ECOS 39(3): Reviewing England’s National Parks: an opportunity for rewilding?

The Glover-Gove review of National Parks will trigger many agendas for these protected landscapes. Can rewilding get a look in?

We’ve been here before…

Michael Gove chose to announce his review of England’s National Parks with the caveat that, unlike other countries’ National parks, “ours are working countryside”. Here he is acknowledging the generations of farmers that have, in the main, created a largely human-modified landscape layered over the physical geography of mountains, hills, rivers, and coasts. It is this landscape that our National Parks (and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) help to care for, focusing on cultural landscapes wherein nature is a happy yet coincidental by-product of traditional land uses. 

Gove’s announcement states that while the review will not weaken or undermine existing protections or geographic scope, it will instead “focus on how designated areas can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature.” This could – perhaps – provide an opportunity for broader thinking about how rewilding might figure in shaping the future of our wilder landscapes.

The announcement evokes memories of a previous review, that of the Edwards Report in 1991, and the recommendation therein that frustratingly never came to fruition. This was the setting up of experimental schemes where farming was withdrawn so that more of the landscape vegetation could be restored. The Council (now Campaign) for National Parks (CNP) subsequently examined the recommendation amongst options for enhancing the wild qualities of the Parks, culminating in its Wild By Design report published in 1997. Here CNP saw it as a real challenge to commit to minimal intervention areas on a large scale and over a long period. While some National Parks at the time gave it a faint nod by incorporating an aspiration in their Management Plan, it was soon dropped from the next Plan period, and so there is no evidence of the challenge of ‘Wild by Design’ having been taken up in all but a few notable examples.

The Parks’ baggage of history

It is easy to arrive at a conclusion that the National Park Authorities didn’t want to get into something that was outside of their purview, nor that they were in any position to incentivise the predominantly private ownership of the Park to do so. That this was the case is due to the pattern set by the three parliamentary reports on National Parks produced before legislation was enacted in 1949. In all three – Addison 1931, Dower 1944 and Hobhouse 1947 – information about the National Parks of other countries was compared with what each committee saw as the need for recreational open space in Britain.

The Addison Report rejected the large, publicly owned spaces of the National Parks of America and Canada because it was claimed our diminished wild fauna didn’t warrant it, especially since it was observed that we were a densely populated and highly developed country where there was little land that was not already put to some economic or productive use. Instead, the aim of taking adequate measures for preserving the countryside of the private land co-opted into a Park could be secured by controlling rural development through the planning system.

The Dower Report also repudiated the North American parks, asserting that even the remotest areas in Britain had been settled and modified, noting that while a Park would have its landscape beauty strictly protected, and with ample access for public open-air enjoyment, established farming use had to be effectively maintained.

Hobhouse went the same route of dismissing what it saw as the wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves of the National Parks in North America and Africa, declaiming that Parks in England and Wales were not to be small-scale copies of what they saw as the vast areas set aside in other countries. Moreover, Parks were not to be seen as museum specimens, but instead would be areas where farming and rural industries must flourish, unhindered by unnecessary controls or restrictions, nor from any inconvenience through public access to visitors. However, Hobhouse noted that preservation of the landscape called for maintenance of a good vegetation balance, as well as the rich flora and fauna in the wilder parts that were a key attraction. In spite of this, the report still stated that the policy for wildlife should not prejudice the best use of developed land.

The resulting legislation in the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act embraced the approach of co-opting private land and ensuring the preservation of its natural (scenic) beauty through the planning system. Parks were to provide opportunities for open-air recreation and the study of nature, these being delivered by open access agreements with individual landowners who would be compensated. There was no mention of wildlife in the original bill, and it would be 46 years before an amendment to the legislation would add conservation of wildlife alongside natural beauty as a purpose of the Parks. Somewhere along the way, the requirement of National Parks to provide opportunities for the study of nature got lost. It is perhaps to be replaced by one of the points in the 8-point Plan for England’s National Parks that was released in 2016, and where it states that National Parks will be part of a government campaign to connect young people with nature. Further to that, one of the objectives of this new National Park review is to make recommendations on how to build on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks and to connect more people with the natural environment from all sections of society and improve health and wellbeing.

National Parks – what’s in a label?

Under the internationally recognised IUCN classification of protected areas, our national parks are something of a misnomer. They fall, not into Category II National Parks where the primary objective is to protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, but into Category V Protected Landscapes and Seascapes. Here the primary objective is to protect and sustain important landscapes and seascapes and the associated nature conservation and other values created by interactions with humans through traditional management practices (see Box 1).

Box 1  IUCN Protected Area Categories

Ia  Strict nature reserve:  Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure the protection of the conservation values.

Ib  Wilderness area:  Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.

II  National park:  Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.

III  Natural monument or feature:  Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove.

IV  Habitat/species management area:  Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.

V  Protected landscape or seascape:  Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.

VI  Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources:  Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims.

From: Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. x + 86pp.

There are 512 protected areas in the EEA member and collaborating countries of Europe that are called a National Park and which are classified in Category II. By comparison, there are 27 protected areas in Europe that go by the name of “national park”, but which are classified in Category V. Our 15 “national parks” represent over half of that total. While this does not mean that the English Category V parks are in anyway seen as something ‘less’ than Category II National Parks, rather that the emphasis is different. What it does mean, however, is that we have set certain limits on acceptable levels of wildness in favour of farming practices and other forms of human land use. In effect, our wildlife, habitats and nature are constrained within a set of cultural norms determined by a baseline of the 1930s-40s from whence the Addison, Dower and Hobhouse Reports derived their targets and standards.  Such is the legacy of the limited aspiration for wild nature that was set by those parliamentary reports on National Parks, and by the subsequent legislation.

