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Celebrating Britain's national parks
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2009
President Ulysses S Grant may not be the best known US president, but when in 1872 he signed a law giving protection to Yellowstone he started the worldwide designation of particularly beautiful countryside as National Parks.
Britain was a long way behind the US , with the first national parks here only being designated after the last war, in 1951. The country now has fourteen national parks, each with their own distinctive landscapes and histories, and with special laws in place to help protect them. The good news for country-lovers is that the fifteenth is about to join this select list: the government announced this Spring that the South Downs would become a national park in 2011.
For many older outdoor enthusiasts, the South Downs designation is particularly welcome, because the South Downs was first identified as worthy of national park status as long ago as 1947. It will be only the third new national park in England and Wales in recent times. The initial rush of designations in the 1950s took in the Peak District, Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Northumberland and the North York Moors in England , and Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales . These first ten were then joined by the Norfolk Broads (technically not quite a national park, but treated as one) in 1989 and by the New Forest in 2005. Meanwhile Scotland , too, has belatedly joined in: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs became the country's first national park in 2002, with the Cairngorms following a year later.
National parks in Britain have two main purposes. The first is to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage'; the second is to enable the public to understand and enjoy their special qualities. (In Scotland , national park objectives are drawn slightly broader, to include sustainability and economic and social development). In broad terms, therefore, the aim is both to protect what's beautiful about the landscape, and also to let people enjoy this beauty for themselves. Only if there's a conflict between the two does conservation have priority.
Each National Park has its own National Park authority, given the responsibility by central government for administering the park area and meeting the legal objectives. These authorities have many of the powers usually exercised by local authorities (including planning powers), and are watched over by board members who act a little like local councillors – in fact, local councillors makes up about half of their number, whilst the remainder are chosen from the general public, often because of their particular interests in, say, farming or walking. Again like local councils, National Park authorities have paid staff, including rangers, planners and educational staff.
In total, Wales's three national parks makes up about 20% of the country's land area, whilst in England almost 10% will be inside the national parks once the South Downs is officially launched. (In Scotland , the two current national parks comprise 7% of the land area). The land inside each national park boundary may be publicly owned, or held by a charity such as the National Trust, but most of it remains privately owned. Farming and other countryside activities such as forestry and game-keeping carry on as they do in other parts of Britain , and indeed the national parks are keen to emphasise that they are living landscapes, not museum pieces. Sometimes, though, conflicting pressures can be difficult to manage: quarrying has been a long-running issue of dispute in the Peak District, for example, whilst military use of parts of the national parks areas of Dartmoor and Northumberland is also controversial. National park authorities can struggle to cope with visitor pressure at very popular locations, or to try to persuade visitors to use public transport rather than their own cars.
Access to national park countryside
The public's right to enjoy the countryside is in general the same in national parks as in other areas.
In England and Wales , rights of way (footpaths, bridleways and some other byways) are types of public highway, which you should be able to use unimpeded. Horseriders and cyclists can use bridleways, but not footpaths. Rights of way are generally looked after by local councils (usually either a county council or a unitary authority, although national park authorities often act as the highway authority for their own area). The Ramblers campaigns among other things for improvements to the rights of way network, and detailed information about your legal rights is available on their website: www.ramblers.org.uk/info/britain.
A public right to access to uncultivated mountain, heath and moorland was introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, and areas of so-called access land are shown on Ordnance Survey maps with a light yellow tint. More details about access land and access rights can be found on the official Natural England website, or from the Ramblers' website.
In Scotland , the law is different. There has long been presumption that the public has the right to access the countryside, and this was confirmed by the Land Reform Act 2003. This means that you have a statutory right to explore pretty well all of the land, except for some commonsense restrictions on, for example, quarries, military sites, airports, harbours and the like. There is also no equivalent law on rights of way, so OS maps north of the border shows paths which actually exist, rather than official rights of way. Scotland 's national parks are no different to other parts of Scotland in this respect.
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