‘reconfigured’ landscapes in our National Parks might look like, if this isn’t done an ‘outcomes with monitoring approach’ is meaningless and potentially disastrous for hill-farmers. Hill-farmers need to be able to ‘enhance’ habitats to something beyond ‘favourable condition’ – otherwise there is a great risk of failure.

Expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment
Defra published its 8 point plan for National Parks in 2016 – see here. The 8 points can be summarised as follows:-

  1. Connect young people with nature
  2. Create thriving natural environments
  3. National Parks driving growth in international tourism
  4. Deliver new apprenticeships in National Parks
  5. Promote the best of British food from National Parks
  6. Everyone’s National Parks
  7. Landscape and heritage in National Parks
  1. Health and wellbeing in National Parks

I’ve given a lot of thought to this and to be honest I really don’t know what this means. The plan already covers young people, international tourists, apprentices, NPs for everyone along with recreation, health and wellbeing ……. I will be interested to see what is proposed.

Who knows what will finally emerge? But gauging by the language and various speeches by Michael Gove there is enough wiggle room to make hill-farmers, NPAs, traditional nature conservationists, historic landscape people, peat conservers, water suppliers and the cultural historians feel optimistic.

But what of those who want to see a more rewilded series of landscapes in our National Parks? It would appear that they have been dismissed. The 25 Year plan doesn’t mention it and the NPAs are signed up to ‘pastorally managed cultural landscapes’. However, there is an increasing push for a rewilding agenda – indeed my own views on the importance of cultural landscapes are being increasingly challenged as being old school and reactionary. I do believe  in ‘soft’ rewilding (see here) which could be achieved through agri-environment schemes such as FARM Plus, and I would support full blown rewilding if:-

  1. There is consent of the people involved to be rewilded (i.e. the hill-farmers and the land owners)
  2. That the landscapes that are created via rewilding are more important than those that they replace.

Point 2 asks whether replacing an open Bronze Age historic and cultural landscape with a modern rewilded wooded landscape is a gain or a loss? The answer to that question will depend on which of the various upland narratives you support but the dominant policy narrative is of ‘pastorally managed cultural landscapes’. In my experience from Dartmoor there might be a small number of landowners who would support some rewilding but I know of no hill-farmers on the Commons who do. However, of course over  time and changing circumstances this may change.

Interestingly the paleoecologists Ralph Fyfe and Jessie Woodbridge, published some research which showed that woodland communities persisted on parts of the high moor well into the Iron Age (2500BP) [3], demonstrating that 2500 years ago the ‘moorland’ of Dartmoor was much more diverse than it is today. The conclude their paper by stating:-

Linkages between palaeoecology and ecology are increasing, and the results presented here demonstrate that palaeoecological methods can be used to determine dimensions of past spatial patterning in addition to the temporal trends that are usually offered by palaeoecological study. In particular, the results are useful for conservation strategies by demonstrating variability in spatial diversity of vegetation patterns in the past and pointing towards opportunities to recreate and maintain diverse vegetation mosaics.

This suggests that in some parts of NPs it might be possible and indeed desirable to allow some form of rewilding to occur if there was local consent. Others will disagree with this notion stating that the cultural landscapes of today have of course continued to form since the Iron Age and were not just created up to it. Nevertheless, the Fyfe and Woodbridge research is important as it identifies that in certain areas the recreation of more diverse vegetation mosaics has historic precedent.

Perhaps NPAs should give some thought to Fyfe and Woodbridge ideas as it might help them with the reconfiguration issues discussed above as landscapes continue to be altered by atmospheric pollution and climate.

[1] FARM – Farming and Rural Management

[2] Favourable condition is the expression used by Natural England to determine whether habitats are being adequately conserved. On Dartmoor currently of the 20,673 ha of common land SSSI, only 1.68% are in favourable condition.

[3] Fyfe R & Woodbridge J. (2012) Differences in time and space in vegetation patterning: analysis of pollen data from Dartmoor, UK. Landscape Ecol 27: 745–760

 

Landscape conservation and nature conservation: uneasy bedfellows?

Two perspectives – one from Europe and the other from Dartmoor.
On the face, of it you would think that all those who want to protect the environment get along with each other working towards a common goal. This can happen especially if the nature conservation of species is dependent on traditional farming practices in culturally developed and ancient landscapes, but when conservation relies on process driven rewilding there are huge consequences for landscapes and the traditional cultures that sustain them.

