TODAY, most of us are able to get out and enjoy the countryside in one of England and Wales 13 national parks − but this wasn’t always the case.

2024 in fact marks the 75th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

This important act was described by Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, as he moved the second reading of the Bill on March 31 1949 as: “Not just a bill. It is a people’s charter − a people’s charter for the open air, for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who lives to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside.”

In it lay the spirit of post war regeneration and renewal. Yet despite − as many would argue – not going far enough, the act has had a vast and lasting impact on everyone’s relationship with the natural environment across the UK and is an achievement that we must celebrate and not take for granted.

The 1949 act was the result of decades of campaigning from groups and individuals who understood the fundamental importance of access to the open air away from our polluted cities along with vital protections for nature.

At the end of the 19th century attitudes towards the natural world were changing − people were angry about the degradation of the countryside through industrialisation and urban sprawl as well as by their increasingly restricted access to it.

The Enclosures Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries had led to landowners restricting access to what was previously common land, where commoners could graze their sheep and people could freely enjoy a walk. By the early 20th century public appreciation of nature and a growing desire to enjoy the countryside through open air recreation such as rambling and cycling became more urgent, culminating in a mass public trespass that took place on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in April 1932.

Four hundred people took part in this landmark protest which not only fanned the flames of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, but led to the formation of the Ramblers Association.

The Standing Committee on National Parks, now known as the national charity Campaign for National Parks, was created in 1936 in the wake of the Kinder Scout Trespass with the 1949 act being its first success.

Not only did the act enable the creation of national parks but also national trails, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (now called National Landscapes), Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserves – all fundamental in conserving threatened wildlife and biodiversity and enabling countryside access.

Of the early national parks designated, our own Yorkshire Dales National Park (YDNPA) was the second in the early years of the act in November 1954.

Yet despite more than 75 years of protection, the 13 national parks covering 10 per cent of the land area in England and 20 per cent in Wales are facing unprecedented challenges from biodiversity loss and climate breakdown.

The YDNPA recently published its draft Nature Recovery Plan, detailing that of all the English national parks, the Dales has the biggest area of Priority Habitats (83,000 hectares) and the largest area of nationally or internationally designated wildlife areas (57,000 hectares).

Ann Shadrake, executive director of Friends of the Dales said: “However, designation does necessarily lead to protection. Unfortunately, only 30 per cent of land designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the Dales is in good condition. National parks, and the farmers and landowners who manage land within them, face unprecedented challenges.”

Friends of the Dales, is one of 12 national park societies throughout England and Wales which operate independently from government to support and challenge the national park authorities to ensure that the overarching principles of the designation, that is to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage of the park and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities to the public” − are upheld.

Friends of the Dales was established in 1981 at a time when the national park was being threatened by for example, large scale afforestation and the expansion of quarrying. Over the last 40 years the membership charity has campaigned hard for changes that positively enhance the landscape whilst calling out developments that threaten it.

Current campaigns include lobbying for increased tax on second homes, more affordable housing, better sustainable transport, environmental payments that help secure the viability of hill farms and better management of rural verges for biodiversity.

There is much to be done to not only protect what nature and wildlife we have left, and to also improve sustainable access so that many more people from a wider demographic know about our national parks and have the means of visiting them to spend time in nature. Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the national parks and 70th anniversary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park is a great way to highlight this work.

Look out for Friends of the Dales events throughout 2024 which aim to bring people together, look towards the future and engage with the next generation of national park and countryside protectors.