The Lake District – is it really ‘sheep-wrecked’?

Read a response from John Darlington, National Trust’s Director of Region for the North West, to George Monbiot’s article on the Lake District:

“‘Sheep-wrecked’, one of ‘the most depressing landscapes in Europe’ – hardly a ringing endorsement of the Lake District from George Monbiot in Tuesday’s Guardian.  I’m a fan of George: he’s an eloquent and passionate advocate for wildlife, and the National Trust, as owners of 1/5th of the Lakes, would be foolish not to listen to what he has to say. His challenge is that sheep-farming has denuded the environment of the fells, and that our ambition to designate the area as a World Heritage Site will lead to the pickling of this landscape in aspic, and the perpetuating one way of management to the detriment of all others.

A view of sunlit fields, enclosed by stone walls, at Wasdale Head, Cumbria, ©National Trust Images,Joe Cornish

“Farming is an important part of the Lake District story. It has influenced everything from the stone walls partitioning the valley bottoms and their absence on the common land of the high fells, from the characteristic stone buildings that pepper the countryside to the food, literature and even sport of this part of the world. So a World Heritage Site which does not recognise the past and future role played by farmers would be a like a Beatrix Potter story without animals. George Monbiot’s point is that sheep farming should not be the only story we tell nor the only way in which we manage land in the future.

“It isn’t and it won’t be.

“Every square metre of the British Landscape has been shaped by humans, and the Lakes are no exception. Walk into the heart of the GreatLangdaleValley. Look up. Here amongst the distinctive, craggy profile of The Pikes is the location of one of the largest Neolithic Axe factories in Britain. Climb over the watershed to Little Langdale and Coniston: mining and quarrying would have filled these places with the noise of industry. Complete the circuit through the woodlands on the west shore of Windermere and you will find the leftover mounds of charcoal burners and mills for making bobbins required by the Lancashire textile industry. Everyone, from Roman soldiers to Scandinavian settlers, medieval monks, 18th century tourists to 19th century industrialists and water engineers, has left their mark on the Lakes. And future generations will continue to do the same. Increasingly we recognise the value of places such as this for clean water, for storing carbon in precious peat-rich soils, for food and for nature, and of course for recreation, tranquillity and inspiration. Farmers are critical for the delivery of many of these things.

Windermere seen from the grounds at Wray Castle, Cumbria. ational Trust Images, Arnhel de Serra

“The difficult bit is where there are conflicting demands on a place – and there is some truth in Monbiot’s observation that the intensification of sheep farming after the war had a detrimental impact upon wildlife – but look to post-war government policy to increase food production as the driver here.  So we have to make choices. And we do. Take the two neighbouring valleys of Wasdale and Ennerdale. In Wasdale that farming story is loud – Herdwicks graze the slopes of Great Gable and Scafell, a mosaic of seemingly impossible drystone walls criss-cross the valley floor and traditional farm-houses are the local vernacular. Over the watershed in Ennerdale, and the wilder side of nature is much more visible. Here there are far fewer roads and buildings, many more trees – it feels more like Scotland than England. Nature is not neglected in Wasdale: the juniper and heather is there, carnivorous sundew plants can be found on the wetter ground, trees are being planted on the valley sides and cloughs. And neither is the cultural landscape in Ennerdale: Viking farmsteads and prehistoric cairnfields are conserved – they are just managed differently.

Walkers at Wasdale, Cumbria, with the vast expanse of Wastwater in the distance, ©National Trust Images, Joe Cornish

“This has to be a living, working landscape. One that has always changed and will continue to do so in the future. The trick is the careful management of that inevitable change to meet the needs of current and future generations, whilst at the same time enhancing the spirit of a place (A.K.A. conservation). World Heritage Site designation helps with all of the above, not least by starting the debate.”

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11 thoughts on “The Lake District – is it really ‘sheep-wrecked’?

  1. Thanks for your response John.

    You say: “Increasingly we recognise the value of places such as this for clean water, for storing carbon in precious peat-rich soils, for food and for nature, and of course for recreation, tranquillity and inspiration. Farmers are critical for the delivery of many of these things.”

    Why do conservation groups feel obliged to recycle such myths? Is the fear of the farming lobby so great that the NGOs charged with protecting the countryside must repeat its misleading claims? The best protection for clean water supplies, soil carbon and nature is the reduction or cessation of farming in crucial places. For example, if you want to prevent floods and ensure a steady supply of water downstream, the best means of doing so are to allow trees and other dense vegetation to return to the hills, to get the sheep off (which compact the soil), to stop the dredging of tributaries by farmers and to de-canalise the rivers. I’m sure the NT knows this as well as anyone else.

    And for how much longer can we continue to use the small piece of land being restored at Ennerdale as an excuse for allowing the rest of the national park to remain in its sheepwrecked state?

    • There are far far less sheep on the fells now than there were in Beatrix Potters day when she was the head honcho for the Ennerdale Show. Interestingly there is also far far less biodiversity on the fells than there was in Beatrix Potters day . The sheep are a scapegoat and George should look closer to his own enthusiasm …nuclear. Lancaster university scientists have shown conclusively that chronic low level radiation has a detrimental effect on wildlife.
      Stop dissing the as good as wild Herdwicks and start dissing nuclear!

  2. This article perversely turns its back on the issue at stake; the sad thing is that it does so, I am sure, quite unintentionally, or, more likely, because the author, so constrained by the importance of not offending susceptibilities, is simply unable to address the facts.

    In Wales, there is an expression “above the frith wall” to designate the unenclosed land beyond the highest drystone walls that partition the valley bottom. It is in the enclosed land of these walls, in the valley, that the economically viable farming activity takes place, and where the farming heritage of “stone walls”, “characteristic stone buildings”, “traditional farm houses” and “Herdwick sheep” is there to be preserved.

    Yes, miners and quarry men, charcoal burners, mill owners, industrialists, water engineers, Roman soldiers and eighteenth century tourists have all left their mark on the landscape. Their activities might have left unsightly scars, which some people might regard as archeologically interesting sites, but although locally damaging, they did not destroy the wider environment.

    That destruction is due to one factor and one factor alone: sheep grazing. Just look! Circumspice!

    The article trots out the mantra that “This has to be a living working environment”. But what does “this” refer to? The valleys with their “cultural humus” of a thousand years? Or the open fells? The open fells are not living and they are not worked. They are a repository for sheep – a management practice that has destroyed them – a practice that is not irrefragable and which has absolutely nothing to do with maintaining the cultural integrity of the “landscape” as outlined in the article.

    Ad hominem – sundews grow in areas too wet for sheep, there are NO juniper saplings on the fells.

    The articles says – “The landscape has changed and will continue to do so in the future. The trick is the careful management of that inevitable change”.

    Why is it the only thing that never changes here is the sheep on every INCH of the fells? HOW much land do you need for these blessed sheep!

    Educate people!

    “If we take the sheep off, scrub will come up” “The sheep keep the weeds down.” “Trees will grow and block the view.” “The sheep are part of the landscape”

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  8. George is quite correct the british landscape is a vertual desert the lack of trees and wildlife is a sad indictment of our farming practices over the years.

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