Tag: Lake District

A love for the wild!

Why can’t we leave nature to do what’s best for our world!

Now, I would be the first to ‘tut-tut’ a little over my sub-heading. For here I am sitting in front of a computer in a room in a reasonably-sized home that undoubtedly has denuded the natural world formerly underneath the present foundations.

Thirteen acres orientated West-East.

Plus, as the property boundary shown on the above picture confirms, about 50% of our acreage is no longer wilderness.

Ergo, it is impossible for humans to live on this planet without there being consequences that conflict with the natural order of the wild.

But homes to live in are one thing. A planned madness for the Lake District in Northern England is another thing altogether.

Read this latest essay from George Monbiot, republished with Mr. Monbiot’s kind permission.


Fell Purpose

The attempt to turn the Lake District into a World Heritage site would be a disaster

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th May 2017

If this bid for power succeeds, the consequences for Britain will be irreversible. It will privilege special interests over the public good, shut out the voices of opposition and damage the fabric of the nation, perhaps indefinitely. No, I’m not writing about the election.

In the next few weeks Unesco, the UN’s cultural organisation, will decide whether or not to grant World Heritage status to the Lake District. Once the decision is made, it is effectively irreversible.

Shouldn’t we be proud that this grand scenery, that plays such a prominent role in our perceptions of nationhood, will achieve official global recognition? On the contrary, we should raise our voices against it. World Heritage status would lock the Lake District into its current, shocking state, ensuring that recovery becomes almost impossible.

Stand back from the fells and valleys and try to judge this vista as you would a landscape in any other part of the world. What you will see is the great damage farming has inflicted: wet deserts grazed down to turf and rock; erosion gullies from which piles of stones spill; woods in which no new trees have grown for 80 years, as every seedling has been nibbled out by sheep; dredged and canalised rivers, empty of wildlife and dangerous to the people living downstream; tracts of bare mountainside on which every spring is a silent one. Anyone with ecological knowledge should recoil from this scene.

This photo was used as the frontispiece of the “State of Conservation” section of the bid documents. It is meant to show how beautiful the fells are. If we saw it anywhere else, we would recognise it as an environmental disaster.

The documents supporting the bid for world heritage status are lavishly illustrated with photos, that inadvertently reveal what has happened to the national park. But this slow-burning disaster goes almost unmentioned in the text. On the contrary, the bid repeatedly claims that the park is in “good physical condition”, and that the relationship between grazing and wildlife is “harmonious”. Only on page 535, buried in a table, is the reality acknowledged: 75% of the sites that are meant to be protected for nature are in “unfavourable condition”.

This is another photo from the bid document, showing St John’s Beck in Thirlmere. The beck is notorious for its flashy response to rainfall – rising dangerously fast. It’s not hard to see why. As the photo shows, it has been dredged and canalised on behalf of the farmers in the valley, and now contains almost no natural features that can slow the flow.

This great national property has degenerated into a sheepwrecked wasteland. And the national park partnership, that submitted the bid, wants to keep it this way: this is the explicit purpose of its attempt to achieve world heritage status. It wants to preserve the Lake District as a “cultural landscape”. But whose culture? Whose landscape? There are only 1080 remaining farms in the district. Should the entire national park be managed for their benefit? If so, why? The question isn’t raised, let alone answered.

I can see the value and beauty of the traditional shepherding culture in the Lake District. I can also see that the farming there, reliant on subsidies, quad bikes and steel barns, now bears little relationship to traditional practice. As the size of landholdings has increased, it looks ever more like ranching and ever less like the old system the bid describes. The bid’s claim that farming there is “wholly authentic in terms of … its traditions, techniques and management systems” is neither intelligible nor true. Remnants of the old shepherding culture tend to be represented ceremonially, as its customs are mostly disconnected from the farm economy.

Shepherding is not the only cultural legacy in play. The other is that the Lake District is the birthplace of the modern conservation movement. Inspired by the Picturesque and Romantic movements, much of our environmental ethic and the groups representing it, such as the National Trust, originated here. Attempts to preserve natural beauty in the district began in the mid-18th century, with complaints against the felling of trees around Derwent Water. Today, the national park cares so little for this legacy that, as the bid admits, “there are no data available” on the condition of the Lake District’s woodlands.

The small group favoured by this bid sees environmental protection as anathema. Farmers’ organisations in the Lake District have fought tooth and nail against conservation measures. They revile the National Trust and the RSPB, whose mild efforts to protect the land from overgrazing are, with the help of a lazy and compliant media, treated like bubonic plague. As one of these farming groups exults, world heritage status “gives us a powerful weapon” that they can wield against those who seek to limit their impacts. If the plan is approved, this world heritage site would be a 230,000-hectare monument to overgrazing and ecological destruction.

30 years ago, this was a bare sheep pasture (with a couple of seeding birch trees). This is a photo I took (with my failing phone) on a hill elsewhere in Britain. It gives an idea of what parts of the Lake District fells could look like if they were allowed to recover.

