Should we tarnish Mull with the national park brush?

The United Kingdom has fifteen national parks each managed by their own independent National Park Authority, funded by the government to “Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage” and “Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks by the public.”

Opinions are divided when it comes to management of our national parks and feelings run high. On the Isle of Mull, a Hebridean island off the Scottish West coast, a small pocket of people want the island designated as a national park – with regard to this, opinions are definitely strong and certainly not all in favour. Should we tarnish the isle with the national park brush?

Eagle Island

The Isle of Mull is known cross country as a wildlife hotspot and is often featured on popular TV shows as “Eagle Island”, boasting some of the highest golden eagle and white-tailed eagle densities in Europe (definitely in the UK). Following the re-introduction of the white-tailed eagle to the Isle of Rum between 1975 and 85 the Norwegian bred birds moved out along the west coast of Scotland. Mull was colonised and can claim the first wild breeding pair of the eagles in around 70 years. The island now hosts around 20 breeding pairs, encouraging vast numbers of tourists to visit every summer. Along with white-tailed eagles the island hosts great numbers of the secretive golden eagle and the revered hen harrier, two raptors that are still heavily persecuted throughout the remainder of Scotland and England. You also have a great chance of spotting otters along the numerous miles of rugged coastline, enjoying puffins and other seabirds in the surrounding islands and watching minke whales, harbour porpoise and dolphin species in the local waters. Mull is pretty good on the wildlife scale.

Male Hen Harrier on Mull (Ewan Miles)

Male Hen Harrier on Mull (Ewan Miles)

Could Mull be better?

For the conservationist, “yes” would be the resounding answer. The island habitats are degraded and in many cases they’re still degrading, unchecked by conservation bodies or Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Like many other upland areas the hills are bare and vastly overgrazed by red deer and sheep. Both hill farming and deer stalking play their part on the island – although economically speaking, how big a part? Remnants of ancient Atlantic oak woodlands are being eaten away and are overgrown by multiple invasive species, including rhododendron, Japanese knotweed and American skunk cabbage. Similarly, the Atlantic hazel woodland (some of Scotland’s most ancient woodland) is being overgrazed, threatening a wealth of protected species like hazel glove fungus.

Machair, a Scottish speciality is yet another habitat we’re failing to look after. The well known Calgary Bay boasts a large section of this rare habitat but it’s threatened by inadequate car parking, grazing by sheep and rabbits, erosion and damage by the public. Along with Mull itself, the island of Staffa and the nearby Treshnish Isles play host to a vast array of wildlife, notably breeding seabirds. Numerous tourists visit these islands each year with local boat operators, giving visitors a chance to view a brilliant wildlife spectacle. But, dogs are welcome and there are sure to be a few irresponsible owners who don’t pay heed to the importance of breeding sites for declining seabirds. Tourists can be blissfully unaware of the disturbance they can cause if not careful, some guidance for visitors is most definitely required, maybe National Trust (who manage Staffa) should step up here.

I could go on about the state of wildlife and the habitats on Mull, but I’ll restrain myself.

View of hillside grazing (Ewan Miles)

View of hillside grazing (Ewan Miles)

Would national park Status help? 

Obviously, Mull isn’t perfect and we stand to lose some of the wildlife that makes the place special. But, would national park status really make a positive difference for the wildlife? Locally on the island there appears to be a small pocket of people advocating for the national park title, having named themselves the ‘Hebridean Islands National Park Concept Group’ (the park would include other islands like Coll and Tiree). Suggested benefits include more funding to tackle issues like coastal litter and the lack of roadside viewing points. It is also suggested that more ranger service based jobs could be created and offer up opportunities for local young people. Mull does need a forward thinking plan to deal with increasing tourism and the impacts on wildlife, along with the degrading habitats due to land use but in my opinion national park status is certainly not the way forward. I’ve a very wary outlook on our national parks and after growing up on the doorstep of Northumberland National Park I have valid reasons.

Unfortunately, National Parks have become, freeze frame scenarios, a still-shot of our already degraded habitats. Within the parks tax payers money is being spent to keep the current landscape, regardless of whether it could be better. We have shifting baseline syndrome – we’ve conveniently forgotten what we have already lost from our wild areas and are making no real attempt to reverse this. National park status on Mull would likely bind the island with legislation, making land use change decisions difficult. We’d ultimately be conserving our sheep-nibbled, deer munched hillsides and a few upland breeding waders at the expense of greater biodiversity. Nor in other national parks do we see the coastal and roadside litter problems disappear – beach cleans still rely on volunteer based groups. Roadside litter is likely increased due to the number of less considerate visitors.

National Parks in the spotlight 

Recently British national parks have been ruthlessly scrutinised by social media. The popular television show, BBC Countryfile aired an episode based in Northumberland National Park (April 2016). Social media, Twitter in particular went wild with outcry. The show featured the practice of heather burning as an upland management and conservation tool. Despite increasing evidence to suggest that heather and peat burning are extremely detrimental to the environment the show reported that “heather burning was the best way to manage moorland”. Throughout the whole piece on moorland management within a national park there was no mention of any detrimental impacts like erosion, carbon release or the increased flooding risk. Nor was any mention made with regard to driven grouse shooting, the main driver of heather burning – driven grouse shooting is also in the press a great deal currently and in many circumstances is a negative for native wildlife. A few species do benefit from heather burning, namely some ground nesting wading birds but overall this management technique is preventing natural regeneration and minimising the greater biodiversity. Should this practice really be taking place in our national parks?

George Monbiot, a popular writer for the Guardian and author of the book “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding” shares the opinion that our national parks are poorly cared for and are wildlife wastelands or ecological disaster zones. On speaking for Dartmoor National Park at their annual conference Monbiot openly voiced his opinions on our outdated park management and blinkered conservation. He points out that when burning occurs overseas in exotic countries rich in wildlife we call is destruction, yet in UK national parks we call it conservation.

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Grew up in Northumberland with a love of wildlife and studied BSc Animal Conservation in Cumrbria before moving to the Isle of Mull to work as an eagle ranger. Now, still living on the Hebridean Isle of Mull I work within a small school as an additional needs assistant. Taking advantage of this position I encourage outdoor learning, beach schools, wildlife gardening and more. I hope to develop on my own childhood experiences to provide rich, engaging outdoor learning opportunities.

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