The future of the UK’s national parks – visualised

The UK’s 15 national parks contain some of our most spectacular and cherished landscapes, and in recent years, more people than ever have been discovering their beauty.

Since our launch in 1972, we’ve always encouraged the nation to get outside and enjoy the countryside and it’s fantastic to see visitor numbers soaring in these beautiful areas.

However, increased footfall heightens the risk of damaging these natural spaces, with footpath erosion and littering two of the most significant dangers.

As we mark our 50th anniversary, we’re looking ahead to the next half-century of adventure in the UK and how we can all play our part to help protect our national parks for future generations.

What could our national parks look like in 50 years’ time?

The rise in tourism in our national parks needs to be carefully managed to avoid damaging our favourite walking routes.

We’ve looked ahead fifty years and created artist impressions of what popular national park footpaths could look like if current walking behaviours continue, accounting for factors like footpath erosion and littering.

To visualise how the landscape could look in 50 years' time use the sliders below.

Mount Snowdon, Snowdonia
The Great Ridge, The Peak District
The West Highland Way, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
Cat Bells, The Lake District

Defining the national parks most at risk

As part of the research, we collected a variety of data for each national park to determine which ones are potentially most in need of protection in the next 50 years.

  • The factors we considered were:
  • Percentage increase in visitor numbers (2016-19)
  • Environmental offences, such as littering (2021)
  • Traffic to the park’s official website (2021)
  • Instagram and TikTok hashtags mentioning the park
  • Google searches for the park (2021)

The national parks were compared against each other within each category, before an average ranking determined the final leader board.

The Peak District topped the list, largely due to its soaring visitor numbers.

Based on our data, these are the national parks most in need of care in the next half century:

Visitor numbers

Every region is eager to attract as many people as possible to their natural spaces, both for the health and wellbeing of the public and the potential boost to local economies through tourism, but care must be taken to protect the landscapes throughout this growth.

On average, each national park has seen visitors increase by 68%, and the total number of people exploring these areas has risen from 8.9 million to 14.2 million.

The five national parks reporting the greatest percentage increases in visitor numbers are:

Online interest

When Covid restrictions eased in 2020, interest in UK national parks rocketed, with people understandably eager to get out into the countryside after months of lockdown.

This is reflected in the number of visits to the national park websites, which jumped by 18% between 2019 and 2020 as walkers looked for inspiration. This trend has continued and in 2021 the figure rose a further 16% to 270 million, suggesting that the initial surge in interest is being maintained.

The five national parks with the most website visitors are:

Social media

Another indicator of interest is the amount of national park hashtags on social media, as this shows their visibility on sites like Instagram and TikTok.

In total, the fifteen national parks have been mentioned 12,926,997 times on Instagram and an incredible 395,563,500 times on TikTok. With the majority of TikTok users coming from the younger generations, this is evidence of the enduring appeal of our natural spaces.

The five national parks with the most social media hashtags are:

The biggest challenges facing our parks, and how we can help

Footpath erosion

Footpath erosion is one of the major threats to our countryside, and increased visitor numbers will put popular walking routes under even more strain.

We’ve partnered with Fix the Fells, a fantastic charity that repairs damaged and eroded footpaths in the Lake District National Park, to explain the issue.

What is footpath erosion and what are the causes?

Joanne Backshall, Programme Manager at Fix the Fells, said:

“Footpath erosion is where trampling has killed vegetation and exposed bare soil and lose stone, which is washed away, creating gullies and scars in the landscape, and harming wildlife in the surrounding rivers and lakes.

“The severity of the erosion is determined by the number of people, amount of rainfall, gradient, vegetation type, soil type, and rock type.”

Why is footpath erosion an issue?

“If no action is taken to look after paths and repair erosion, then it will spread. This leads to more vegetation being trampled and dying, more bare soil and stone being exposed and washed away, more unsightly scars and gullies appearing, and more wildlife being harmed.

“Mountain tops, ridges and main routes will become bare soil or stone, gullied and ugly, and landslips will be more common.

“It is important to fix paths to look after the stunning scenery and precious biodiversity of the national parks, which are internationally important for their landscapes, environment, culture and history.”

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted footpath erosion?

“The pandemic has made people appreciate the countryside more than ever for their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Visitor numbers increased dramatically as more people accessed the countryside and holidayed in the UK; this increased the use and erosion on upland paths.

“With increased footfall, people are more likely to walk wider from the path, as they make room for those heading in the opposite direction, or overtake slower individuals. This accelerates the erosion of the landscape around the footpath.”

What can walkers do to protect our footpaths?

“Walkers can help by sticking to the path and by donating to the cost of looking after the routes and landscape.”

Littering

How much of a problem is littering in our national parks?

We issued Freedom of Information requests to the district councils covering the national parks, and asked them to reveal how many Fixed Penalty Notices they’ve handed out for environmental offences.

Between 2019 and 2021, over 18,000 were issued for littering in or around the national parks.

What can walkers do to help address the littering problem?

Paths for All, the Scottish walking charity, offers the following advice to those looking to help tackle the littering issue:

● If safe, remove litter and place it in the nearest bin or take it home.

● Take part in citizen science surveys.

● Organise community litter picks.

There are many other ways that walkers can help to protect our national parks, including by following the Countryside Code.

Our recent research found that seven in ten (70%) people in England and Wales have breached at least one aspect of the Code, which is designed to help people enjoy and protect the countryside by acting responsibly.

It includes advice such as “stay on marked paths, even if they’re muddy, unless wider access is available”, as this helps protect against footpath erosion.

It also encourages walkers to “take your litter home and leave no trace of your visit”, which would reduce the number of environmental offences.

Finally, people can donate to or volunteer for one of the brilliant charities that protect these landscapes, such as:

Fix the Fells - repairing and maintaining Lake District paths

Mend our Mountains – repair paths in the national parks

National Trust – preserve natural and historic places

Keep Britain Tidy – improve environments by tackling litter

Clean Up Britain – seek sustainable solutions to littering

The Countryside Charity – make the countryside rich in nature

If you’re heading out to explore one of the UK’s beautiful national parks, you can get all the clothes and equipment you need at Rohan.

References:

[1] https://www.visitbritain.org/archive-great-britain-tourism-survey-overnight-data

[2] https://ahrefs.com/

[3] https://www.instagram.com/

[4] https://www.tiktok.com/

[5] Freedom of Information requests issued to district councils in and around the UK’s national parks

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