I recently came across a couple of essays, an editorial and opinion piece about this very topic from a mainland southern European perspective. You can download the four pieces here. I was struck how the perspective essay by Mauro Agnoletti ‘Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective’ shared many of the same concerns as those held by Tom Greeves who has written on the subject from a Dartmoor perspective. You can download Tom Greeves’ paper ‘Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedyhere.

This blog reviews the assertions of Agnoletti and Greeves and discusses the future for landscapes and local cultures in the face of the globally driven economic, social and environmental pressures and changes.

Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective
Agnoletti says that landscapes are largely a cultural construct i.e. they have been created over time by the people who have inhabited and farmed the land. A cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group: culture is the agent, the natural area the medium and the cultural landscape is the result.

He argues that whilst the importance of landscapes is acknowledged at an international and European scale the policies required to conserve them are largely lacking. He suggests that if a landscape scale approach was adopted across Europe a new paradigm for a development model could harmoniously integrate social, economic and environmental factors in time and space.

But as the globalisation of agriculture has occurred during the 20th century traditional farming practices have collapsed leading to cultivatable land being industrially intensified whilst the pastoral landscapes which are on poorer land, and therefore unimprovable from an agricultural perspective, are being abandoned.

These trends are therefore leading to a cultural globalisation (i.e. homogenisation). The idea of nature has been overlapped with landscape and this is leading to re-naturalisation (what in the UK we would call rewilding) and increasing forest cover which overlays the ancient landscapes patterns along with their associated long and rich cultural history that led to their creation.

Agnoletti argues that there is a growing tendency to see a scientific approach to the study of landscape as a natural resource opposed to a cultural phenomenon. The workstreams that flow from this are ecological in nature with little cultural focus. Academic journals see landscape as an ecological issue largely in the context of nature conservation and he suggests that scientific publications have a higher academic credibility than chapters and books in the Humanities which therefore establishes an ecological bias.

Agnoletti states that such an approach causes three problems:

a) Degradation of the rural landscape
Farming per se is considered damaging to nature: 20th and 21st century approaches to traditional pastoral farming methods are lumped in together with modern intensive agricultural methods. Pastoral landscapes do not receive the financial support they require to remain sustainable and are abandoned either to be re-naturalised or afforested. Cultivated land is intensified agriculturally – both phenomena lead to a loss of local knowledge, cultural landscapes and the rural population.

b) Abandonment and reforestation
The abandonment of European landscapes has also been encouraged by European Union set-aside policies. As a result of this and globalization it is estimated that 400-500k ha of forest advance occurs per annum – partly through abandonment and partly through active re-afforestation.

The dominant narrative of European ecologists is that the environment needs to be returned to the natural state, partly because Man has destroyed nature and partly because the EU Habitats Directive has an emphasis on natural habitats.

How can it be logical to want to return to the natural state in landscapes that haven’t been natural for 8000 years? Nevertheless, re-naturalisation has been aligned in Europe with nature policies and the promotion of rewilding and afforestation in the fight against climate change through increased carbon sequestration.

c) Rural landscapes, history and biodiversity
Whilst the re-naturalisation of closed forest landscapes provides new habitats for some wildlife this is at the expense of the wildlife which already lives in the historical and largely open landscapes. A greater diversity of wildlife will be conserved if many cultural landscapes are protected.

Agnoletti summarises his argument as follows:-

  • Landscapes need to be viewed for they are i.e. their cultural origins
  • Europe needs an adequate characterization of rural landscapes
  • Support for traditional agriculture is required to halt further losses
  • Nature narratives need to be combined with cultural ones to create biocultural diversity
  • Natural habitats need to be prevented in unnatural places
  • Achieving these things will help maintain rural communities

This is an interesting and informative perspective from Southern Europe however it contrasts markedly with the situation found in the UK for the following reasons:-

  1. The UK values its Cultural Landscapes and has categorized them in great detail under the Natural Area Profile assessment (see here).
  2. The abandonment of land seen on marginal land in Europe simply hasn’t happened on anything other than a minor scale in the UK
  3. Marginal land particularly those in protected areas have received considerable sums of subsidy through the agri-envionment schemes to ensure that traditional management practices are encouraged and continued so that the landscapes, the cultural groups that produced them and the biodiversity are protected.

