How human-powered conservation is helping revive UK national parks

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Volunteer for change

“Our volunteers tell us that volunteering changes lives and improves not only their physical health, but also their well-being,” says Richard Austin, training and mentoring coordinator at New Forest National Park. “It gives people the chance to visit areas they have never seen before, as well as make new friends, discover new skills and learn and become the stewards of this historic landscape.”

The New Forest, like many national parks, offers a range of volunteer opportunities. They include access to the countryside (maintenance of public rights of way), archaeological tasks (restoration of ancient monuments), practical conservation (restoration of woods, meadows and hedges) and work as a bicycle guide.

“I started volunteering about three years ago, mainly to get me out in the winter,” says Deborah Gordon, a resident of New Forest. “I hate this season and it’s hard to motivate myself to do a lot. Volunteering encouraged me to spend days outdoors in any weather and had a positive impact on my mood. I have also developed so many new skills. Who knew I could learn how to prune a hazelnut tree and sow a meadow of wild flowers! “

A resident of New Forest for 30 years, Deborah says she previously had little knowledge of the conservation issues facing the park, which now motivates her to volunteer. “The park attracts millions of tourists every year and educates them, especially around the wild animals. [ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and sheep] – is a difficult question. Animals are essential to maintaining the forest in its natural state, but they belong to the “commoners” rather than the park.

The commoners of the New Forest (people who occupy land or property with grazing rights attached) are just one of the many human communities that coexist in national parks. At any given time, around half a million people can populate the UK’s national parks. They include farmers, villagers and, controversially, a growing number of mining communities, alongside staff from resident organizations such as the National Trust, Forestry Commission, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, English Heritage. and NatureScot. Aside from the inevitable push-and-pull of their contrasting agendas, these diverse organizations offer a myriad of volunteer projects, making them a good port of call for seeking opportunities that meet particular interests.

Rewilding Britain, the organization that works for the massive restoration of the country’s ecosystems, has partner projects in several national parks. Among them, Wild Ennerdale, in the Lake District, is an initiative that aims to help natural processes reclaim and shape the landscape of the Ennerdale Valley after years of sheep grazing and growing non-tree plantations. native. Volunteer work with Wild Ennerdale has involved removing fences, planting trees, and building trails and wetlands. The 10-year project worked with local farmers to introduce grazers like Galloway cattle to the area; they naturally clear land, helping to reset ecosystems. It’s an approach that has seen nature return in abundance: salmon have been restored to rivers and thriving populations of the endangered Marsh Fritillary Butterfly.

“Despite superb conservation initiatives, our national parks are natural and ecological shadows of what they could be,” says Rewilding Britain in its current appeal to the UK government to make our national parks more wild. He notes that decades-old laws hamper the ability of national parks to “lead the way in tackling the extinction crisis and climate emergency.”

In October 2020, a Friends of the Earth report found that several of England’s most iconic national parks have a lower percentage of forest cover than our major cities; the Yorkshire Dales are only 4.1% compared to London at 4.5%, for example.

In September 2018, Natural England – the government body that oversees our national parks – reported that barely a quarter of its sites of special scientific interest were in good condition.


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