Our national parks are ecological deserts, run for the benefit of a tiny minority. It’s time we reclaimed them.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th February 2018

Visit any national park in Britain and ask yourself what you are seeing. Is it the “wild”, “unspoilt” landscape the brochures and display boards promised? Or is it eerily bereft of wildlife and rich ecosystems? Is it managed in the interests of the nation, or for a tiny, privileged minority? I suspect that if we saw such places called national parks in another country, we would recognise them for what they are: a complete farce.

One of the reasons for this dire state is burning. Much of the land in our national parks is systematically burnt, with the blessing of the agencies supposed to protect them. This vandalism is sometimes justified as a “conservation tool”, but it bears as much relationship to the conservation of wildlife as burning libraries bears to the conservation of books. So weird has our engagement with nature in this country become that we can no longer tell the difference between protection and destruction.

On Dartmoor and Exmoor, the national park authorities and the National Trust, charged with protecting the land, instead torch it to favour sheep. In the national parks of central and northern England and Scotland, this arson is conducted on behalf of another species: red grouse. Burning by grouse estates roasts reptiles, small mammals, insects and tree seedlings. Research conducted at Leeds University shows that it also damages and dries out peat, raises the acidity of rivers and could increase the risk of flooding downstream. But the amount of burning, which produces young heather shoots for the grouse to eat, has been increasing exponentially: according to one study, by 11% a year. The management of grouse moors is intensifying, to give the select group of people who shoot them as many targets as possible.

The burning is accompanied by the mass killing of birds of prey, weasels, stoats, foxes, badgers, pine martens, domestic cats and other predators. The continued disappearance of hen harriers, golden eagles, peregrine falcons and other raptors when they cross grouse moors is no mystery. A study on Langholm Moor in Scotland discovered that when the persecution of birds of prey ceases, grouse numbers drop below the point at which driven shooting is economically viable. (Driven grouse shooting involves clients waiting in shelters, called butts, while lines of workers chase the birds over their heads). Though it is illegal to trap, shoot and poison birds of prey in this country, the economic model depends on these practices.

Don’t expect any help from the statutory agencies. Natural England, the government body charged with defending wildlife and ecosystems, behaves as if it were a subsidiary of the grouse shooting industry. The formidable conservationist Mark Avery has produced a long catalogue of this agency’s collusion: granting grouse moors consent for the killing of protected birds; removing hen harrier chicks from their nests; supporting the roads the estate owners build to take their clients to the shooting areas; refusing to release the results of its study on hen harriers.

Nor should you expect much help from other groups. In 2016, after a video of a man trying to kill hen harriers on its property caused a furore, the National Trust revoked the grouse shooting lease on its land in the Peak District National Park. But last year, to general astonishment, it advertised for new grouse shooting tenants. It brushed aside a petition by local people to rewild the land instead. It dismissed an offer by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust to manage the land without grouse shooting.

When I asked why it had made this decision, the trust told me it wanted “to explore whether less intensive forms of grouse shooting can be compatible with and help deliver the nature conservation aims of our High Peak Moors Vision”. But this experiment has already been conducted, at Langholm Moor, and it showed that you can have either a rich ecosystem or grouse shooting, but not both. The natural population density of red grouse in the wild, according to a study published in the journal Ibis, is between 0.2 and 20 birds per square kilometre. But for a driven grouse shoot to be viable, it needs far more birds: the average on grouse estates in England is 325 per square kilometre. Such densities are impossible without burning, draining and the mass killing of predators.

This and its recent decision on trail hunting suggest to me that the National Trust is funded by the many but answers to the few. It arose from the Commons Preservation Society, founded in 1865, whose purpose was to protect society from the aristocracy. But under the disastrous leadership of the socialite James Lees-Milne (from 1936 to 1950), its role was reversed: it came to protect the aristocracy from society. It has, it seems, yet to recover.

So where do we turn? The RSPB? Sadly, no. First, it joined the government’s “Hen Harrier Action Plan”, despite repeated warnings by other conservationists that this was nothing but greenwash. Eventually the RSPB twigged and withdrew in disgust. But, having learnt nothing from this episode, it now supports a petition to “license driven grouse shooting”. You might as well call for licensing river pollution. Worse, this effort undermines and confuses a more popular petition that other conservationists have launched: to ban driven grouse shooting. Is a brave, unflinching conservation movement too much to ask for in this country?

No. Independent campaigners are stepping in where the big groups fear to tread. With their help, the demand for rewilding, a fringe interest when I published Feral five years ago, is now becoming impossible to ignore. A few weeks ago, the ecologist Alex Lees published an online poster on a topic that might strike you as recondite: the bird life of the Peak District. Half the poster showed the birds that currently exist there, the other half showed the birds he would like to see. It has so far been viewed 140,000 times.

On his list of missing or suppressed species are goshawks, hen harriers, golden eagles, black grouse and capercaillie, all of which once lived in the Peak District. We could go further: cranes, storks and pelicans are also native British birds that could, if we allow its wrecked ecosystems to recover, be reintroduced. So, one day, could wildcats, lynx, moose and other missing mammals.

This summer, two new books, Isabella Tree’s Wilding and Ben MacDonald’s Rebirding, will reinforce the case. But none of it will happen in our national parks until they are managed for the benefit of all, rather than a tiny, privileged group. As the government launches its consultation on the future of farming, we need a similar discussion on the future of conservation. If the big groups won’t lead it, others will. And then, perhaps, we could have some parks worthy of the name.