Privatise our parks

A large amount of land within the UK national parks is owned by private landowners including farmers

IN the world outside Australia, things are quite often done differently. The ownership and management of national parks is a good example.

Australia has over 500 national parks comprising 28 million hectares, accounting for about four per cent of the land area. A further six per cent is protected in state forests, nature parks and conservation reserves.

In our national parks, commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly controlled. Few dare to challenge the assertion that humans are the main threat to environmental values and should be kept as far away as possible.

There are just 15 national parks in the UK but their size relative to the country is equally substantial. In England they account for 9.3pc of the land area, in Wales 19.9pc, and in Scotland 7.2pc.

But that is where the similarity ends. A large amount of land within the UK national parks is owned by private landowners including farmers, the thousands of people who live in the villages and towns within the parks, plus organisations like the National Trust, RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, English Heritage and Historic Scotland.

The management of UK national parks is also profoundly different. Whereas ours are subject to central control, mainly by state governments, each park there has its own National Park Authority. While these sometimes own bits of land, they work with all landowners to protect the landscape.

National Park Authorities are run by boards comprised mainly of locals. They employ staff who work in offices, fieldwork stations and visitor centres, and have many volunteers who undertake jobs such as leading guided walks, fixing fences, dry stone walling, checking historic sites and surveying wildlife.

Every Authority is obliged to produce a National Park Management Plan setting out a five year plan for the park. Local communities, landowners and other organisations are asked for their opinions and help in achieving the plan.

Farming plays a key role in shaping the landscape of UK national parks. Sheep are common in the hillier and more rugged areas, while there is some cropping in the lower areas. Quite a few farms in national parks have diversified by opening farm shops to sell their produce direct to visitors, or opening their farms for school trips. They are also given preference in grant applications for environmental projects.

Earlier this year I visited a farm in the Lake District National Park in England. It ran sheep and also had a farm shop and café. It is obviously not a source of riches, but it supports a farming family adequately well.

The farmer explained that there were areas of the farm where he was subject to a range of constraints on such things as grazing, fencing, pasture renovation and use of fertiliser, and where tree preservation was a higher priority. On other parts he was relatively free to farm as he chose, receiving the same agricultural subsidies as farms outside the park but additional grants for tree planting, maintenance of dry stone walls and other environmental initiatives. He must also allow access to his land by walkers and put up with a certain amount of misguided advice as to how he ought to run his farm.

Importantly, he took enormous pride in the fact that he was a custodian of both a productive farm and an environmental legacy for the benefit of future generations, including his own children. He was adamant that both productivity and environmental values had been enhanced under his care.

When something is owned by everyone, it is effectively owned by no one. That is the problem facing Australia’s national parks. Management is centrally controlled, governments can never employ enough public servants to manage them properly, and there is little volunteer involvement. Nobody is personally responsible. As a consequence, feral animals and exotic weeds run rampant while bushfires are more serious and difficult to prevent.

Imagine if the UK approach was adopted in Australia, so that significant parts of national parks were privately owned, the parks were managed by locally run boards in accordance with agreed management plans, farming was permitted where it was viable and tourism was encouraged, with some of the money currently utilised for park management offered as incentives for owners to preserve environmental values.

Would the environment be any worse off than it is under a policy of locking it up and looking at it through binoculars, with just a privileged group of park staff having free access?

Potentially, it could be better. Sheep and cattle could displace destructive goats. The additional livestock numbers would contribute to our agricultural output, while farmers would have a strong incentive to control pests such as pigs, foxes, rabbits, cats and wild dogs. Their presence in the parks would also help keep tracks open and detect problems. The proceeds from selling the park, with environmental caveats, could be used to upgrade visitor facilities and fund research.

The very idea of this offends some people, not least the public sector unions that represent national park employees. But it is not radical - indeed, as the UK shows, it is perfectly feasible. Australia is a big country with plenty that is unique, but we sometimes forget that others might have better solutions than us to the same problems.

  • David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at
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    David Leyonhjelm

    David Leyonhjelm

    has worked in agribusiness for 30 years and is a Senator for NSW representing the Liberal Democrats.
    Date: Newest first | Oldest first


    John Newton
    22/07/2013 6:27:45 AM

    Mr Leyonhjelm - in case you haven't noticed, and it appears many haven't in 235 years, the ecology of this country is vastly different to that of Europe.
    22/07/2013 6:42:26 AM

    Absolutely marvellous idea, especially from the point of view of controlling bushfires, woody weeds, feral pests. We would probably still have the mountain cabins destroyed a few years ago, and graziers wouldn't have to battle fires every year that start on National Parks.
    Conservationist, not Preservatonist
    22/07/2013 6:54:46 AM

    Preservationists in this country have layered our parks bed with blackberries, feral goats, deer, pigs and environmental disasters of fire. Conservationists, the FARMERS, will eventually have to pick up the pieces of saving this environment from destruction. The Victorian High Country is one example of where the country has been decimated by locking it up and throwing away the key. No maintenance means no control. England have the balance right, do we have to reinvent the wheel to work out the same? If so,by then we wont have custodians with the knowledge left to do the job. Good article D.L.
    22/07/2013 8:17:13 AM

    Some of our most beautiful forest parks were created, funded and maintained by rotation harvesting. Experienced foresters had protected these places for 100 years and could have continued for ever, but the interfering ignorant shut the gate. It only takes 6 years to become a flash fire hazard. Now with no self management income, lack of gov. funding and man power, we are at risk of loosing the lot. Tree growth has suffered and too many fire fighters have lost their lives due to lack of track maintenance. Good article David. Let experienced traditional managers run them before it's too late.
    22/07/2013 8:32:09 AM

    Lucky we've got you John Newton. Otherwise we'd never know how ignorant we are.
    22/07/2013 8:40:37 AM

    For once I think you're onto something David. I think this kind of thinking can be applied to the preservation of habitat for many of the worlds threatened species. ie providing an economic incentive for local communities to preserve habitat and protect threatened species, instead of welfare.
    22/07/2013 9:33:54 AM

    Your examples come from a different world where a group of 36,000 individuals [mostly lords etc] – only 0.6 per cent of the population – own 50 per cent of rural land. If people are worried about land management in Parks why did the LNP slash the NPs budget?
    22/07/2013 9:51:24 AM

    All the UK national parks put together are about the size of my house paddock,some of them a rolling green hills with pretty villages.If you are going to compare our nat parks to another then maybe you should start with the US.
    22/07/2013 1:20:31 PM

    What the environmentalists always forget- or do not know in the first place- is that the Australian mainland environment is NOT natural and has not been so for nearly 40,000 years. Aboriginal fire hunting techniques altered this environment and the greenies idea of 'Lock It up and Leave It' is and has been proven to be a manmade disaster. This environment MUST be managed to remain healthy and that is best achieved by removing greenies (both in and out of government departments) from the equation.
    22/07/2013 3:52:00 PM

    A better comparison would be with the USA which approaches the size of Australia. There all National Parks are owned and managed by the Federal government. These are true "National" Parks. In Australia the States just want to mine, log and graze our National Parks because they can.
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