In 2002, in a remote valley on the western fringes of the Lake District National Park, a plot was hatched between landowners to let their
land run wild. In 2003, the plot became a project, Wild Ennerdale.
Reacting against a history of sheep-battered fells with conifer slums, this was an agreement between the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and United Utilities – which together owned the Ennerdale valley – to “allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley,
for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its ecology and landscape.” Putting nature and people first, it was a vision for rewilding.
With road access limited to its western end, and only three buildings in five miles, Ennerdale has more wild credentials than most places in the Lake District. The valley, containing the two-mile-long lake of Ennerdale Water, fed by the braided stream of the River Liza and the spectacular Pillar fell, is seven miles long, from the village of Ennerdale Bridge to the majestic mountains of Green Gable and Great Gable at its head, and about two miles wide from misty peak to misty peak. William Wordsworth said that whoever makes the long walk to Ennerdale will “discover a vista which cannot fail to strike the most indifferent observer with astonishment and pleasure”.
Two hundred years after Wordsworth, the post-war obsession with planting conifers for timber cast dark shadows across the valley, and 60 years ago the author and Lake District walker Alfred Wainwright complained: “Low Beck and High Beck are joyful streams… A canopy of foreign trees is dimming their sparkle… Things are not what they used to be in Ennerdale. They never will be, ever again.”
Nature fights back
Two years after Wild Ennerdale’s inception, on 7 January 2005, nature struck back. A violent storm ripped across northern Europe causing massive damage. Viewing the carnage, Gareth Browning, a Forestry Commission manager of the Wild Ennerdale project, said: “The forest damage in Ennerdale is about 27,000 trees, but this has opened up opportunities for natural processes to create a more diverse forest that fits into the landscape. We are not producing timber here now, we’re producing wildness.”
Seven years on, producing wildness has become more tangible. The storm damage is being replicated by an opportunistic combination of human action and natural process. The conifer plantations are being removed and the old woods are allowed to breathe and expand naturally. “We have removed some of the harsh edges of the conifer boundaries,” says Browning. As well as felling lots of sitka spruce, 25,000 native broadleaved trees and 5,000 junipers have been planted, while 25 hectares of new heathland and six hectares of peatbog have been restored.
The removal of man-made boundaries has opened up the valley’s character. “This has freed the River Liza in a kind of psychological way; it’s changed the mindset of the valley,” says Browning. Liza is wild and wilful – with a full roiling song from the high fells to the stillness of Ennerdale Water. Unfettered by concrete bridges, which have been replaced with wooden ones, the river gravels can shift freely. This makes good habitat for Arctic charr, wonderfully brass-topped, copper-bottomed fish that breed here, and also their cousins, salmon and trout.
Rewilding projects are often characterised by ambitions to reintroduce previously extinct species. But the only large mammals returning to Ennerdale have been native black Galloway cattle. Three separate herds roam 900 hectares of the valley. “They’re more like wild animals and have a sense of self-will about them,” says Browning. “People go looking for them but they can be surprisingly hard to find.”
The cattle’s grazing helps the return of the blue-buttoned flower of soggy grassland, devil’s-bit scabious, and also the 3,000 released marsh fritillary butterflies that feed on it, marking a welcome return of the orange, brown and cream butterfly that was extinct in Ennerdale since 1970. Red squirrels also live here, one of the few remaining strongholds for the species in England.
“Blurring the boundaries has had a real effect in the middle part of the valley. You can’t tell where fields, forest and natural regeneration of woodland begin and end, particularly over the past five years,” says Rachel Oakley, the National Trust’s project officer for Wild Ennerdale. She works with local communities, including nearby towns, and is concerned with people’s emotional experience of wildness, “There’s a much greater engagement and sense of ownership now. Local communities feel practically involved, through walks, events, meetings and volunteer work,” she says.
A yearning for solitude and tranquillity, the sublime beauty of the crags, the pastoral charm of the valley – these are characteristics Wordsworth recognised in a visit to Ennerdale in 1800: “‘Tis one of those who needs must leave the path / Of the world’s business, to go wild alone.”
Going wild, alone or in groups, is a fundamental emotional driver for Wild Ennerdale and other wild lands projects. “Sometimes I think that unless the human is rewilded, the task of rewilding nature is hopeless,” says wild lands ecologist and author Peter Taylor. “Decisions are made by city-bound elites of very unwild men and everywhere wild nature is disappearing. Survival is not, for me, the issue or even rewilding, it is all about beauty and how we relate to it. Not just the beauty of wildlife, but also the beauty of death.”
These deeper thoughts have room to breathe in wild lands and their beauty puts danger and mortality into perspective, or as Wordsworth said of the people who lived in Ennerdale: “The thought of death sits easy on the man / Who has been born and dies among the mountains.”
Alfred Wainwright would be thrilled with Wild Ennerdale’s first decade: action against the blight of conifer blocks, the return of sparkling becks and people encouraged to wander at will. “It’s more complex and exciting,” is how Gareth Browning describes Wild Ennerdale’s achievements. “We are learning from what the landscape and the community are telling us; we’re unlocking and unblocking natural processes and in another 10 years the valley will look different. This is a wilder valley now.”
Britain’s other wild lands
Often said to Scotland’s most beautiful glen, Glen Affric is a National Nature Reserve in the West Highlands, with Caledonian pine forest, mountains and lochs.
This wilderness reserve on a private estate in the Scottish Highlands has recently seen woodland regeneration, the introduction of wild boar, elk, European bison and controversial plans to reintroduce wolves.
Set in the Moffat Hills of southern Scotland, this wild project aims to restore the wooded landscape of 6,000 years ago.
This project aims to restore an ecosystem of bogs, heath and woods on 40,000 hectares of moorland, which is the source of the rivers Wye and Severn in Mid Wales.
The Great Fen
Expanded from the restoration around Wicken Fen, this project aims to reverse the process that drained the Cambridgeshire Fens for agriculture in the 17th century to create 14 square miles of wetlands.
This 3,500-acre private estate in West Sussex is being transformed into a landscape where grazing animals drive the habitat changes,
with minimal human intervention.
The rewilding plans here aim to restore the area to the way it was before the conifer plantations. This involves creating 260 hectares of wood pasture – grazed broadleaf woodland – out of existing conifer plantation and restoring lowland heath managed by Dartmoor ponies.