On the face of it then, it would appear that in the UK, the conservation of landscapes and local farmers was working in harmony with the objectives of nature conservation. However, this is not the case in the uplands of Britain where their special landscapes are deeply contested today by various groups of interested parties. Tom Greeves, argues very strongly that culture and landscape on Dartmoor have been detrimentally out manoeuvred by advocates of the natural environment.

Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedy – conservation imbalance
Greeves points out that the post-war conservation movement has been dominated by the natural environment and is heavily skewed towards nature. He argues that nature and culture should be given equal balance. He says that even the name Natural England reinforces the belief that the environment is natural. The 25k ha of Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Dartmoor are all about animals and plants and no mention is made about culture.

In 2006 when the Dartmoor Vision was published, areas called ‘Premier Archaeological Landscapes’ were introduced – these were areas where the historic landscape would be given primacy over wildlife. Greeves dismisses this concession as he argues that no part of the moor is without cultural value. He goes on to argue that the era of ‘overgrazing’ (i.e. circa 1950-1980) was actually revolutionary for the historic environment as it revealed many archaeological features and sites which had become lost in the vegetation. Once the agri-environment schemes were introduced and the numbers of grazing animals were reduced gorse and unpalatable grasses took over in many areas and hid and in some cases damaged the cultural landscape. Greeves argues that Natural England have ‘clung on to the concept of overgrazing’ and as a result ‘awareness of the cultural riches of Dartmoor has not yet impinged on Establishment thinking.

Policies of Natural England and the destruction of neighbourliness
Not only does Greeves loathe the agri-environment schemes for their stocking reductions he also blames them for creating divisiveness amongst the hill-farming Commoners. The subsidy money was handed over to the local Common Associations who then had to decide how to allocate sums to individuals, this practice lead to arguments and squabbles where none had existed before. Without doubt Natural England’s policies in the latter parts of the last century and earlier parts of this one created great resentment as Commoners considered they were ‘fighting for their rights’ against the Natural England ‘dictatorship’.

The Mires Project
The Dartmoor Mires restoration project, a £1.1 million scheme which ran between 2010 and 2015 also comes in more considerable criticism from Greeves. He states that no evidence was ever presented to suggest that the moor was in fact actually damaged and therefore needed restoration. He was particularly incensed that large tracked machines were taken into the ‘wildest parts of the moor’ to carry out various works to impound water and rewet the peat. He calls it ‘one of the least prepared and worst pseudo-scientific projects’ that Dartmoor has ever seen.

Rewilding
With regards to calls to rewild Dartmoor as a result of ‘sheepwrecking’ he dismisses these ideas as they take no account of ‘the significance of the cultural landscape of Dartmoor and what it means in terms of the human story over the last eight millennia or so’.

Remedy
Greeves suggests that radical reform is needed underpinned by research. The stranglehold of Natural England must be challenged and removed as they have no right to upset the age old social fabric of hill-farming and they have no right to obscure the archaeology of the moor. With regard to how the moor should be managed he urges that Commoners be asked for their views and then allowed to enact them. He urges that culture, flora and fauna are respected in equal measure and that the existing designations such as SSSIs and Scheduled Ancients Monuments are replaced with a new overarching protective mechanism and that Dartmoor is viewed in the future as an ecocultural zone. Finally he recommends that the National Park Authority is replaced by a Dartmoor Assembly which consists of elected local people.

There is much passion throughout much of Tom Greeves paper and it is fair to say that it has not been well received in a number of places! But rather like the Agnoletti paper it does raise a number of important points. Amongst the displeasure of the status quo raised in both papers there is a plea that cultural landscapes are given equal consideration to biological landscapes.

This of course sounds entirely reasonable but in practice achieving this has historically proven to be extremely difficult. A heavily grazing and swaled Dartmoor landscape (the over grazing over burning narrative) is good for the cultural landscape but bad for the biological one and of course was the exact scenario that led to the introduction of the agri-environment schemes.

Conversely a less grazed and less burnt Dartmoor landscape, even one which contains Premier Archaeological Landscapes, currently pleases no one completely as the effects of climate change and atmospheric pollution are reconfiguring the moors in ways that satisfy very few. However, the search for a better consensus must continue in the brave new world of Brexit and the ‘public money for public goods debate’, for most agree (with the exception of the rewilders) that a world without hill-farmers will create a new Dartmoor landscape that the majority don’t want.

