Tree Cover in England's National Parks

England’s National Parks are no longer fit for purpose. Even before the climate emergency, their lack of naturalness is impeding attempts to halt declining biodiversity, but now there is a real urgency to renew thinking towards our 10 National Parks. We need a new version for our National Parks; a version 2.0.

England’s National Parks are an embarrassment for anyone who cares for nature, a sign of our failure to protect the natural world, and a sad corroboration of culture defeating strategy

Dartmoor forest by Gabriel Hemery
My vision for the Erme Valley around Piles Copse, Dartmoor. Sketch by Gabriel Hemery

The National Parks of England include iconic landscapes, loved by everyone for their beauty. They are also working landscapes, managed by farmers and estate owners for raising livestock or for shooting. Sadly, many of these traditional approaches to land management are becoming increasingly outdated, and have led directly to land which is seriously depleted of nature. Our national parks should be the jewels in our crown, but let’s not beat about the bush here, overall they are an embarrassment for anyone who cares for nature, a sign of our failure to protect the natural world, and a sad corroboration of culture defeating strategy. I say overall, as there are many good examples of valuable work being done, so my comment is a strategic one, aimed at National Park Authorities and central government. Now you can take action, by signing a petition (see below).

Rather than proposing new national parks, Government’s priority should be rewilding those we already have (even if only in name, not in nature).

Why do we need wilder National Parks?

  • Nature is badly depleted in our national parks. In England’s national parks, three-quarters of Sites of Special Scientific Interest are in a poor condition and often in a worse state than elsewhere.
  • Many National Parks have less tree cover than nearby major cities (see below).
  • The UK is ranked 189th out of 218 countries for its quality of nature.
  • 56% of our species are in decline and 15% threatened with extinction.
  • England’s national parks are extremely valuable, but the threats of declining nature and the climate emergency are outpacing us.

Whilst most look wild and natural, they are not. We have become conditioned to thinking that the barren hills and big vistas are natural – they are not. We have become used to seeing isolated contorted trees struggling to survive on hillsides – these are not a sign a wilderness, but a sign of declining naturalness. I know that I’m not alone in holding these views. For instance, a survey conducted in 2016 showed that most people wanted our national parks to provide ‘better conservation of wildlife’, followed by a wish to ​‘make them wilder’.

Most people want our national parks to provide ‘better conservation of wildlife’, followed by a wish to ​‘make them wilder’.

Campaign for National Parks Survey, 2016 

Tree Cover in England’s National Parks

I’ve spoken out many times in this blog and in my published writing about the sorry state of our National Parks when it comes to tree cover. Britain (and England) has one of the lowest area of trees for any country in Europe (see Tree Cover in Europe). In the Arboreal (Little Toller, 2016) collection of tree stories, my short story Don’t Look Back struck an optimistic note, imagining a time in the future when the barren slopes of Dartmoor are covered in trees. In my short story Westmorland-Upon-Sea (Tall Trees Short Stories: Vol20, 2020), I included a poem titled Wilding.

Wilding
Gabriel Hemery


I wondered, lonely as a thorn
That clings on high o'er cliff and hill,
When upon an early morn,
I spied a flock of those who kill;
Across the prairie, deprived of trees,
Roving and slaying in the breeze.

Continuous as the former stars
That twinkled once, before the glow,
They stretched in never-ending scars
From mountain peak to flat plateau:
Ten hundred saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in deathly dance.

The waves below me crashed; but they
Ignored the sea and wind with glee:
A tree like me can only sway,
In such a careless company:
I gazed—and gazed—with troubled thought
What ruin humankind had wrought.

For oft, when on my crag I cling
In hope or in a desperate mood,
I ponder if man, might soon bring
An end to my bare solitude;
And I beg to that creator,
For the wilding of our nature.

From Westmorland-Upon-Sea, Tall Trees Short Stories: Vol20. Wood Wide Works (2020)

Investigative work by Friends of the Earth, using a ‘Woodland Opportunity Tool’, has revealed some powerful metrics in the form of data and mapping analyses to emphasise what is obvious to anyone who can ‘read’ the true nature of our national parks. I find it nothing short of shocking that many of our National Parks have less tree cover than their nearby major cities. For instance, there is less woodland cover in the Yorkshire Dales than in London, less in the Peak District than in Leeds, and less in the Lake District than in Sheffield.

What is powerful about these data, are how these estimates of increased tree cover are conservative. Important landscapes and protected habitats are excluded from the estimates. Other than the Broads, New Forest, and South Downs, tree cover could be increased by at least 150% across every National Park. Government could also take a lead, because although most land in our National Parks is privately owned (unlike National Parks in many other parts of the world), it does own on average, 10% of the land. Rather than proposing new national parks, I believe Government’s priority should be rewilding those what we already have in place, in name if not in nature.

National ParkExisting Woodland Cover (%)Potential Woodland Cover Increase (%)
Broads1213
Dartmoor1231
Exmoor1451
Lake District1330
New Forest3746
North York Moors2241
Northumberland2337
Peak District843
South Downs2329
Yorkshire Dales428
AVERAGE16.834.9
Source: Woodland Opportunity Tool, Friends of the Earth.

The analysis of potential woodland cover excluded Priority Habitats, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation, RAMSAR Sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserves, Local Nature Reserves, Moorland Line, and OS Green Space.

Take Action – Sign the Petition

A campaign by Rewilding Britain has been launched recently, supported by Wildlife Link and Friends of the Earth.

  • Help us protect our loved but declining wildlife
  • Absorb carbon and help fight the climate crisis
  • Reduce flooding and improve water quality
  • Allow people to reconnect with nature-rich, wild places
  • Create much-needed habitats for declining plants, birds, mammals and insects
  • Offer new opportunities for communities and local economies, including nature-friendly farming, forestry, eco-tourism and recreation
  • Lead the way to a wilder Britain by inspiring rewilding and nature recovery nationwide

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