Michael Sheen strides across a grassy field, atop the hillfort of Castell Dinas, to deliver an uncomfortable truth. The skies above the Bannau Brycheiniog national park are emptying of birds. Its rivers are sluggish with pollution. Nature, within its boundaries, is struggling.
What’s surprising here is not the fact itself, but that a world-famous actor is shouting it from the hilltops. (In this case, in a promotional film announcing that the park, formerly Brecon Beacons, will now go by its Welsh name and has a bold new plan for how it will be managed.) Sadly, the Bannau is not unique: nature often fares worse inside national parks in the United Kingdom than in their surroundings. Parks aren’t holding back the demise of life across our islands.
On biodiversity, the picture is bleak. Only 26 per cent of Sites of Special Scientific Interest within English national parks are in “favourable condition”, meaning that their habitats are healthy and protected; the national average is 38 per cent. In the House of Lords, Katherine Willis described national parks as being in a “perilous state” for biodiversity. While they might seem “lush and green”, they are also getting “quieter and quieter”, she said, invoking Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The environmental journalist George Monbiot has called them “ecological disaster zones”.
In the Bannau, between 1995 and 2018 populations of eight “red list” species of birds, including the swift, yellowhammer and curlew, declined by more than 50 per cent. Familiar birds such as the chaffinch and blue tit declined by 25 to 50 per cent. These are the canaries in the coal mine, signalling the collapse of ecosystems. When officers of the park presented this evidence to a panel of local citizens, there was dismay. A senior officer tells me the group asked: “Who let this happen? Who let the park get into that state? Where are the people who are supposed to be looking after it? What have they been doing?”
Those responsible—the park authority—are determined to turn this around. Their new management plan, supported by Sheen, is relatively radical. It employs Kate Raworth’s “doughnut” economic model, which takes social and ecological needs into account, and includes five missions, one of which is to recover nature. But while the vision to restore habitats and biodiversity is laudable, the plan doesn’t say how it will be achieved. And in the Bannau, as in other national parks, major challenges lie in the way.
The park authority doesn’t own most of the land for which it is responsible. Unlike national parks in the United States, which are owned by the federal government, the UK government established national parks after the Second World War by designating large rural areas of mostly private farmland. The Bannau’s park authority owns almost 15 per cent of its land, but the majority of the park is owned and run by farmers and land managers who are beyond its control. Agriculture, particularly the intensive kind that emerged in the postwar period, is the major driver of the decline in nature across the UK.
Then there’s the question of competing interests. Park authorities can be dominated by local rather than national bodies. In Wales, they are made up of 18 members: 12 councillors from local authorities and six experts appointed by government—a 2:1 majority in favour of local interests, often those of landowners.
Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Ben Goldsmith, a former adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told me that park authorities are “a stitch up. They’re a corruption of our democracy and the worst example of vested interests manipulating rules for their own benefit.” In 2018, the Landscapes Review, an independent report for Defra led by Julian Glover, recommended that national parks be governed only by experts—between nine and 12 of them—who would take advice from a wider partnership group that included community representatives. Five years on, change is still not forthcoming.
In the Bannau, at least, the interests of local landowners and experts appointed by the Welsh government to bring a national perspective has caused conflict. In 2022, relationships broke down over ideas about boosting nature in the park to such an extent that four of the expert members left the authority: two quit, one had their post terminated and one found their term was “not renewed” by Wales’ climate change minister.
Edwin Roderick, a Powys councillor and sheep and beef farmer, emerged from the fracas triumphant. As we talk at his home, over tea and a scone, he tells me: “In my opinion all members should live, work and play within the park.” He is a member of the national park authority, yet seems more comfortable with the concept of a national park that serves those who live close by than one that serves wider society. Which begs the question: who are national parks for?
In law, national parks are above all meant to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage”, but those elements often sit in tension. Our parks are failing to conserve wildlife—just look at the loss of species and their abundance—let alone offer any enhancement. Whether our national parks are conserving “natural beauty” or not is contestable—it’s a knotty term.
The Bannau’s plan acknowledges that “natural beauty” is “often very narrowly thought of as simply the picturesque”, which gives the “perception that National Parks exist to preserve the way an area looks, rather than also considering its underlying function”. The authority acknowledges that the present landscape is not “natural” because it has been shaped by human influences over thousands of years, “including forest clearances, land enclosure, agriculture, drainage, forestry, Christianity, settlements and water abstraction.”
