Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
Wildlife - The Ultimate Benchmark

“... man is part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Rachel Carson
  • “Of 877 upland species (wildlife generally) 65% have declined and 35% have declined strongly”
  • “67% of upland flowering plants are declining”
  • “65% of upland butterlies have declined largely because their habitats are being destroyed, changed and fragmented”
  • “many formerly widespread bird species, including lapwing, curlew and whinchat are suffering major declines and several birds of prey are missing from parts of their natural ranges” (No Hen Harriers bred in England last year due to mindless persecution)
                                                                                                        The State of Nature Report 2013
red squirrelPhoto by John Stock

During and after the Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001 there was some vociferously controversial discussion concerning the future viability of hill farming.  It is frequently claimed that the bare mountainous landscapes, made all the more so by seventy subsidised years of unrelenting sheep grazing regimes, are the epitome of scenic perfection and a triumph of our cultural supremacy over nature.  Farmers insist that a creeping wasteland, as they see it, of impenetrable scrub, which would be the outcome of a cessation of sheep grazing on the fells, would be an unsightly affront to their good husbandry and proud rural traditions.

I believe, on the contrary, it could ultimately rescue them from the futility of running in ever decreasing circles in an increasingly impoverished desert of their own making.  They are undermining the very life support systems that can ensure their survival - if only they could break themselves free of their cultural addiction to sheep and return to an ecological mixed farming coexistence with nature.  They don’t need to be so aggressive in their domination of the more remote corners and isolated tracts of the landscape.  I hugely respect and admire hill farmers for their hard work, indefatigable determination against all the odds and the historically honourable status of their profession, but I think the time has come for them to turn their undoubted energy and ingenuity to a more responsible and inclusive commitment to biodiversity.

lapwingPhoto by John Stock

Much as I admire George Monbiot for the breathtaking courage of his convictions I don’t subscribe to his extremism.  I just feel that with some rational environmental reassessment we could allow a more committed revival of ‘traditional’ farming methods with herb rich meadows and coppiced woods and a moderate return of native woodland and other natural wildlife habitats to the more marginal fringes of agricultural occupation on the fells.

I believe this, not merely from a simple economic perspective, but the incomparably more serious imperative of stopping an impending loss of wildlife on an unprecedentedly disastrous scale.  Rather than fretting over the prospect of ‘untidy’ scrub growing as a consequence of fewer sheep, it would represent a courageous acceptance by farmers that a ruthless subjugation of nature is also calamitously self defeating and they will eventually come to recognise the benefits of allowing scrub to colonise the fells as a welcome precursor of the life-propagating ecosystems of mature woodland.

curlewPhoto by John Stock

6,000 years ago, before the arrival of pastoral and agricultural settlers, what we now call Cumbria was a land of unpolluted lakes and rivers, teeming with fish and surrounded by marsh and fen woodland; the lower slopes of the hills and mountains were covered with dense, high canopy woodland, supporting abundant populations of wild birds and animals, and the tops of the hills were alive with vast swards of natural moorland and scrub.  I’m not, for a minute, imagining that we can ever restore the original wilderness to its former glory.  Long before Foot and Mouth struck and thousands of sheep and cattle were killed and burned, hill farming was already in decline and has only survived because the Government has given it, and continues to give it, massive financial support.  Yet despite substantial subsidies, hill farmers continue to subsist on very meagre incomes because the land and a changing climate are just not compatible with commercial agricultural enterprise.

The average age of a hill farmer is said to be approaching sixty years and the succeeding generations are less inclined to go on fighting the losing battle. Younger farmers have the advantage of a modern education and the capacity to combine a less environmentally corrosive approach to farming with a diverse range of alternative, but compatible, means of earning a living.  Some of them feel deeply uneasy about the damage they are doing to the natural world but trapped within a deceitful and historic matrix of ill-conceived government directives and bribery.

common blue butterflyPhoto by John Stock

The ravages of Foot and Mouth disease denied public access to the countryside for almost a year, forcing the rural tourism industry to close down and starkly demonstrating that hill farming is just one small part of the rural economy.  The ethical argument can only be won in conjunction with a supportive agricultural consensus that allows farmers to go on being ‘proper’ farmers but do so by managing the countryside more holistically, in harmony with nature.  An entrepreneurial minority of hill farmers are waking up to the demands of our mainly urban population, which seeks regular respite from the pressures of city life.  People crave affirmation of their rural roots; they want holidays in the countryside which enable them to dip into the process of food production at its source and see, for themselves, cows being milked, lambs being born and hens laying eggs.  But they also expect to wake up to a dawn chorus of wild birds before eating a hearty breakfast of locally and humanely produced bacon and eggs. They want to go for carefree walks and see carpets of wild flowers flourishing on the lower slopes of the fells, in self generating woodlands, along footpaths and bridleways and in hay meadows, before returning for hearty Cumbrian suppers and then going out again in the evening to watch badgers or deer.

Instead of propping up a rapacious, yet ailing, sheep monoculture, the Government could do a lot more by providing better financial incentives to conservation minded farmers who are less stuck in their ways and willing and able to farm more sustainably, on a smaller scale, to their own advantage.

