On conservation

Thursday, August 12 2021

Today is the ‘Glorious Twelth’, the beginning of grouse hunting season. In honour of today, I’ve sketched out some of my thoughts on conservation, specifically:

The current level of access to National Parks is unsustainable. What can we do to protect them?

A hike across Crib Goch is perilous and awe-inspiring. A ridge as thin as twenty centimetres at times, the rawness and grandeur of the surrounding mountains in Wales evoke feelings most akin to looking up at the arches of a great cathedral. Yet when you finish the route, and hike the final stretch to the top of Snowdon, you are assaulted with a gravel scar in the mountain hosting a railway track leading up to a grey concrete cafe.

Receiving 1 in 10 of all National Parks visitors, perhaps Snowdonia and its peaks are exceptions, but the blight of car parks, asphalt, and souvenir shops is unsustainable. The wilderness of Britain is a jewel and we must not let zealotry in the name of accessibility take over.

There are some interrelated questions to consider: does the National Trust have the correct incentives; is non-arable land optimised for public good; should every site be accessible to the physically impaired. And that ignores the fundamental tension that weighs biodiversity, clean water, and noise pollution, against opening land to people.

Perhaps the default attitude should be one of deep conservatism, in the classical sense. A road or car park will exist for dozens if not hundreds of years, so building one on natural land should require the strictest caution, and should have the highest barriers to approval. However we cannot be conservative in all matters of British land, consider the grouse moors of England. These hunting grounds are generally loss-making and serve as a status symbol to the very wealthy. With almost a third of National Park land devoted to these grouse moors, essentially opportunities for a high-class piss up, I am not advocating we keep these as grouse moors, serving the privileged few. More importantly, why does the National Trust - a charity whose mission it is to make nature accessible - still keep land it owns as grouse hunting land? Doesn’t the £19m it made in 2020 purely from investments outweigh this?

So what should we do? Firstly, don’t assume the National Trust has the good of the public in mind. It is built for the preservation of land, its constitution does not explicitly state it is for the benefit of people: an organisation that excels at preserving stately homes may not have the best strategy for wild lands. Secondly, stop building car parks. 97% of visitors to Snowdon come by car. This is an accessibility issue, but not in getting to the peak of a mountain, the problem is getting to the base of the mountain. Lastly, we must remember that the issue at heart is not too many people. If there were no visitors, none would be the wiser as to the great beauties that Britain holds.

Crib Goch in July 2021
The author at Crib Goch in July 2021

With thanks to Tom Hodgson (who suggested the title too!), Katharine McBeath, and my one-time mountain guide Andy, whose discussions and fierce belief in doing what’s best for the public all got me thinking about this.

Further reading:

  1. Countryside and Rights Of Way (CROW) Act
  2. National Trust Annual Reports