Landscape protection - too many layers, too confusing, no overall plan

ADDENDUM -  June 2009

UK protected landscapes not good enough for new guidelines

The UK signed the Council of Europe's European Landscape Convention in February this year. Don't get too excited - it's a pretty lightweight document, short on definition and action for protecting landscapes, and it's not binding as the Council of Europe has no legal powers over the UK. In fact, the Convention leaves it up to individual Governments to choose the means to implement the Convention, suggesting that they should fit in as comfortably as possible with the country's own traditions.

Instead of getting excited, that suggestion should set warning bells ringing as the Convention appears to have been borne out of a growing trend towards greater engagement in the cultural dimension of conservation (1). Thus the explanation of the definition of landscape in the Convention ties it firmly to an anthropogenic inheritance as it:
"reflects the idea that landscapes evolve through time, as a result of being acted upon by natural forces and human beings. It also underlines that a landscape forms a whole, whose natural and cultural components are taken together, not separately" (2)

The Convention was opened for signing in 2000 and came into force in 2004 after its 10th ratification by a member state. The meat of the proposal can be seen in the definition it gives for landscape management (Article 1e):
"action, from a perspective of sustainable development, to ensure the regular upkeep of a landscape, so as to guide and harmonise changes which are brought about by social, economic and environmental processes" (3)

To give you some idea of what this means in action, the most commonly cited comparison is the protection of cultural landscapes along the lines of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Category V Protected Landscapes/Seascapes and the very similar World Heritage Cultural Landscapes. We know these in the UK as our National Parks, Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protected Areas, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - a multiplicity of designations that can also be multilayered (see the PostScript for an example), but they all in effect just cover large areas of farmed land that is predominantly in private ownership.

Some people in the UK have seized upon the Convention as an opportunity to prevent new development that they don't like, such as windfarms, roads or houses. Others see it as a way of perpetuating failing or marginal land use under the banner of preserving cultural processes and practices, irrespective of the abuse of landscape that it is increasingly representing - say the sheep farming in our uplands. I think the Convention would have been a stronger statement on landscapes if they had been described in the Convention as being a continuum between the wild/natural and the entirely cultural/semi-artificial, rather than the indiscriminate and clumsy approach of lumping them in together (see above).

The Convention asks Governments to (Article 5.a):
"recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people's surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity" (3)

I am worried by this. It encourages Governments to give primacy to cultural landscapes in protected area strategies, promoting the UK national park approach as the panacea and undermining efforts to protect landscapes in a more natural and wild state. National Parks in the UK are not protected for their wildlife value - far from it as there is little restriction on the farming use of the land other than regulations about change or development of man-made physical structures. Adrian Philips (late of the IUCN) thinks however that the Category V approach of the national parks is not a soft option. He says:
"managing the interface between people and nature is just about the toughest challenge facing society, and Category V management is all about that. Nor are such places second class protected areas: rather they are an essential complement to more strictly protected ones" (4)

Well, yes, but the problem with Prof. Philips enthusiasm is that the UK, unlike much of the rest of Europe, has few of the more strictly protected areas, and so his argument falls a little flat. Other European countries have protected areas consistent with Categories I to III, denoting land that is no longer subjected to farming or other extractive use, giving them reserves of unmanaged and self-willed land. Moreover, it is difficult to see how Philip's argument of Category V farmed land, with its few or no restrictions on the farming use of that land, can be complementary when it may actually pose a threat without some buffering zone in place.

At present, our highest category of protected area in the UK that we publicly acknowledge is IUCN Category IV, which covers our National Nature Reserves (NNR) and Marine Nature Reserves. A Category IV area is designated as a Habitat/Species Management Area that is conserved through active management (see What is wildland for an explanation of the IUCN system of Categories of protected land). This active management can often be a process of intervention to optimise species in ways that can appear particularly crass - the coastal wetland NNR that I grew up next to has piles of bricks and rubble dumped in it to create islands for visiting waterfowl.

Hallsenna Moor

The size of NNRs varies greatly so that some can appear as pinpricks in amongst the vast swathes of farmland that surrounds them. We tramped through cowpat farmland recently to get to a small, 24ha NNR near Seascale on the Cumbria coast. Hallsenna Moor NNR is an assemblage of basin mire, transition mire and valley mire habitats that is uncommon for a lowland area in that it has never been cut for peat. You can only but treasure the variations in vegetation across the site, moving from the drier, acidic heathland into the wetter mire conditions.