Other inducements would have to be more stringent, even compulsory, to ensure that millions of native trees are planted on fells and in gills on a massive scale and existing mature woodlands protected and allowed to regenerate and expand.  We could relinquish the persistently wet places and allow them to be properly wet and marshy or even transform into lakes which would not only be good for wildlife but also reduce the excessive flooding on lower ground that has been so troublesome lately.

I like and respect our hill farmers.  They are amazingly committed and resourceful people, with a work ethic that is second to none, which is why they are perfectly capable of fulfilling  their more comprehensive and morally obligatory role as custodians of a recreationally accessible countryside, full of wildlife, without sacrificing their efficiency as food producers.

Wildlife Sanctuaries

We are lucky to have an amazing cluster of wonderful nature reserves and other protected sites in the upper Eden valley where our beleaguered wildlife, much depleted in the surrounding farmland, has found sanctuary. Several of these sites are along old abandoned railway lines, safe from the ravages of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertiliser.

Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve
Owned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust (CWT).  OS Explorer Map OL 19, 1:25000, entrance map references NY 739 082 and NY 704 054.  The railway track is open to members and non-members but non- members should have a permit to visit the woodland (or JOIN CWT!).

This internationally important reserve was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1997 and occupies five kilometres of redundant railway, including a magnificent viaduct renovated in 1990 by the Northern Viaduct Trust, in a beautiful and remote valley just north of Ravenstonedale.  Scandal Beck, a tributary of the river Eden, runs through it and, in addition to an abundance of herb rich limestone grassland, there is also ancient semi natural woodland dating from 1600.

The variety of habitats support a wide range of insects, birds and animal life such as common blue and scotch argus butterflies, pied flycatchers, wood warblers, red squirrels and roe deer.

Waitby Greenriggs
Another wonderful CWT Reserve.  OS Explorer Map OL 19, 1:25000, entrance at map reference NY 757 086.  Open to members and non-members.

A redundant railway track near Kirkby Stephen, with a great variety of lime loving wild flowers, butterflies and bees galore.  Plants include various orchids, bird’s eye primrose, globe flower and marsh heleborine.

Augill Pasture
Owned by the charity Plantlife and managed by CWT.  OS Explorer Map OL 19, 1:25000, map reference NY 817 147.

Open to members and non members; close to the busy A66 road near Brough this tiny reserve is on the site of an old water wheel powered smelt mill now supporting diverse wet and dry grassland with a remarkable mix of wild grasses and flowers.  There is also some woodland where the ground flora is indicative of ancient origins.

Argill Woods
Owned by CWT.  OS Explorer Map OL 19, 1:25000, map reference NY 844 139.

Open to Members only, although non-members can visit with a permit (or become members of the trust).  Two public footpaths cross the reserve, which is a mosaic of ancient woodland and grassland habitats with their associated flora and fauna.

Nature reserves further north in the Eden catchment include Wreay Woods, Quarry Banks, Orton Moss and Rockcliffe Marsh

For more details of all the CWT reserves see the Cumbria Wildlife Trust website www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

Piper Hole Hay Meadow
Privately owned and tenanted with a Public Footpath running through it.
OS Explorer Map OL 19, 1:25000, map reference NY 728 034.

This traditionally managed meadow has survived thanks to the late Raven and Juliet Frankland who were early pioneers of conservation on their farms in Ravenstonedale.  Herb rich hay meadows (along with floristically diverse coppiced woodland) are perfect examples of farming in harmony with wild nature.  Evolved over centuries, meadows were traditionally managed as crops of naturally seeded grasses to be harvested in late summer, dried, stored and then fed to livestock in the winter.  Farmers had no other alternative; it was a happy coincidence that masses of wild flowers colonised them too and, in the process, contributed valuable minerals and trace elements which kept the farm animals healthy as well as providing a source of pollen and nectar for hundreds of bees, butterflies and other crop pollinating insects.

With the advent of modern farming methods the vast majority of these meadows have been lost.  Most farmers now grow monocultures of grass to make silage, trebling their store of winter feed.  Consequently meadows have been ploughed out, drained, reseeded with faster growing grasses and heavy applications of ‘weed’ killer and inorganic fertiliser.

It is vital that the few surviving flower rich meadows are conserved, not only for their ecological and aesthetic value, but also as reservoirs of seed which can be used, where possible, to improve impoverished meadows on the brink of extinction elsewhere.

Piper Hole Meadow was recently selected as Cumbria’s ‘Coronation Meadow’ by CWT and Meadow Life, in a scheme that has identified special meadows in each county across the UK as seed donor sites.

Grant assisted Conservation Stewardship
There is another category of ‘protected’ site where nature conservation is encouraged and public access provided, funded and supervised by the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Private landowners and managers receive an annual payment to improve areas of countryside for wildlife and public recreation.

Two of particular note are, once again, along sections of old railway lines. One, west of Kirkby Stephen, links Waitby Greenriggs Nature Reserve with Smardale NNR and the other, just east of Soulby, can be combined in a circular route with Public Rights of Way in the vicinity.

Unfortunately this scheme is very badly publicised despite the public money being spent on it; each site has a tiny notice at its entrance so the only sure way to find them is via a website, www.defra.uk-ruralaffairs.org.uk (cwr.naturalengland.org.uk), where maps and details are available.