Bannau Brycheiniog: new name for the park but poor state of nature harder to fix
“We are all longing for a taste of the wild, of true wilderness. But it’s like Joni Mitchell says: ‘They’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot’,” says Cathy, who is enjoying a day out hiking in the Brecon Beacons, or Bannau Brycheiniog as it is now to be known.
The national park announced it was changing its name back to the old Welsh one earlier this week and, in doing so, acknowledged a painful open secret: nature in the UK’s national parks is in trouble.
In a rousing video announcing the name change, which was launched as part of the park’s new strategy on biodiversity loss and climate crisis, the actor Michael Sheen makes an impassioned appeal. Against a backdrop of green rolling hills, he tells us: “Brecon Beacons national park. Beautiful, isn’t it? Well, it depends what you see, I suppose. What do they say? Beauty is truth. Look again, this time with a few truths in mind; the kind that once known, are hard to unsee.”
The video moves to images of litter, fly tipping and wildfires as he explains nature is doing better outside the Bannau’s boundaries, detailing problems with agricultural runoff, pollution and carbon emissions that are driving broader declines in British wildlife.
“Imagine if it didn’t have to be like that, if this place could be a different kind of park, if the loss of species and plants could be reversed … ”
The park has pledged to plant a million trees, restore 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of peatland, get its rivers to bathing-water quality, create wildlife corridors and improve sustainable transport links for the 4 million people that visit each year to improve the state of nature within its boundaries.
The frank admission that all is not well in the ancient mountains, heathland and temperate rainforests of the Welsh park and the promise of a wilder national park has won praise from conservationists, but also from hikers enjoying Sgwd Gwladus waterfall, one of the most popular parts of the Bannau.
“In here [pointing to her chest], we want to be out there in nature. Especially since Covid, with people going out and walking more, we’ve realised what an incredible place we have,” says Cathy over the roar of the waterfall, the spray rising up the gorge in the spring sunshine where epiphytes, mosses and lichens hang from the surrounding trees.
This part of Bannau Brycheiniog (pronounced Ban-eye Bruck-ein-iog) is wildly popular on social media, with TikTok videos and Instagram posts receiving tens of thousands of likes and views. Huge numbers of tourists visit in the summer.
“We all need to see these beautiful places, but there needs to be balance. I think there’s something to be said for wild areas that don’t have people because it’s humans that ruin everything, but it’s probably not practical,” says Rose, who is walking with her friends Jannette and Jan and their dogs.
Managing the human impact on popular areas while restoring nature is a balancing act for many national parks in the UK, but research indicates agricultural pollution and poor land management are bigger threats.
Last year, a report by the British Ecological Society (BES) found that protected areas such as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) make up 28% of UK land, but only about 5% is effectively protected. Unsustainable farming and fishing practices, pollution and the spread of non-native species are the main reasons for their bad condition, which is apparent from Dartmoor to the Cairngorms.
The UK government has set a non-binding target to protect and conserve 30% of its land and sea, playing a leading role at Cop15 in Montreal last December in talks for a global target. Conservationists say the country’s national parks and areas of outstanding beauty should play a key role in restoring and protecting ecosystems such as cold water coral reefs, chalk streams and peat bogs.
In England, a 2019 review led by the writer Julian Glover and commissioned by the government called for parks to have a new environmental mission and create 1,000 new ranger jobs. While the conclusions were supported by the government, they are yet to appear in law, although environment minister Thérèse Coffey has placed increased emphasis on improving their state.
“We are in a nature and climate crisis and things need to change,” says Kate Jennings, head of site conservation and species policy at RSPB. “We really welcome the announcement by Bannau Brycheiniog. They are taking on and owning the poor state of nature inside their boundaries and have a plan for turning it around. That’s brilliant to see. The level of ambition is amazing but they’re going to need help.
“National parks in the UK are not set up for success. They often have to collaborate with public bodies and organisations like water companies that have no obligation to help them,” she adds. “Burning, overgrazing, inappropriate woodland management and pollution are the big reasons for their bad state. But it’s not true that sustainable management and wilder parks are incompatible: there is a way to make changes that are good for the climate and nature, while increasing profits for land managers.”
The management of the UK’s national parks is becoming increasingly political. News of the Brecon Beacons’ name change quickly became a culture wars issue. Downing Street questioned parts of the decision, while there were accusations of anti-Englishness and woke “cultural Marxism”.
Terms like rewilding are becoming toxic in some areas of the country where many farmers see it as a threat to their livelihoods, and in Dartmoor national park, Conservative MPs and local farmers are clashing with conservationists about the management of areas overgrazed by sheep.
“What is crucial is that we maintain the science in this. To have the Bannau Brycheiniog come out with this is really refreshing,” says Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts. “Sometimes conservation is inconvenient. But Britain is either going to have sites of scientific interest or political convenience. I don’t think we should hold back from saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done for fear of so-called culture wars. It’s a Welsh national park deciding to have a Welsh name.”
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