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How do the UK’s National Parks stay looking as they do? We spotlight three examples.

South Downs National Park

South Downs National Park view

The landscape of the South Downs is constantly changing. Our Iron Age forebears, who left the hill forts of Cissbury Ring, Chanctonbury Ring and Old Winchester Hill, would have seen much more woodland than we do today.

Going back even further, today’s contours were carved by glaciers and are still being altered by erosion, although the Downs’ now-famous rolling grassland characteristic is largely down to sheep, and to a lesser extent rabbits. The nibbling of sheep – most prominently the fluffy-faced Southdown sheep – and the browsing of rabbits keeps the grass short, resulting in the ‘old chalk grassland’ that defines the region today. But it was nearly lost for good: a Second World War initiative turned much of the grassland into arable land, losing a unique habitat for butterflies and orchids, among much more flora and fauna.

The worries ultimately led to the formation of the South Downs National Park in 2010, the newest in the country – its current ReNature campaign seeks to increase the 25 per cent of the park dedicated to nature to 33 per cent by 2030, to be a place “where wildlife can flourish, habitats thrive and where everyone can experience nature and wildlife at their best.”

Stay at: There are two youth hostels in the South Downs National Park proper: YHA South Downs, outside of Lewes, and YHA Truleigh Hill, inland from Shoreham. YHA Eastbourne sits right on the park border.


  • The South Downs National Park covers an area of 1,627 sq km (628 sq mi) stretching for 140km between Winchester and Eastbourne.
  • The South Downs Way is the only National Trail that lies wholly in one National Park, extending 100 miles from Eastbourne to Winchester.
  • The diverse grassland and woodland of the South Downs harbours seabirds and coastal wildlife, while the grasslands are home to round-headed rampion, orchids, and rare butterflies including the Adonis and Chalkhill Blues.

New Forest

Two ponies in the New Forest

Think New Forest, think open spaces, deep views and – yes – free-roaming ponies. Many thousands of these handsome animals wander the National Park, not only offering a near-guaranteed sighting but serving as de facto architects of the landscape, by grazing on long grass in spring and summer and chomping on gorse, holly and brambles in the winter. They keep the ‘lawns’ between the forested areas trim, and many of the trees have visible browse-lines.

Visitors are advised to keep their distance from ponies, and to drive slowly through the park, although each animal is actually owned by a member of the commoning community – local residents who have ‘common rights’ which allow them to graze them at will (the ponies are rounded up just once a year, in autumn, to check on their health). But these hardy creatures aren’t the only animals impacting the park. In different parts of the New Forest, cattle, sheep and pigs also perform their own appetite-induced gardening duties.

Stay at: YHA New Forest, tucked down a quiet lane in the heart of the park, within walking distance of Burley, with YHA Camping & Cabins options.


  • The ‘New’ Forest is in fact almost 1,000 years old. In around 1079 it was made a royal deer-hunting forest by William the Conqueror and given the name ‘Nova Foresta’.
  • Wild New Forest is a not-for-profit organisation offering guided wildlife tours, wildlife ID workshops, young persons’ wildlife camps and more.
  • There are four railway stations within the National Park: Ashurst, Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst and Sway. The latter two are the closest to YHA New Forest.


Views from Snowdon

Dartmoor is one of Britain’s most singular landscapes, a place that inspired no end of brooding literature and poetry (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes evaluated the setting as “a worthy one, if the devil did decide to have a hand in the affairs of men”). Its big skies, open moorland, deep river valleys and distinctive granite tors have seen it described as the last true wilderness in southern England.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that for more than 5,000 years, the main land use of the region has been farming. Even today, more than 90% of the National Park is used for the purpose. Much of this is made up of open and enclosed moorland, used for grazing, and it’s perhaps interesting to note that all the land within the park borders is privately owned.

Landowners range from Prince Charles to the National Park Authority themselves, whose remit is to conserve and enhance the natural environment’s beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage.

Stay at: YHA Dartmoor sits in the heart of the National Park, with YHA Okehampton and YHA Okehampton Bracken Tor both on the outskirts.


  • Around 1,500 Dartmoor ponies live within the National Park, doing their own bit to preserve the character of the landscape. Hoofprints have been found dating back 3,500 years!
  • Dartmoor National Park celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, having been founded back in 1951.
  • Love walking? You’re in the right place. Dartmoor has some 725km (450 miles) of public rights of way.

Planning a trip to a National Park? Search for the nearest YHA hostel.

Read next: Check out our list of the 9 best hostels for wildlife watching.

Image credit: adobestock header/Sussex Media, South Downs/pncphotos, New Forest/Daan, Dartmoor/annacurnow

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