John Craven: A thrilling nature-led recovery in the Lakes
The Countryfile presenter reports on ecological restoration project Wild Haweswater, which is working alongside sustainable upland farming – with amazing results
The way our uplands will look in the future is being hotly debated as the government ponders its plan to switch rural subsidies away from food production and put ‘public money for public good’ into schemes that will boost nature conservation and the environment in general. But recent press reports say the Government wants to cut back on the green agenda to focus on the cost-of-living crisis.
While farmers still await the final details, fearing their livelihoods are at stake if they lose out on EU-type payments, wildlife campaigners are hoping sheep numbers will still be greatly reduced. Then, they say, the high places could take on a more Alpine appearance with carpets of wild flowers instead of the barren expanses created by grazing.
The Lake District National Park is one of the focal points for this debate and its latest management plan aims at “farmer-led nature recovery combining viable farm business with a nature- and culture-rich landscape”. In what could be a template for the uplands, a pioneering project is taking place in an area that makes up just 1% of the park: the stunning Haweswater estate.
It's a joint venture between United Utilities, owners of four-mile-long Haweswater reservoir and the surrounding land, and the RSPB which manages two farms there. Last year it became one of only five sites in the UK to meet the IUCN (International Union for Nature Conservation) global standard for demonstrating nature-based solutions that benefit wildlife and people. So far:
- About 800 hectares of peat bog have been restored by blocking off 31 miles of draining ditches – dug last century to dry out the land for farming – with 50,000 trees planted. As a result, soil erosion has reduced and more carbon locked up.
- The Swindale Beck, a river straightened 200 years ago to increase grazing land, has had its bends put back. The outcome is better water quality, less chance of flooding downstream and the return of salmon and brown trout.
- Sheep numbers have been cut back to 300 breeding ewes and followers (30 years ago there were 10 times as many), with hardy cattle and ponies brought in. The result is a more natural look to the fells – courser and scrubbier with more wildlife.
RSPB ecologist Lee Scofield, who runs the project, tells me: “Subsidies came in after the Second World War to massively ramp up the number of sheep in the hills and that has done a lot of damage to nature. The amount of hay we can grow in our meadows basically determines how much livestock we can carry. To exceed the numbers means we have to bring in fertiliser and extra feed and a whole load of very costly and carbon-heavy inputs,” Lee says.
In the long term the fells might become resilient and sustainable enough for sheep to go back up there
“By working within the carrying capacity of the land, we get almost accidental benefits for nature. In the long term the fells might become resilient and sustainable enough for sheep to go back up there in smaller numbers.”
Income from livestock and ecotourism, along with government grants for looking after the environment, fuel the project. The RSPB first came to Haweswater in 1969 after golden eagles moved in, but the last one died seven years ago. Recently, however, a pair flew down from Scotland to pay a visit, as well as a couple of white-tailed eagles from the Isle of Wight.
“We are making the landscape healthier, more resilient, richer and wilder,” says Lee. “The hope is eagles will be attracted back again.” Haweswater is certainly ready for them.
Main image: Haweswater reservoir/Credit: Getty