This is not the only sense in which the bid is unsustainable. Nowhere in its 700 pages is Brexit mentioned. It was obviously written before the referendum, and has not been updated. Yet the entire vision relies, as the bid admits, on the economic viability of the farming system, which depends in turn on subsidies from the European Union.

Without these payments, there would be no sheep farming in the Lake District: it operates at a major loss. European subsidies counteract this loss, delivering an average net farm income of £9,600. Unsurprisingly, people are leaving the industry in droves: the number of farms in the national park is declining by 2% a year. And this is before the payments cease.

What is the national park partnership, that prepared this bid, going to do – march people onto the fells at gunpoint and demand they continue farming? Or does it hope that the government, amid the massacre of public investment that will follow Brexit, will not only match but exceed the £3bn of public money currently being passed to UK farmers by the European Union? Your guess is as good as mine. This omission alone should disqualify the bid.

The failure to mention this fatal issue looks to me like one of many attempts to pull the Herdwick wool over Unesco’s eyes. The entire bid is based on a fairy tale, a pretence that the rural economy of the Lake District hasn’t changed for 200 years. If Unesco grants world heritage status on these grounds, it will inflict irreparable harm on both our natural heritage and its own good standing.

The hills, whose clothes so many profess to admire, are naked. The narrative we are being asked to support is false. The attempt to ensure that the ecological disaster zone we call the Lake District National Park can never recover from its sheepwrecking is one long exercise in woolly thinking.



When one reads this one is left with a feeling of great sadness. A sadness that our ‘movers and shakers’ can’t resist the urge to meddle. Can’t understand the beauty that is found in nature in the raw.

Earlier on I illustrated how our own property has ‘interfered’ with the wilderness of this most beautiful Oregonian countryside. But as I hope to show you with the following photographs taken on our property back in 2014 that wild beauty can be hung on to in some measure.

Looking upstream along Bummer Creek from the driveway bridge.


Looking farther downstream from the bridge.


Pharaoh also appreciating the wild.

Finally, back to that Unesco proposition.

The details may be found on the Unesco site here: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5673/

I have sent a message to Unesco asking if the views of the public are being taken into account and, if so, how those views are to be communicated to Unesco. If you wish to contact them then the details are on this page: http://whc.unesco.org/en/world-heritage-centre/

Any replies from Unesco will be posted here.

UPDATE 0815 PDT May 22nd.

My email yesterday to Unesco was ‘bounced back’ as an invalid email address (despite me using the email address on the Unesco website!!).

But following George Monbiot’s reply to me, giving me the name of James Bridge (jbridge@unesco.org.uk) at Unesco, I have now sent Mr. Bridge the following email:

Dear Mr. Bridge,

I write as a British citizen, born a Londoner in 1944, to protest in the strongest possible terms to the proposal to turn the English Lake District into a World Heritage Site. This is your Tentative List reference http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5673/.

Would you please provide me with the details of where or whom within Unesco I can write setting out in detail my objections to this proposal?

Your soonest reply would be very much appreciated.


Paul Handover

I won’t hold my breath over getting a quick reply.

The meaning of wildness?

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

So said Albert Einstein.

The reason I went searching for a quotation on reality was that our, as in humans, ability to see the world in grossly distorted ways jumped ‘off the page’ at me when I was reading a recent essay from George Monbiot.  Followers of Learning from Dogs will know that Mr. Monbiot has featured before; most recently just under a month ago in a post Returning to Nature.  Before then in April when George gave permission for the full republishing of his essay The Great Unmentionable.

“Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”
“Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”

Why the notion of humans seeing reality in grossly distorted ways?  Simply because in George Monbiot‘s following essay he challenges what we mean by the word ‘wildness’ and I immediately realised that my own idea of wildness was badly corrupted.

See if you react the same way as you read The Naturalists Who Are Terrified of Nature by George Monbiot, republished in full with the kind permission of George.


The Naturalists Who Are Terrified of Nature

July 16, 2013

A radical challenge to British conservation and its bizarre priorities.

By George Monbiot, published on the RSPB’s website, 15th July 2013

I’m writing this on the train home, after visiting two places in the north of England celebrated for their “wildness”. One of them is Ennerdale in the Lake District, now officially known as Wild Ennerdale, a valley in which the river has been allowed to move freely once more, and in which native trees are succeeding naturally up the hillsides(1).

The other is the Sheffield Moors (in the Peak District), from which most of the sheep have been removed and where the structure of the vegetation has been allowed to change a little. I found both visits fascinating, not least because of the eruditon and enthusiasm of the people who walked me through these places.

But sitting on the train, watching the chemical deserts of the English lowlands flash past, I’m struck by how pathetically grateful I feel. For what? For the fact that, in two small conservation areas, located in national parks, a few natural processes have been allowed to resume.