The key, very wet basin area is an example of a 'schwingmoor' or floating bog. These are formed in topographic depressions, possibly created after the last ice age, which fill with groundwater to form a lake. The open water is colonised by vegetation spreading over the surface from the edges, giving the very erroneous impression of solid land. We saw abundant mosses, cotton grass, sedges and rushes, and elegant clumps of Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) an uncommon plant that is more plentiful in Irish wetland. Spotted heath orchid, cross-leaved heath and bog asphodel grew in the less wet, heath fen areas.

Hallsenna Moor is a botanical (geological, entomological and maybe even faunal) delight, only punctuated by the odd seeded-in rhododendron, a general curse of the Cumbrian scenery. The moor has survived at the margins of productive land because it must have proved too difficult to bash into shape for regular farming use. A grown-over 3m-deep drainage ditch that runs across the site has obviously failed in the past to lower water levels sufficiently. The moor has been used for grazing in the past since the reserve is a registered commons, and is shown as open access land on maps. It is thus delightfully free of the visual intrusion of internal boundaries and fencing, but has the natural vertical accents of birch woodland on drier mounds, willow carr in the wetter areas, and low heathland shrubs.

What of its future? As evidence of the multiplicity of designation prevalent in the UK, Hallsenna Moor is also designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and it is in that designation that we can learn about its management. It was last inspected by English Nature in 2001 and, whereas we might have expected the report to say something about the control of invasive species (the rhododendron) there is instead a recommendation to re-introduce grazing on selected areas.

The more cynical amongst us might rail at English Nature's mechanistic approach to management issues, even allowing for the various caveats they plead. Each SSSI has a document entitled Views About Management (VAM) in which Management Principles for the SSSI are laid out. Unfortunately, these are standard prescriptions for each habitat type that are cut and pasted into the VAM without any site specific qualification. Thus we have the opposing recommendations that the dry and wet lowland heath of Hallsenna be managed by livestock grazing, whereas it is recognised that livestock would seriously damage the vegetation and structure of the basin mire - and themselves. Fortunately, the commons registration will prevent any differential grazing of the site as fencing off within the moor is not allowed.

Hallsenna is a microcosm of the issues that face us in landscape protection. Are we prepared to allow this moor to determine its own fate without our intervention, for at present it pretty much gets on with it by itself? Can we be satisfied with our expectations for the moor not being the imperative so that Hallsenna could be upgraded to one of the categories of landscape protection in which there is no active management? But perhaps Hallsenna, encircled as it is by mainstream farmland, is just too different from its surroundings to survive - there is for instance evidence of water pollution from agricultural run-off. Would the farmland around the moor being part of a national park - and thus Category V land - make any difference? (The Lake District National Park boundary comes within a few miles of the moor.)

The answer must lie in greater discrimination in how we seek to protect our landscapes into the future, and part of that discrimination is to recognise the difference between protection and management - it is often the need for protection against the activities of humans and their livestock which is all the "management" that is required. If there is to be little continuum between essentially wildland sites and farmland (as there is at Hallsenna) then perhaps we should instead focus on sites that are less bounded by cultural/farmed landscapes. We must also have the courage to take the decision to leave some sites unmanaged, as well as we may undoubtedly continue with the predominantly managed landscapes that we have at present.

Drigg Coast

We explored a larger site nearby that got us thinking about these possibilities. The Drigg Coast SSSI (1413ha) is a few miles from Hallsenna Moor. This is a multiple unit SSSI that has also recently been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It's composed of sand and shingle spits/bars that stretch 11km up and down the Cumbrian coast, and is divided in the middle by the Esk Channel at which the river estuaries of the Esk, Mite and Irt meet at Ravenglass and drain into the sea. It's a realm of varying habitat: sand dunes, dune heath, dune slacks and salt marsh, some of which border farmland, but on the spits is bounded only by the sea and the river estuaries. The estuary and sand dune systems are relatively natural (i.e. not routinely or intensively farmed) and there shouldn’t be any future development that could threaten the estuarine processes.

Is it coincidence that those bar areas, not bounded by farmland, have been given individual identity as the Ravenglass Nature Reserve (designated a Local Nature Reserve - LNR) and the Eskmaels Nature Reserve (Cumbria Wildlife Trust)? Neither of these reserves had sheep grazing on them when we visited, but their ancient history is of grazing use when pastoralism swept across all our landscapes - and you just know that sheep would now be part of the usual reserve management action plan. What we could see at Eskmaels NR were the many sinister outlines of dead sea buckthorn bushes, poisoned by land managers for doing what sea buckthorn does naturally, which is colonise sand dunes. This native shrub has an East coast distribution, but is naturalised after introduction on much of the west coast. Is there not space for both the sea buckthorn and the pyramidal orchids? Will all the wild pansies disappear if the sea buckthorn is not poisoned?