In more recent years we have updated the Act with various amendments and added further Parks to the original 10, but their Category V status remains unchanged. This is despite a somewhat half-hearted recent attempt to review the status of protected areas in the UK under the IUCN system in the Putting Nature on the Map report (Crofts et al. 2014).  This failed to grasp-the-nettle and, through a check-list of questions relating to site characteristics and management, was able to pigeonhole most of England’s protected areas (with only a few minor exceptions) into Category IV and V. The situation is similar in Wales, but in Scotland the authorities have re-designated 19 National Nature Reserves from Category IV to Category II and 340 Sites of Special Scientific Interest as Category III Natural Monuments.  

Layered on top of our National Parks and AONBs, designations (including SACs and SPAs) from the EU Habitats Directive and Natura2000 have further served to restrict nature within the bounds for that which it was originally designated with policy conditions such as Favourable Conservation Status and Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions effectively preventing the processes of natural succession from determining ecological pathways towards a wilder landscape where farming and other primary land uses are marginal and in decline. Of course, Brexit offers the opportunity of a radical rethink on how we design future agri-environment schemes and pay for the protection of landscape and nature.

Only this year the CNP produced a report on improving nature in the National Parks. Based on a public survey dating from 2016 the headline message revealed that people wanted ‘wilder’ National Parks. This lead the CNP to the conclusion that National Park Authorities should identify areas within which they can implement policies to make them feel relatively wilder through working with landowners and managers, so land is managed less intensively, and natural processes support more robust, functional ecosystems. 

Brave new world or same old scene?

The stated focus of the review of England’s National Parks is in part on how they “can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature”. We see two objectives in the Government’s 25 year Environmental Plan for England that are consistent with this. You would think that the National Parks are an obvious search area for developing the Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife, and to provide opportunities to re-introduce species that we have lost from our countryside. This surely must include support for rewilding. Indeed, Michael Gove has himself talked positively about the benefits that rewilding might bring to selected areas of countryside. In an interview with Rob Yorke for Countryfile magazine he stated:  “My view is that there may be parts of the uplands that are suitable for rewilding”. He doesn’t qualify exactly what he means by “suitable” or by “rewilding” but it is perhaps a good bet that he has been informed by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology briefing note on rewilding and ecosystem services (POSTNote No.537, 2016). Nonetheless, he goes on to temper his enthusiasm for rewilding by saying that “there are other parts where we need to support traditional farming [and that he thinks] it would be wrong for anyone who’s responsible for our countryside to allow that type of farming to be threatened” thus bringing us back to the assumed primacy of humans over nature set out in the foundations of the original National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

Prospects for pushing rewilding

There is, nevertheless, an opportunity here in the current review to revaluate the way we designate our National Parks and AONBs in England. While most of these areas are farmed or affected by other forms of human land use, there are locations within these protected landscapes where there is little significant human use beyond recreation. Here we could, given the will, and especially for areas that are in public ownership, designate these as Category II National Parks, to protect large-scale ecological processes and natural ecosystems. Brexit and likely changes in farm subsidies could play a role by shifting payments from funding marginal agricultural practices to supporting rewilding projects and the wider range of ecosystem service and landscape benefits that would entail. While we might not have the scale of landscapes present in North American National Parks we could foster the aspiration to be able – in the near future – to designate selected core areas as Category II National Parks within the wider Category V Park boundary.

 So where next?

Top-down state intervention through the imposition of new designations on private land is clearly not the way to go. Rather, a more bottom-up process enabled by some enlightened top-down policy could result in the identification of suitable public land holdings and willing private landowners. The problem is highly geographical and so a first step would be to run a simple map overlay exercise combining information on land ownership with existing protected area boundaries to see which areas meet these criteria. Combined with additional map layers showing land capability, land use and policy boundaries such as Less Favoured Areas, these maps could define an opportunity class for either extension to our existing National Park network, target areas for rewilding and re-designation from IUCN Cat V to Cat II National Parks.

Further work looking at ecosystem service potential and landscape values could add extra richness to this exercise, together with input from local communities. It might reasonably be expected, with appropriate funding mechanisms in place, that such an exercise would return significant areas of countryside that are appropriate and, more significantly willing, to sign up to some form of environmental and ecological improvement scheme that includes opportunities for rewilding and Cat II Park designation.

Brexit will force us to rethink both nature policy and farm subsidies. There will be less money in the pot for production subsidies and that will entail some hard choices about which farm systems and landscapes to support. Public funds may be better spent on environmental stewardship, including environmental and habitat improvements through rewilding.



Campaign for National Parks (2018) Raising the bar: improving nature in our national parks.

Council for National Parks (1997) Wild by Design, CNP, London

Crofts, R., Dudley, N., Mahon, C., Partington, R., Phillips, A., Pritchard, S. and  Stolton, S. (2014). Putting Nature on the Map: Summary of a Report and Recommendations on the Use of the IUCN System of Protected Area Categorisation in the United Kingdom: IUCN National Committee UK.

Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. x + 86pp.

Edwards, R. (1991). Fit for the future. Report of the National Parks Review Panel. Countryside Commission.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2016) Rewilding and ecosystem services (POSTNote No.537, 2016)


The authors are with the Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds.

Contact the author


Fisher, Mark and Carver, Steve “ECOS 39(3): Reviewing England’s National Parks: an opportunity for rewilding?” ECOS vol. 39(3) 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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