Many people, including those who live inside national parks, have become accustomed to the land as it is now. When we look across the Bannau, Dartmoor or the Lake District, we expect to see bald uplands. But trees once clothed these hills with extensive forests and wood pastures grazed by a mix of roaming ruminants. Now what we’re seeing are sheep ranches so densely stocked that dwarf-shrubs are grazed to the ground and new saplings have no chance to establish.
How we read this landscape is tied up in our experiences, our education and our identity. Roderick takes pride in this farmed landscape: its neat patchwork of green fields, hedges and grazing sheep and cows appears to him exactly as it should and connects him to recent generations on his farm. He feels a deep affinity with the land.
Others see a landscape of lost promise. Journalist and author Ben Rawlence lives in the park, and in his book The Treeline writes: “I see trees everywhere: where they are not, where they have been, where they should be. It is a way of looking at the landscape outside of time, as people closer to the earth have always done. And, seen as such, the view looks wrong. The clean, green lines of the Black Mountains that rise above the church and the village now appear to me a tragic desert, a monument to a geological epoch of collective human folly.”
Trees once clothed these hills with extensive forests and wood pastures grazed by a mix of roaming ruminants
It’s a sentiment echoed in Sheen’s short film about the Bannau, when he surveys the hills and looks to camera. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says. Then we hear the doubt. “Isn’t it? Well, it depends what you see I suppose.” Owen Sheers, the film’s scriptwriter, tells me that he wanted to reference Keats’s idea that “beauty is truth”, “because once you’ve learned some truths [about the park] it’s pretty hard to see it as beautiful.” I ask him, a resident of the park, if the way in which he sees and interprets the landscape has changed. “I associated the environment [of the Bannau] with natural beauty, wilderness, getting back to an intimate connection with nature. But then your idea and perception of aesthetics changes with knowledge. I now see those upland areas as ecologically arid and not beautiful at all.”
Sheers says education is critical to getting everyone to the same baseline understanding of what the landscape once was and what it could be again. “We have an asymmetric landscape of knowledge and awareness. Too many people still don’t know the situation, so you get a ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ narrative.”
The best teacher may be the land itself. Simon Evans, chief executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation, takes me for a hillside walk on the eastern slopes of the Sugar Loaf, where natural regeneration is evident. After the outbreak of the highly infectious foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, farmers didn’t restock sheep on the hillside common there. Instead, the land was abandoned, and bracken quickly took over.
As Evans and I walk, we are surrounded by the shoots of young trees. He explains, “Bracken comes first but the trees do win. The first tree that came through here was rowan… it’s very fast-growing to begin with.” He pushes away bracken leaves to show me that rowan roots often have a crook at the bottom, where they’ve escaped from under the bracken and then shot up towards the light. He points out oak, birch and holly popping up too. It’s astonishing to see the abundance of life flourishing from one action: the removal of sheep. “There’s something I love about seeing trees poking out of the top of bracken. It’s succession in action. This is 20 years. When we started living here there was just a couple of bumps on the skyline; now this whole ridgeline is furry when you look up from our house. It gives me hope.”
Back in the boardrooms of the park authority, however, trees have proved controversial. The subject is almost like a culture war, with people taking positions based around their sense of identity, sometimes pitching trees against the productivity of grazing land for creating food (though both can coexist for mutual benefit). Around 16 per cent of the park is woodland or commercial forestry plantation and, of this, under 6 per cent is semi-natural broadleaf woodland. An early draft of the management plan included an ambitious target to increase tree cover to 35 per cent, but an officer tells me it became a sticking point for a panel of stakeholders (including from the National Farmers’ Union and environmental groups) that had been assembled to scrutinise the plan’s policies. “It became quite toxic and exploded. I can remember one meeting sitting there getting shouted at and we were like, ‘Okay, we’ll review it again’,” they say. The officers removed the target and replaced it with a generic aspiration for greater tree cover in the park. “You take it out because you don’t want it to be the thing that allows the big picture to fail.”
In the boardrooms of the park authority, the subject of trees is almost like a culture war
Does that dashed target foreshadow how the park’s vision will be thwarted? Or have officers conceded the battle over trees in order to win the war? The management plan was eventually approved by all members of the authority. And the chair, Aled Edwards, tells me he’s relaxed about the loss of targets. “I’ve seen so many targets come and go. What really matters to me over the next two to three years is to see the trajectory changing.”