The dunes, dune heath and slacks of the northern Drigg Coast are open access commons, and it has the only part of the SSSI that is not included within the Lake District National Park boundary. Perhaps it is because it backs onto a low level waste dump of the British nuclear industry. Sheep wander in to this heath from an adjoining farm field, but they seem more content to stay put in the farm field than enjoy the mounds of bell heather and stone crop growing above moist peat, with the dyers greenweed, cross-leaved heath and spotted orchids growing below. The dune slacks squelch, jump with frogs, and are perfumed with marsh cinquefoil (the fragrance of rotting meat). Pretty much the floral picture that we have come to expect from these varying habitats, and completed by the sea holly and spurge that decorate above the strandline between the beach and dunes.

These sand dunes and dune heath are perhaps only a few millennia in existence - portions are still on the move even today and, yes, there is only a small supply of sand dunes in the UK compared to the overwhelming predominance of farmland. Will the sand dunes be lost though, if we left them to get on with it? Does it make any sense for us to continually fight against nature to preserve landscapes that are ephemeral when set against geological time? Can somewhere like the Drigg Coast SSSI be one of our first attempts at watching nature do its own thing and giving us an area worthy of designating as IUCN Categories I, II or III?

Mark Fisher, 12 July 2006

PS: Did you work it out? The Ravenglass Nature Reserve is designated an LNR, which is part of an SSSI that is also an SAC, and which is in a National Park.

ADDENDUM -  June 2009

UK protected landscapes not good enough for new guidelines

In early 2007, the IUCN embarked on a revision of its Protected Area Management Guidelines. These guidelines are of international importance because they establish a protected areas classification system and define best management practices for each protected area category. As a result of nearly two years of collaborative work, the new guidelines contain an important change as they now define a protected area as being set aside primarily for nature conservation. This comes first in a new section on Principles in the updated guidelines (5):
For IUCN, only those areas where the main objective is conserving nature can be considered protected areas; this can include many areas with other goals as well, at the same level, but in the case of conflict, nature conservation will be the priority"

As before, in the 1994 guidelines, there is a presumption to limit and remove activities that are inimical to the management category, as is shown in the second principle:
"Protected areas must prevent, or eliminate where necessary, any exploitation or management practice that will be harmful to the objectives of designation"

A briefing paper on a draft policy on protected landscapes was recently presented to a Natural England Board meeting. The briefing picked up on the change in emphasis in the new guidelines, and recognised it as an issue for the apogee of our protected landscape approach in the UK, our National Parks. These may fall out of even its lowly place as an IUCN Category V protected area (6):
"Recent debate has challenged the category V classification for providing insufficient attention to nature conservation objectives, leading to the IUCN to adopt a new principle for recognising a place as a protected area - requiring nature conservation to take priority over other objectives in cases of conflict. As a consequence there is concern that without a stronger specific commitment to nature conservation the approach in managing our protected landscapes, that has evolved over the past 60 years and often cited as an international exemplar, may fall out of the international system with a risk that their standing, and thus their protection, would be weakened"

The lesson here is that there has to be a different approach in our landscapes, and it will not be given just by covering our National Parks or other areas with SACs and SPAs, nor will application of the European Landscape Convention to these areas make a difference since the emphasis in the convention is that "natural and cultural components are taken together, not separately" (see above). Both of these just allow business as usual for these farmed landscapes. They need not only extensification as a starting point (see the second principle earlier) but also a return of the biophysical reality of wildland, its component species and its ecological processes.

Mark Fisher, 20 June 2009

(1) The Protected Landscape Approach - Linking Nature, Culture and Community (2005) IUCN

(2) Definitions, Explanatory Report, European Landscape Convention, Council of Europe

(3) European Landscape Convention, Council of Europe, Florence, 20.X.2000

(4) Management Guidelines for IUCN Category V Protected Areas: Protected Landscapes/Seascapes (2002) Phillips, A., IUCN

(5) Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories, IUCN 2008

(6) Natural England’s Draft Policy on Protected Landscapes, Board Paper, NEB PU16 06, 20 May 2009