People and wildlife can flourish. They can contribute to the health and wellbeing of humans - and to the rest of the natural world.
I grew up in the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and true to its designation, it was outstandingly beautiful. And I think that beauty goes far beyond physical.
Landscapes for Life defines an AONB as “an outstanding landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so precious that it is safeguarded in the national interest”. It describes AONBs as being landscapes for nature, people, business and culture.
In AONBs, people and wildlife can flourish. They can contribute to the health and wellbeing of humans, and to the rest of the natural world. They are a place to explore the ‘common ground’ – literally, and metaphorically – that we all must enter into if we want people and planet to thrive.
But how are AONBs different from National Parks?
There are 15 National Parks in the UK, described as ‘Britain’s breathing spaces’. National Parks work to ‘conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage’, and ‘foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the national park’.
But – and though I personally feel a strong connection to and love for Dartmoor, my local national park – these ‘breathing spaces’ we are so drawn to are not always putting the natural world at their heart.
George Monbiot, in a recent column, declares national parks a farce. He says we need to reclaim them, rewild them. Whether from ‘swaling’ (burning), grazing, leisure, or hunting and shooting of birds of prey, foxes, badgers and other species, our parks are at risk of turning into managed playgrounds.
And yet the ‘Sandford Principle’ is supposed to be the overriding principle applied in decisions affecting the management of national parks: it says that where a conflict between conservation and other uses arises, the conservation interest should take priority. We need to rethink how and for whom we run our national parks.
Though created by the same legislation in 1949 that also created the national parks, AONBs were created in mainly lowland, rural agricultural areas. And they are run differently.
AONBs are connected to local government, with meagre finances compared to the centrally funded and well-staffed national parks, which have their own authorities and planning powers.
AONBs have the same legal protection for their landscapes as national parks, but are looked after by partnerships between local communities and local authorities. And this is what excites me.
I think AONBs could be a missing link in a chain that runs from human life, via local place, to the lives of other creatures and to the spaces they inhabit around the world.
I’m thinking again of the AONB in which I grew up – East Devon.
A group set up in 2016 called the East Devon Farmers Group (EDFG) comprises 54 farmers whose land covers over 3,900 hectares.
The group aims to increase the standard and scale of conservation management in the area by connecting land managers and individual farms, and supported by, amongst others, the AONB, farmers, the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project, and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West.
In its first year, the group supported 20 percent of members in applying agri-environment schemes which support biodiversity and soil and water quality. The group has also run workshops on the economic, woodfuel and wildlife potential of farm hedges; manure management; and grassland soil compaction, aimed at tackling water pollution and run-off.
It has initiated the farmer-led Nature Improvement Area. Farm walks have been popular, and farmers have requested activities that go beyond the original environmental remit.
Moving North to another example of collaborative working: Nidderdale AONB is carrying out its biggest ever systematic survey of wildlife.
The Wild Watch – which is backed by Springwatch Unsprung’s Lindsey Chapman, who we recently interviewed – will bring together volunteers, families, naturalists, students and others to gather information about 50 species across the AONB, including threatened wildlife like curlews, great-crested newts and water voles.
Data collected will be analysed and used to help plan strategies to look after the land. This is grassroots ‘Citizen Science’, born out of curiosity and love of local place, that will go on to guide decision-makers.
The importance of nurturing inter- and cross-sector relationships locally is clear. When I’m not thinking about nature, I co-lead a small community development charity, and we have learned the same thing there – that working to develop or amplify an initiative requires relationship and listening to come first, and for leadership to come from within. Plonking on policies or solutions from the outside is undermining and unsustainable.
As one East Devon Farmers Group participant said: “Getting together helps identify common needs and problems and potential joint initiatives to solve them.” It sounds so simple – and yet it doesn’t happen enough, in conservation, in international development, and in many other fields.
Humans are nature
And these fields and sectors are blurring. My work in international development feels increasingly and obviously part of my work in and love for nature and conservation. Talking about tackling inequality, education, food security, and other challenges without bringing conservationists and nature-lovers into the conversation feels like there is a piece missing.
The concept of ‘wilderness’ is currently a popular one. It is grand, romantic; it can make us feel small, or brave, or peaceful. Our national parks are marketed as wilderness areas. The old English version of the word ‘wilderness’ means ‘wild, uncultivated places, inhabited only by wild animals’.
The ‘wilder’ part of the word comes from old English words for ‘wild’ and ‘deer’. As long as parts of our parks are being burned, managed, and plundered, they cannot be these uncultivated, animal-rich spaces. They need work to become wilderness areas once again.
But AONBs, though they can be less dramatic than national parks (more ‘Hobbiton’ than ‘Into the Wild’), are the perfect places to cultivate relationships between human-and non-human life; to understand the balance point between human need and nature’s limits.
They are not so big as to seem daunting, and yet they encompass diverse landscapes, systems, and even historical learning about how our ancestors lived in a landscape. They show us that nature isn’t ‘out there’, disconnected from humans. Humans are nature; we are in relationship with all other forms of life. AONBs could be where we see, touch, realise what this means.
On our doorstep
And AONBs are on our doorstep: over two thirds of people live within half an hour of an AONB, and 19,000km of footpaths and bridleways pass through AONBs.
AONBs store millions of tonnes of C02 each year, and they protect some of the UK’s most important habitats: back in East Devon AONB, the first colony of wild beavers to inhabit an English river for 400 years has had babies.
Seeing non-captive beavers or otters is inspiring a new generation, prompting a new love for old stories like Tarka the Otter, originally born from author Henry Williamson’s intimate study of and empathy with his north Devon home.
Williamson once said: “It is all here in Devon, if you just happen to see and hear or smell it.” I think AONBs give us that chance to see, hear, smell and be a part of the alchemy between local communities and wildlife.
Cultivating time at this interface allows us to encounter nature in all its wildness, and see what happens when we push too hard against its limits, including through light pollution or reckless housing development. We can get up close with species, habitats and landscapes that are all at once soothing, timeless, unique and complex.
AONBs can foster interconnectedness and care, which is the first step in conserving the natural world. To protect something, it helps if we know it, love it. As the imaginative theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once explained, names don’t constitute knowledge of the natural world.
Knowing a place comes from immersing in it, from feeling how different components work and interact. Just as is true for human relationships, the relationships we form with the world around us can spur us on to understand and think deeply about how we love it, nurture it, protect it.
AONBs could be our invitation to do this, starting a chain reaction that could lead to love and care of many other places, near and far. You can find a list of the AONBs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland here.
Elizabeth Wainwright is nature editor of The Ecologist and a former editor at Resurgence Magazine. She co-leads the community development charity, Arukah Network, and is based in Devon. Twitter: @LizWainwright