In his view, the key to change is to show the benefits of the new approach. For example, Roderick is concerned that young people are leaving farming because it’s hard work and poorly paid. Hill farmers are an ageing population, and his community is shrinking. A group called Our Food 1200 is aiming to buy 1,200 acres of land in the Bannau and its surrounds for fruit and vegetable farming on small plots. They say that a two-acre commercial, regenerative fruit and vegetable enterprise can provide a net income of around £35,000 to £40,000 (with no subsidy).
This, while an estimate, would be extraordinarily productive in comparison to the average Welsh farm, which is 119 acres (nearly 60 times bigger) yet generates roughly the same income (over half of which comes from subsidy). Roderick is sceptical about whether the group can pull off their plan—growing fruit and veg in that landscape is such hard work that he doubts enough people will want to do it—but he’s not against it entirely. And the model does offer a way to bring both nature and people back into the landscape, while creating greater resilience in the food system.
Goldsmith tells me “sheep have been the mechanism by which people and nature have been cleared from the land. Sheep have been catastrophic for communities.” He views the cultural fetish for sheep as perverse. Goldsmith would like to see “public money and incentives to help farmers switch back to less intensive methods, using native horses, cattle and pigs so they can farm more like their ancestors farmed”—while also helping to restore ecological functions and wildlife.
Farm incentives are beginning to change. Since the UK left the European Union, the government has been moving away from basic payments that subsidise the ownership of land and towards “public money for public goods”, which asks farmers to provide ecosystem services (for example, storing carbon or boosting biodiversity) alongside growing food. Farmers are businesspeople and they will follow the money. The current farming landscape was shaped by subsidies and market pressures, and if those forces change, farmers will change with them. If new subsidies are well-designed, they will be crucial in bringing about nature recovery. An officer tells me, “We [national parks] should have powers to give grants to the agricultural community. We should be able to control that subsidy in a better way because that’s what manages our landscape.”
On the Sugar Loaf, Evans digs his hands into the ground and pulls up a handful of rich earth. “You see the amount of humic material building up in the soils. It’s just incredible. That’s carbon being sequestered and locked away.” At the same time, the regenerating land can hold more water, which reduces flood risk downstream and supports more wildlife. Evans says the farmers who abandoned this land should now be paid for these multiple benefits, rewarded for doing the right thing.
Roderick doesn’t want to abandon any of his land, even if he could be paid to do it. He tells me that it would go against the grain for him as a farmer. However, he’s open to reducing livestock numbers if it could work financially (he tells me caring for fewer animals could improve the quality of life of his son, who’s also a farmer) and his eyes light up when he talks about hedgerows, which can be valuable habitats for insects, birds and mammals. “If you go to St Fagans [National Museum of History], you’ll see a picture of my father hedging. That’s our commitment to hedging. And it’s well known, the Breconshire style of hedge, there’s not much dead wood in it. It is all live wood.” He’s all for keeping that craft going, restoring and laying more hedges, with the natural benefits that brings. There is common ground that parks can build on, if they forge relationships with farmers and land managers and work with each to maximise natural recovery.
Just when I think my walk with Evans is over, he asks: “Do you want to see the rainforest?” In the middle of a torrential downpour, I follow him along a stream and into a canopy of trees covered in lichens. It feels exhilarating, like stumbling into a kind of Eden. Evans says “this is our Cynefin.” The Welsh word has no direct translation, but it evokes a place to which we feel we belong. The place is a portal to a much older cultural heritage—one that predates the bald hills and sheep farms—a reminder that Welsh folklore is steeped in forests.
Glover’s Landscapes Review recognised that we must do more than “conserving” and “enhancing” within national parks; we have already lost so much. He suggested that the statutory purpose of national parks should have new wording, beginning with “recover”. To the stewards of the land, change can be seen as a threat. That must stop. After all, the real danger is in continuing along the path of nature degradation that’s causing species extinction and climate breakdown. “We need to go from a time of scary, sacrificial change to one of progress,” Sheers tells me. “That’s the crucial narrative pivot that we need to make.”
The Bannau has made an admirable start by telling the truth about the nature emergency. They’ve also set out a vision for nature recovery that has won broad support. But whether they succeed will depend on how agricultural subsidies are designed and implemented—whether farmers as businesspeople can make a living out of protecting nature—and whether the parks themselves are granted more powers to bring life back from the brink.