Little Green Space
by Penny Bunting
The Peak District is a beautiful place, and 13 million visitors flock here each year to enjoy the scenic delights the region has to offer. Rivers, dales, moors, forests and wooded valleys all combine to create a varied landscape that has the potential to be teeming with wildlife and plants.
But in much of the area, and despite some excellent conservation initiatives by the Peak District National Park Authority and others, this potential is not being fulfilled. Nature is under threat across the UK, which has been ranked 189th out of 218 countries for its quality of nature, with some 56% species in decline and 15% threatened with extinction.
A major 2016 report on the state of nature in the Peak, available on the Peak District National Park’s website, recommends action for “bigger, better, joined up and more” habitats.
The Peak District has, for example, one of the lowest percentages of woodland cover of the English national parks. This stands at just 8%, which includes native woodland and commercial plantations. More than four fifths of the park’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest are not in a good condition. And, as in other national parks, biodiversity is in decline.
Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of inspiring conservation work – many of which have featured in this column over the years. One of these is the Pollinating the Peak project, led by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust together with partners including Chatsworth, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Little Green Space, Moors for the Future Partnership, and Peak District National Park.
The project encourages people to create new habitats for bumblebees, and is taking action for the rare bilberry bumblebee.
Bilberry bumblebees have suffered a dramatic decline in recent years. They were once found widely across north and west Britain, but the Peak is now one of their last strongholds.
In 2019, as part of Pollinating the Peak, bilberry plants – a vital food source for the declining bumblebee – were planted across 60 acres of Hathersage Moor, with the plants then protected from grazing animals by special cages built by Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Eastern Moors volunteers and youth rangers.
While there is still hope for the bilberry bumblebee, some species have already vanished from the region. It’s thought pine martens survived in the Peak District into the latter part of the 20th century, but are now locally extinct. The last red squirrel in the Peak was recorded in 1990 in the Upper Derwent Valley.
And while populations of red and fallow deer, otters and badgers may be stable or expanding, others – such as hedgehogs and brown hares – are declining. Hazel dormice – a previously locally extinct species – have been reintroduced into two Peak District woods, but the future of these tiny endangered mammals is not yet assured. Call for action One solution for tackling the nature and climate crises could be a major upscaling of nature recovery within the UK’s national parks – but government action is needed, says the charity Rewilding Britain, which has launched a campaign urging the UK government to create wilder national parks, with rewilding across 10% of their areas.
“Wilder national parks could lead the way for a healthier, more nature-rich Britain, with opportunities for communities and local economies,” said Guy Shrubsole, Rewilding Britain’s Policy and Campaigns Coordinator.
“Nature would be in an even worse state were it not for the parks, but we’re being outpaced by the nature and climate crises. Despite some superb initiatives, the parks’ ability to upscale nature’s recovery and lead the way is being hobbled by decades-old laws dating as far back as the 1940s. It’s time for change.”
Rewilding 10% of the parks would see peatlands, moorlands, woods, rivers and seas restored, with no loss of productive farmland, says Rewilding Britain. The charity is also calling for nature recovery areas across another 50% of the parks, with a mix of habitats, wildlife corridors and land uses, and government financial support for more nature-friendly agriculture.
Allowing native trees to naturally regenerate, and restoring peatlands damaged by drainage and moorland burning, would boost biodiversity, absorb carbon dioxide, reduce flooding and improve water quality.
As well as helping nature, rewilding can bring new opportunities for people, including jobs and volunteering opportunities. And nature restoration on marginal land can work well alongside generating income from food production and livestock. Wild Peak Led by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Wild Peak is a new partnership of landowners, community groups, businesses, organisations, and local people, which is currently being developed with the aim of restoring the Peak’s woodlands, peatbogs and meadows and so create a rich and healthy landscape of abundant wildlife and plants.
Natural processes will be allowed to lead the way, so our uplands become wilder and the landscape develops freely over time. When the time is right, and where habitat is there to support them, some missing species – such as beavers, black grouse, pine martens and red squirrels – could be reintroduced.
By restoring the landscape to a place teeming with wildlife, Wild Peak wants to inspire more people of all ages to benefit from time spent in nature.
Tim Birch, Director of Nature’s Recovery at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, said: “We need a wild and exciting Peak District National Park – a land restored so that ospreys once again soar overhead, and black grouse and hen harriers are back where they belong amidst abundant wildflower meadows rich in insect life. Where pine martens and red squirrels are thriving, native woodlands are regenerating across our hillsides and valleys, and beavers are restoring and creating new wetlands. Who wouldn’t like to visit such an inspiring place?”
The Wild Peak project includes another rewilding success story – Wild Thornhill. This 30-hectare area of former farmland is a unique site, rare within the Peak District for its unmanaged wildness, and consisting of woodland, scrub, and wildflower meadows. There are plans to continue rewilding the site, with small numbers of herbivores – including cattle – used to mimic natural processes to allow a mosaic of habitats to thrive.
Wild Peak is a member of Rewilding Britain’s nationwide Rewilding Network. See rewildingbritain.org.uk.
Rewilding Britain has launched a petition calling on the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales to create wilder national parks. This can be signed at act.rewildingbritain.org.uk/ demand-wilder-national-parks.