A glorious walk around Stackpole in the sunshine

Am in Pembrokeshire for a couple of days and yesterday we had a walk around the National Trust’s Estate at Stackpole which is in the National Park.

Stackpole 12
We parked up and started the walk at Lodge Park

Stackpole 1Dropped down to Bosherton Lakes and walked across the 8 Arch Bridge

Stackpole 2After walking through Stackpole Park (which is now intensive farmland) we ended up at Stackpole Quay

Stackpole 5We walked around the coastal footpath and arrived at Barafundle Bay

Stackpole 6From there – up the path to Stackpole Head

Stackpole 7The cliffs are high and spectacular – if you enlarge this picture (double click) you can see two climbers just to the right of the top of the cave!

Stackpole 8Reminds me very much of the North Devon and North Cornwall coastline

Stackpole 9We then arrived at another sandy beach – Broad Haven

Stackpole 10Across Stackpole Warren and we are back at another arm of Bosherton Lakes

Stackpole 11View from the boathouse on the Lake and then back up to the car.

The walk is about 4-5 miles and has  amazing contrasts in scenery along its route.

 

Five-point plan to protect England’s uplands

From Dartmoor to the Peak District and from the North York Moors to the Lake District, England’s uplands are iconic landscapes that improve the environment, help combat climate change, provide havens for nature and benefits for people, such as clean drinking water.

upper Plym NT

Nowhere is this statement more true than upland peatlands. But today a partnership of wildlife groups and industry is reminding government only four per cent of England’s upland peatlands are in good ‘ecological’ condition, and the remainder is not living up to its potential for providing homes for nature and combating climate change.

Today, the RSPB, National Trust, The Wildlife Trusts, other conservation and industry organisations have written to the Secretaries of State in charge of Defra and the Department for Energy and Climate Change challenging them to take action on five key areas on 200,000 hectares of England peatland:

  • work to bring England’s upland peatlands back into the condition that will maintain the vital ecosystem services these habitats provide for society;
  • support and play its part in the IUCN’s UK Peatland Programme’s target for one million hectares (200,000 ha in England) of healthy and well-managed upland peatlands by 2020, and the Committee on Climate Change’s call to triple the area of upland peatland being restored;
  • develop capital funding for peatland restoration, through a combination of public and private contribution and partnerships, commensurate with the above scale of ambition for upland peatland restoration;
  • secure funding to ensure ongoing well-managed upland peatlands through a combination of rural funding and market related funding routes, including the practical development of innovative routes including the Peatland Carbon Code;
  • work to swiftly adopt a way of estimating carbon being stored and lost from peatlands in common with other UK countries, include peatland carbon in greenhouse gas inventories and voluntarily include peatlands in the UK’s Kyoto Protocol reporting.

Neglected for too long

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s Conservation Director. He said: “Although our upland peatlands are revered by many, ironically for too long they have been neglected, preventing them from reaching their potential as sources of clean water, sinks to help trap carbon or refuges for threatened species.  Restoring these peatland sites will help wildlife, soak up carbon and increase their appeal as wonderful places to visit.”

Patrick Begg Rural Enterprises Director of the National Trust, said: “Peatlands are the UK’s rainforest, locking up over 400,000 tonnes of carbon per year, slowing floodwaters, filtering drinking water, and providing a unique landscape, habitat and home for wildlife. But they’ve been in serious decline for over 150 years.  The Trust’s 50-year vision for our High Peak Estate maps out what can be done, but we need to act faster and together everywhere – landowners and Government – to turn things round and put all our peatlands back into good health.”

Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, said: “The peat which blankets vast swathes of moorland on our uplands is a vital and special resource.  These moors are not only wonderful places for people to walk and enjoy; they’re also home to a very special range of amazing and internationally important plants and animals.  And these peatlands give us much more than that too; they’re a massive store of carbon and they capture and hold large volumes of water. In fact the drinking water supply for many millions of people comes from these peat landscapes.  If we look after them and help them to recover, they will help us respond to climate change and save money for society in the long term.”

Partnership

The range of partner organisations includes: Buglife, Campaign for National Parks, CPRE, Dartmoor Mires Project, Exmoor Mires Project, John Muir Trust, National Trust, North Pennines AONB Partnership, RSPB, South West Water, The Wildlife Trusts, and United Utilities.