Britain’s national parks contain some of the UK’s most iconic landscapes. But behind the pristine facade of natural harmony, another reality lurks.

Sometimes, the Grass Really is Greener …

Beauty is subjective. I grew up in the South Downs, the chalk spine of Sussex and Hampshire. It is one of 15 national parks in Britain. In my formative years, its treeless undulations filled me with a sense of freedom and distance. The Downs were somewhere I could go if I needed space to think. Running along their bone-white tracks was a form of meditation for me. After hectic summer days, I would crave the stillness and quiet of their peaks and coombs.

Then, I moved away. To the West Country first, and then to Norway. In the mountains, fjords, and forests of Scandinavia, I discovered what real space and freedom looked like — vast, untamed places that have not been curtailed by livestock or agriculture. When I returned to Sussex after a year in Norway, the stillness of the Downs filled me with something closer to dread than freedom.

It’s an eye-opener when you learn that 85 per cent of the South Downs is used for agriculture. Much of this is upland sheep grazing, an industry as inefficient as it is ecologically calamitous. Sheep love highly nutritious saplings, ensuring that the Downs remain predominantly treeless. This in turn denies birds, rodents and amphibians a place to live. Everyone knows that livestock like cows, sheep, and other ruminants produce methane. Less well known is that it is 80 times worse for climate warming than carbon dioxide.

As such, a pathetic 15 per cent of land in the national park is used in a way that does not contribute directly to environmental collapse. The rolling fields and open pastures that I was raised to believe represent the natural world are directly contributing to its decline. Most of the South Downs are effectively a desert; depleted of wildlife and the nutrients needed for wildlife to survive. They are quiet and spacious — because they are dead and empty.

Thereocide Country

In Devon’s Dartmoor National Park, 90 per cent of the land is used for agriculture. Across this massive area, swaling — a process by which farmers literally burn heather and scrub — is used to clear the land for farming. Dartmoor National Park Authority goes out of its way to assure the public that fire breaks are put in place to: ‘facilitate safe extinguishment.’ This is little comfort for the millions of creatures incinerated within the designated swaling areas. More accurately, this is what a thereocide — the act of killing sentient animals — looks like.

Further north, heather burning is used to maintain grouse moors in many national parks. Predators like hen harriers are poisoned and shot to keep grouse stocks artificially high. While these practices are illegal, studies show that grouse shooting cannot be maintained as a viable industry without them. Unlike continental Europe, where upland sheep grazing has widely ceased, Scotland’s national parks continue to be stunted by heavily subsidised livestock farming.

All in all, it is little wonder that Britain’s national parks have teetered on the verge of losing their international ‘nature reserve’ status for some time. They have been criticised by the UN for failing to protect biodiversity, and lag behind their sister parks in Europe and the Americas in pretty much every meaningful metric. These include species reintroduction and land restoration, but also ‘nature connectedness.’

Artificial Britain

In a study published last month, Britons came last out of 14 European nationalities when asked how connected they felt to nature. While more rural and less developed countries like Bulgaria and Portugal ranked highly, Italy topped the list. The Italian peninsula has a population density similar to the UK, demonstrating that Britain’s urban sprawl is no excuse for its attenuated relationship with nature.

Unlike Britain, Italy’s nature parks have ‘charismatic megafauna’ roaming freely. This is the name for big, exciting animals like bears and wolves, both of which live within a two-hour drive of Rome. While Italy is a long way from being a haven for biodiversity, its national park authorities have demonstrated some ambition. Rather than cave to agri-business, they have worked with local communities to change attitudes towards predators and create nature-based economies.

This is in stark contrast with our National Park authorities, whose primary objective appears to be laundering the image of industrial agriculture. The South Downs park website reminds us that: ‘Medieval sheep farmers grazed the chalk grasslands.’ The Dartmoor website harkens back to ‘prehistoric settlers’ who, ‘first brought their livestock here thousands of years ago,’ while the Lake District authority gushes about how ‘farming has a special place’ in the park.

Evidently, the park authorities believe that a farm today and a farm six thousand years ago functions in basically the same way. Dartmoor, the South Downs, the Lake District, and any other park you care to name can comfortably support a community of subsistence pastoralists. What they cannot support is industrial chemicals, pesticides, slurry pits, intensive grazing, soil erosion, swaling, predator culls, and the prophylactic use of antibiotics. This is the reality of modern farming, and it is in these conditions that nature dies.

The British government is calling for 30 per cent of the planet to be protected by 2030. According to DEFRA, ‘30×30’ will: ‘radically increase the success of biodiversity conservation.’ The UK is nowhere near meeting this target, but we could easily do it if we wanted to. Twenty-seven per cent of terrestrial Britain is within a national park or area of outstanding natural beauty. Yet just 5 per cent of it is effectively protected. If the park authorities prioritised biodiversity and a nature-based economy over subsidised farming and blood sports, we could hit 30×30 tomorrow.

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