We're still learning true value of our 'crucibles of culture'
The Westcountry boasts two of the premier jewels in the nation’s environmental crown – Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks. Five years ago Martin Hesp joined the chief executives of both on walks to learn about the authorities, now he’s been back to find out how they’re getting on in tough times...
The Westcountry's two national parks act as unique upland crucibles that are filled with heritage and culture.
That might seem a sweeping statement, but when you are up there in the hills thinking about what exactly the term "national park" means – then the "crucible of heritage and culture" tag-line can start to make sense.
It's a phrase which evolved after the Western Morning News spent a long day out on Dartmoor with three of the local national park authority's key figures – a day in which, during a beautiful walk, we asked them time and again what national park status really means...
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And here's why the "crucible of culture" idea began to develop: it is well known that both Dartmoor and Exmoor are rich in the remains of our ancient past. They are also well endowed with the natural wonders of our wild environment.
But the reason they contain all this human and natural heritage is not because they have held some special ingredient that lured mankind and nature to their windswept hilltops.
It is because they are altitudinous islands which have not felt the full and heavy hand of mankind's latter-day excesses. Humans did live up on the great plateaux in times when the climate was more balmy, but eons ago all but a few farmers moved down the hill to settle in and develop the region's more fertile lowlands.
Having built on, grown on, cleaved asunder, shaped, changed and generally messed about with most of our landscapes everywhere else, we now look back up at the two highland areas and behold them as more-or-less pristine environments.
Here's how Dartmoor National Park's senior archaeologist Jane Marchand puts it: "We now live in the valleys and vales and so have obscured the ancient history in those places. These upland areas have not been exploited in later periods.
"People find it difficult to get their heads around this – there were probably lots of places like Grimspound (Dartmoor's famous Bronze Age settlement) across lowland Devon – but we've lost those. Which makes what we have up here so incredibly important. You can't regrow a hut circle – which is why every single one matters."
Of course, humans have had a massive say in how our upland areas look – even the wild open moors which became scrub-free after many centuries in which our ancestors grazed their livestock in the hills. And thankfully, farming is still shaping the national park landscapes today.
So these places are living places – not great big rocky chunks of aspic which act as dead but fascinating open-air museums. It is precisely because they are living places that the work of the national park authorities is so important.
This week I joined Dartmoor's CEO, Dr Kevin Bishop, for a 10-mile hike across the very heart of the national park in the company of the authority's director for conservation and communities, Ali Kohler, and, later, Jane Marchand.
It was Kevin who wanted to get away from the old idea of preserved environments being set in aspic. "What we offer is not actually a wilderness, it's a living landscape managed by the farming community and other businesses – and our challenge is to balance all those competing demands to make sure we don't destroy the goose that laid the golden egg," he said as we walked over wide and wonderful Hamel Down.
"Also, we're here to help people enjoy this place and to help them learn something about its story – the landscape, how it's evolved – and get them engaged, perhaps to volunteer, put something back.
"Let's be honest – we don't please all the people all of the time – no organisation does," Kevin went on. "But, after 60 years as a national park, people do see the value of it. You've got businesses that trade off the national park status, which is an international currency in terms of its appeal. It helps farmers with agri-environment schemes and helps pour money into the area.
"And, yes, we are also the planning authority, but we don't have any extra powers compared to our neighbouring district councils," he added, commenting on one element of national park status that can cause debate. "We have strong planning policies, yes, but we have a local plan that helps control Dartmoor – and we did that in consultation with local communities.
"You asked about challenges," he said, responding to my query. "Well, like readers of your paper – our challenge is money, or rather, declining amounts thereof. We have to live within our means. But when I last met you five years ago, we hadn't forecast the financial troubles.
"And now, when we come out of our spending review, in real terms our budget will be about 40 per cent less.
"Obviously, we've had to reduce staff numbers – but we've tried to keep the breadth of what we do, from education through to planning, from rangers through to archaeologists. We haven't, though, got the same capacity. We have stepped reductions. We had a major change programme which started 18 months ago that put us in a position where we can survive the remaining elements of the spending review, providing Defra doesn't cut us any more beyond the indicative cuts they've given us.
"But that's a big 'if' – because the economy hasn't grown and the June announcement from the Chancellor signalled another 10 per cent cut for Defra – we have to wait to see if that means another cut for the national parks. We hope not."
What Chancellors and politicians of any creed will have to take into consideration in the future is the new kid on the block known as "eco system services" or the value that seemingly "free" things provided by nature (like rainwater and carbon capture) really have for society as a whole. I put it Dr Bishop that national parks will be at the forefront of such thinking.
"People and politicians have traditionally looked at national parks as environmental assets – places which you conserve," he mused. "But we ought to be looking at them as economic assets too.
"National parks are key to people's health. The benefits of things like walking have been well written about – but I'm talking not just physical, but mental health. They're also key for wealth, because they can be economic drivers. And they're key for happiness. Most people who come out here go home happier – and the government is at present trying to measure happiness – so maybe national parks are key to that as well.
"The Mire Project is another example of what we do," he said, mentioning a more controversial area of work in the hills. "The funding is coming from South West Water and it's researching how you restore the blanket bogs, an internationally important habitat up there along with the rainforest. They're important sponges for rainwater, they absorb it and slowly release it so we don't have spates or flash flooding downstream.
"They're also important because blanket bogs in good condition ensure good quality water without suspended solids. They also absorb carbon dioxide so they're good for climate change. Potentially, with the work we are doing now, we might end up with payments for farmers and commoners to manage the blanket bog for water and other purposes."
As we ended our long walk back at the Postbridge visitor centre, Dr Bishop concluded: "I think the value of national parks is greater in times of austerity than at any other time. Where else can you enjoy yourself, free of charge, in a fabulous, fascinating environment – far from the madding crowd – in a place where you can get back to nature and learn a bit about where we come from and also about the fabric of our countryside?"
Put like that, the national parks seem very good value for money indeed...