My wife’s family heritage is rooted in the hill farms of the Lake District, and I’ve been fascinated by the history, nature and indeed the natural history of the fells of what is now Cumbria for as long as we’ve known each other. My father-in-law was born in a farmhouse, by a tarn, in a hamlet a few miles from a main road.
Perhaps my interest started earlier than that?
I remember secondary school geography classes where we were shown the impact of tourism on the National Park. We studied the volume of cars and the need for roads and parking, which was nothing compared to today. The pressure for accommodation, cafes, and shops. We looked at the significant impact on the Lak District hotspots, of Bowness & Windermere in particular. That was more than 35 years ago. Today the pressure of tourism is greater than ever, and in amongst it all there are communities trying to work out a livelihood within the constraints of being a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Lake District countryside has been shaped over thousands of years by two things farming and mining. Mining may no longer be economic; the farms, however, are still there. It may look like an idyllic way of life, but all is not well.
There’s a conflict between the desire for the National Park to be a place of natural beauty and the needs of farmers to make a living. I’m no expert on the challenges on either side, they are deep seated and long in the forming, but I would like to understand more, hence the reading pattern.
Across the Lake District there are groups of people trying to change things, experimenting with different paths. People trying to see if there are different healthier ways, ones that provide a long-term future for people and wildlife, together. One such group is the RSPB in Haweswater, Lee Schofield is one of the rangers there and this is the story of their journey.
Schofield talks about a desire to see wildlife, flora and fauna, return to a corner of the National Park that gets a moderate number of tourists, but is off the standard tourist routes. Situated on the eastern edges Haweswater is a man-made reservoir that supplies water to Manchester via a 96 mile long gravity-fed aqueduct. About 25% of the water for the North West of England comes from here, which makes it nationally important. In many ways Haweswater is industrial, yet it is also remote and peaceful. When I’ve walked there, I’ve always enjoyed a sense that I am somewhere where others aren’t, but I’ve not been looking with the eyes of Lee Schofield.
One the joyful parts of this book are the names of the various plant species that I so easily overlook. I can’t even remember most of the names but Schofield reels them off in a way that is glorious – Alpine Catchfly, Sessile Oak, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Goldenrod, Wood Crane’s-Bill, Lesser Meadow-Rue, Yellow Mountain Saxifrage, Globeflower, Melancholy Thistle, Common Polypody, Bog Myrtle, Bedstraw, Tormentil. The sad part is that this diversity is all too sparse in an environment where it should be abundant.
Although Schofield works for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, this book is much more about the creation of the right environment for the flora to thrive and in so doing enable the fauna to rejuvenate, including the birds.
This book is subtitled “Fighting for nature in a Lake District hill farm” – while I find the word “fight” to be a bit over-combative, having read the book, it’s certainly a struggle. The farming community is a loyal group and having outsiders come in was never going to be an easy journey. The book outlines those challenges, but also the inspirational successes that can be achieved when you work with people.
There is a big plan for Haweswater, the area is huge and there’s lots to do – rewiggling of rivers to allow healthy meandering, blocking water drains to enable mosses to reform and bogs to come back to life, fencing in areas to reduce the impact of grazing, changing grazing patterns and species to encourage different flora, to name a few. Each one having a different impact on the ecology of the whole area.
I’ve read a few other books covering similar themes:
- I’m reading… “English Pastoral: An Inheritance” by James Rebanks
- I’m reading… “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” by James Rebanks
- I’m reading… “Wilding” by Isabella Tree
If these book share something in common it’s not surprising Lee Schofield and James Rebanks are practically neighbours, and they’ve both been inspired by the work of Isabella Tree at Knepp.
The book concludes with the dream of a better future, a future that is thankfully looking like it might just be possible. Until a few years ago Haweswater was famous for being the only place where you could still see a Golden Eagle in England, sadly that’s no longer the case. I look forward to a day when we enable their return.
Header Image: This is the view across Haweswater with the dam at the far end. The few trees in the distance on the right are old woodland, the trees nearby aren’t native species. I’ve walked through both and the difference in diversity is stark.