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There’s an interesting juxtaposition of conservationist optimism and pessimism in the U.K. these days, and it may not be so easy to determine which is closest to realism. Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer for The Ecologist, and she recently published a piece that explores 46 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONBs in the UK to explain why they’re not only beautiful but also beneficial to both humans and wildlife alike. Conversely, though, there is a critical element best voiced by George Monbiot, author of multiple bestsellers including Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, who argues that national parks in the UK are a “farce.”
AONBs are defined by Landscapes for Life as “an outstanding landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so precious that it is safeguarded in the national interest.” This speaks for more than just landscapes that simply exist in seclusion from the rest of civilization; rather, it pertains to landscapes that might include businesses, nature, people or all of the above. There may also be a cultural significance to them, and this is one of the reasons Wainwright takes the time to distinguish them from national parks.
The UK has 15 national parks defined as “Britain’s breathing spaces,” and these places are intended to “foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the national park” as well as “conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage.” Wainwright concedes, “though I personally feel a strong connection to and love for Dartmoor, my local national park — these ‘breathing spaces’ we are so drawn to are not always putting the natural world at their heart.” She proceeds to address Monbiot’s piece recently written for The Guardian, acknowledging that national parks are in danger of becoming little more than “managed playgrounds.”
AONBs on the other hand, she points out, were created by legislation that also created national parks back in 1949, and they were designated in predominately lowland, rural and agricultural areas. They’re managed in fundamentally different ways, Wainwright points out. They’re run under the auspices of local government whose budgets pale in comparison to that of the central government who runs the national parks with significantly greater funding. National parks in the UK, for example, have their own planning committees and individual watchdogs for each park. They’re exceptionally well-staffed, too, in comparison to AONBs.
In the column to which she’s responding, Monbiot eloquently rips into national parks partly for these reasons. He writes that British national parks are managed not in the national interest as expressed in that 1949 legislation but, rather, in the interest of a privileged minority, and he describes them as being “eerily bereft of wildlife and rich ecosystems.” He explains that one reason national parks are in this state is due to systematic burning under the purview of the very watchdogs tasked with protecting these landscapes. He calls it vandalism outright.
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“This vandalism is sometimes justified as a ‘conservation tool,’ but it bears as much relationship to the conservation of wildlife as burning libraries bears to the conservation of books,” says Monbiot. He addresses Dartmoor and Exmoor as examples of this, pointing out that the National Trust and the national park authorities who are supposed to protect these landscapes commonly burn it in favor of sheep. He also highlights national parks in Scotland and northern England where the same is done for red grouse.
Leeds University researchers have conducted studies that find this systematic burning dries out peat, increases acidity in rivers and might very well increase flood risks further downstream. They also burn far too often according to one study because they want the resultant heather shoots that grouse eat, and they’re continually increasing the amount that they burn. One of the Leeds studies suggests burning is increasing by 11 percent annually. In addition to burning, they kill mass amounts of various predators like pine martens, foxes, weasels, domestic cats and birds of prey. One of the studies focused on Langholm Moor in particular, and it found that, when birds of prey are allowed to increase their numbers in the area, grouse on this Scottish landscape start disappearing to the point that it becomes nigh-fruitless to hunt them, which is the name of the game.
“Independent campaigners are stepping in where the big groups fear to tread,” according to Monbiot. “With their help, the demand for rewilding, a fringe interest when I published Feral five years ago, is now becoming impossible to ignore.” Individuals and small entities are having to take up this cause because the organizations with the resources and manpower to do so simply won’t. Wainwright speaks of groups like Wild Watch, for example, which brings together volunteers, naturalists, families, and students to collect data on around 50 species throughout the Nidderdale AONB. Backed by Lindsey Chapman of Springwatch Unsprung, this is one of many examples of citizen science and collaborative projects springing up now.
One issue, though, seems to be that some have given up on national parks and are purely focused on ensuring that the same complications do not befall AONBs. Others are looking for ways to genuinely do something about perverse interests controlling national park management. One way or another, what they agree on is that human beings and wildlife are both products of nature, animals who need to be benefitting each other rather than disadvantaging one another.