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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”