Our green and pleasant land

As the North York Moors National Park Authority battles to cope with the impact of government spending cuts, Chris Bond looks at why our national parks are so important.

Heather in bloom in Westerdale, North York Moors National Park. Picture: Mike Kipling

IT’S only a couple of weeks since the world got to see just how beautiful Yorkshire is.

The sight of the world’s greatest cyclists powering up our spectacular hills and through picturesque towns and villages was a joy to behold. And while the vast crowds that came out in their droves to catch a glimpse of the Tour De France grabbed the headlines, our wonderful landscape wasn’t far behind.

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As a nation we are passionate about our countryside and parks, they’re our communal gardens, our back yards. And here in the Broad Acres we’re fortunate to have such impressive landscapes as the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors and the rugged terrain of the Peak District right on our doorstep.

However, there are some dark clouds on the horizon that threaten to disrupt this idyllic picture. As The Yorkshire Post reported yesterday, the North York Moors National Park Authority will have to rely more on external funding, volunteers, apprentices and graduates as it faces the latest round of government cuts totalling £300,000. The park’s chief executive Andy Wilson said it was “inevitable” that public spending cuts, which by next year will have amounted to a 40 per cent reduction in the Authority’s budget since 2010, will affect frontline services.

They aren’t alone in facing some tough decisions. In the autumn, members of the neighbouring Yorkshire Dales National Park will begin to explore how to trim £150,000 off its budget in 2015/16.

It makes for an uncertain future. National park authorities, along with the Forestry Commission and English Heritage are doing a sterling job conserving and promoting our rural landscapes and heritage, but it’s being carried out with dwindling resources.

The financial plight of national park authorities has been compounded by the fact they are hugely reliant on annual grants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which account for about 75 per cent of budgets. Unlike other local authorities, national parks are unable to count on precepts from local council tax bills to help counter cutbacks in Government funding. All of which is putting pressure on these treasure troves of nature.

The North York Moors National Park, created back in 1952, has one of the largest expanses of heather moorland in England, and is one of the most valuable areas for prehistoric sites. It contains 839 scheduled monuments dating back to the Bronze Age – nearly a third of those found in the entire Yorkshire and Humber region. Not only that, but there are around 1,500 boundary stones and crosses in the North York Moors including Lilla Howe, the oldest Christian monument in England.

It’s also an area rich in flora and fauna. The North York Moors is a European Special Protection Area for merlin and golden plover and is a well known haven for ground nesting birds. It’s home, too, to the most northerly colony of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly in Britain and the southernmost place for the dwarf cornel.

But this wondrous landscape requires careful managing and the North York Moors National Park Authority is having to try and do this with a shrinking workforce. In March 2010, the number of full time staff stood at 142, compared to a predicted figure of 106 by the same time next year.

Its chairman, Jim Bailey, is concerned about the long term impact the cutbacks could have. “People may not see any serious erosion in the first year or two, but it’s a bit like a garden and if you let it go too far then you can’t get it back again,” he says. “That said, we have a wonderful set of volunteers and helpers and they are a real asset. We also have 17 apprentices and hopefully they are learning the skills they need to continue living and working in the area, so we still have people on the ground.”

Nevertheless, it’s a far from ideal situation especially given the value our national parks offer. It’s been estimated they are worth a staggering £4bn to the national economy – more than the UK aerospace industry – yet there’s a feeling this gets overlooked by politicians.

National parks aren’t just about attracting tourists, they also play a key role beyond their remit to conserve and enhance our countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage. “They’re very valuable to the local economy especially in places where there is not much else going on, but they also do a lot for our health, education and wellbeing,” says Bailey.

Public funding is invested sparingly in national parks in England, equating to less than £1 per person each year which represents incredibly good value for money. The success of the Tour de France showed how important our countryside is and how valuable it can be and Bailey hopes it encourages more people to get involved.

“These are the public’s national parks and if they want them then they have to put their hands up. You can’t go on cutting indefinitely otherwise there will come a time when it risks collapsing, although we’re not there yet.”

The fact is, though, that more national park bosses are having to harness the enthusiasm of public-spirited people who are either happy to “give something back” to society, or simply well versed in the needs of their local communities and willing to volunteer in a variety of roles to safeguard the treasured landscape.

Brian Walker, a local conservation expert, believes the Government cuts will have a detrimental effect. “If you lose experienced staff and get people in who, with all the will in the world, don’t have the field experience, knowledge, or ability to deal with local people, then it’s bound to have an impact.”

Walker, himself a National Park volunteer, says more are needed to help out. “Although there are some young people involved, most of the volunteers are over the age of 60 and they have family commitments, so we need to find ways of getting more people involved.” But he’s in no doubt about the key role that our national parks play. “They protect the past and provide opportunities for the future, they are a repository for our natural and cultural heritage.”

Which is why he would like to see more, not less, support from the Government. “If we’re serious about protecting the environment for future generations we need these parks that can spread out into other areas. We’re facing climate change but we don’t know what it will do, so it’s important we have national parks that provide corridors that allow wildlife to move around,” he says.

“You can’t live without a healthy environment and a lot of people haven’t grasped that. We hear about the problems bees are having and national parks are like a bank of good environmental stuff, which is why we need to look after them for the future.”