Should people stay away from National Parks as lockdown restrictions ease?

‘Yay! We can finally meet in groups outdoors!’ cry the people of England, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are lifted. But does that mean we should be heading en masse to beauty spots? Should you be shoving your kids, Great Auntie Betty and the new lockdown puppy into your four-by-four and setting off for the New Forest, the Yorkshire Dales or Dartmoor? It seems the guardians of our most beloved outdoor spaces don’t think so.

National Parks Fortnight

In April, the UK’s National Parks normally runs a big marketing push, called the National Parks Fortnight, whereby it tries to persuade the people of Britain to detach their bahookies from their sofas and visit the countryside. This year, the whole campaign has been quietly shelved.

Could this be linked to what happened last summer, when our National Parks saw the biggest increase in visitor numbers in their history? With foreign travel off-limits and a population stir crazy after months cooped up at home for the first lockdown, horrible scenes unfolded in some of the UK’s most precious landscapes.

A Tsunami of Poo

Places like the Lake and Peak Districts were overrun with people, their litter and a veritable tsunami of poo. ‘Fly camping’ – people buying cheap tents and then leaving them behind – became a thing in supposedly protected habitats. Visitors caused fires by lighting barbecues on tinder-dry moorlands. They even cut down trees and damaged dry stone walls. The last thing our National Parks need is another onslaught of all that.

Indeed, last year, visitor numbers soared so high on the day the first lockdown ended that some National Park authorities ended up pleading with people to go home. Never mind cancelling their annual marketing campaign, it’s a wonder they haven’t launched a proactive national campaign for the 2021 season telling the great British public to stay away.

More Nature

Of course, the answer isn’t that people experience even less nature. The truth is that we all need much, much more of it. In the age of the linked climate and ecological crises, the last thing we want is for people to become further detached from the awe-inspiring ecosystems on which we all depend. We are a part of the natural world. We can’t survive without healthy soils, abundant seas and hordes of pollinating insects – as well as rich varieties of fungi, plant life, trees and wildlife. At the moment, too many people have lost touch with that fact. And that’s dangerous. We all need to reconnect with nature, so we can band together – and save it.

Nature in Trouble

The horrifying reality is that nature is in deep trouble. In the UK, more than half our wildlife species are in decline and 15% are threatened with extinction. Hedgehogs, turtle doves, puffins, dolphins, bees, moths, butterflies, newts, and bats are all in danger. Forests cover a meagre 2.5% of the land. Only a third of our fish stocks aren’t overfished. As we have tamed our land, we’ve also stripped the life from it. Our soils are being rendered infertile. Experts warn that we only have about 30 or 40 harvests left, if we carry on polluting soils with artificial chemicals and fertilisers. At the same time, so many humans have lost touch with the wonders of the natural world. British children suffer from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, which is damaging to both their wellbeing and their academic achievement. We have quite simply forgotten that we are nature and when we mistreat it, we mistreat ourselves.

Expansion of Wild Places

The problem is that there aren’t enough wild places. Our fifteen National Parks don’t have enough acres – and, even so, many experts deem them not wild enough. They’ve been degraded and overmanaged. What we quite clearly need is an increase in real wildernesses – more spaces for flora and fauna to recover and for humans to reconnect with their natural selves.

This is why conservation and wildlife organisations have a campaign to restores 30% of the UK’s land and sea to nature by 2030. This doesn’t just mean expanding our existing National Parks, but creating a series of interconnected rich habitats, thriving with life. It involves reinstating missing species and reinvigorating defunct forests, heaths, peatlands, wetlands, peat bogs, saltmarshes, kelp beds and reefs.

Of course, this needs to go hand-in-hand with more nature education. If people aren’t taught about the consequences of not shutting gates, collecting rubbish or guarding against fires, then they’re not going to do any of it.

Behaviour Guide

The immediate solution for those wondering if they should head to a National Park this Easter weekend is to do so following the authorities short guide on how to behave on their land during COVID-19 restrictions. It basically boils down to this:

  1.  Don’t trash the place or the staff.
  2. If there’s a crowd bigger than the one at the Cheltenham Festival, get out of there.
  3. For god’s sake, use a toilet.