Were I to explain to a foreigner that these places are now celebrated by conservationists in Britain for their radical approach, he or she would think I had gone mad. “What?,” they would say, “you are telling me that this is the cutting edge of nature conservation in your country? Where have you been for the past 50 years?”

I don’t know if there is any other country in which people – including conservationists – are as afraid of nature as they are in Britain. I don’t know if there is anywhere else in which conservationists are so convinced that if they relax their intensive management of the natural world, something dreadful will happen.

Nowhere else do conservationists subscribe more enthusiastically to the biblical doctrine of dominion: that we have a holy duty to control and corral nature, in case it gets out of hand. Nowhere else does conservation look more like a slightly modified version of the farming which trashed the land in the first place.

In my view most of our conservation areas aren’t nature reserves at all. They are museums of former farming practices, weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching. The ecosystem’s dynamic interactions are banned. Animals and plants are preserved as if they were a jar of pickles, kept in a state of arrested development, in which little is allowed to change.

But nature is not just a fixed assemblage of species, maintained as if it were a collection in a museum. It is also the ever-changing relationships between them, the successional processes, the shifting communities: all of which, in many of our reserves, are prohibited.

The problem begins with designation. The “interest features” of a site of special scientific interest – its species and habitats – must be kept in “favourable condition”. Often this means the condition in which they happened to be when the reserve was created. In most cases that’s a condition of dire impoverishment and depletion: ecosystems missing almost their entire trophic structure, most of their large herbivores, all their large predators, in many cases even the trees. They have to be kept like this by extreme and intrusive management, in order to sustain the impacts which reduced them to this woeful state.

In Wild-ish Ennerdale and on the Sheffield Moors, there has been a partial relaxation of this draconian regime. But even in these places, there is much that I question.

On the Sheffield Moors, for example, cattle are kept: at much higher densities and for far longer periods than large herbivores would exist in a self-willed ecosystem. In many parts of the moors, trees, if they have the temerity to return, are cleared. The effort, even here, is to ensure that the landscape remains farmed, open and bare.

This is done partly to favour breeding populations of wading birds(2). It’s likely that these species are being maintained at artificially high populations(3). A tendency I’ve noticed among some groups is to try to make all their target species common, even if they were naturally rare. Perhaps some species ought to be rare. Those which lived in open habitats – which would have been small and occasional before people started cutting and burning the forests – are likely to have been rarest of all.

Think of the varying fortunes of grouse populations in Britain. The palaeontological evidence is extremely sparse, so this is guesswork, but during the Boreal and Atlantic phases, 9,000-5,000 years ago, when closed-canopy forest covered most of Britain, the commonent grouse species in this country might have been hazel hen. Perhaps the second commonest would have been capercaillie, followed by black grouse, followed by red grouse, which are likely to have been very scarce.

That likely sequence has now been reversed. Hazel hen is extinct, capercaillie extremely rare, black grouse are sparse and in severe decline and red grouse are bloody everywhere. The red grouse is the magpie of the uplands: it benefits from human intervention, which in this case means the clearing of land.

Arbitrarily, conservation groups in the uplands of England and Wales have decided that their priorities are, for example, dunlin and curlew, rather than capercaillie and pine martens. I’m not insisting that this is always the wrong decision. But it’s a decision that should be rigorously questioned, especially if this intensive management means the destruction of habitats which would have sheltered a much wider range of species.

Spend a couple of hours in an open upland nature reserve, and count the diversity and abundance of the birds you see. Then spend a couple of hours in a bushy suburban garden and do the same thing. In my experience you’re likely to see more birds of more species in the garden. That’s hardly surprising: most birds – indeed most wildlife – require cover to survive. Am I the only one who thinks that something has gone badly wrong here?

It’s not just common species I’m talking about. Many of those excluded by our brutal upland management are not just rare in Britain; they are extinct.

Whenever I meet a conservation manager, I find myself acting like a 3-year old: I keep asking “why?”. Why are you preserving this and not that? Why is this site designated for moorland flea beetle and pearl-bordered fritillary, rather than blue stag beetle and lynx? Why are you protecting the wretched scrapings of life that remain here, rather than reintroducing the species which would once have lived here, but have been excluded by the kind of interventions that you – the conservationists – have sustained?

When I worked in the Amazon, the conservationists I met were fighting to defend the rainforest against cattle ranching. In Britain the conservationists are – literally – defending cattle ranching against the rainforest. Britain was once covered by rainforest: woodland wet enough for epiphytes to grow. (Epiphytes are plants which root in the bark of trees). Our closed-canopy rainforest was likely to have been richer in species than any of our remaining habitats. Given half a chance, it would return. But it isn’t given half a chance, even in conservation sites, because conservationists keep clearing the land and running cattle on it, in case the wayward and irresponsible ecosystem does something that isn’t listed in the rules. In doing so, they preserve a burnt, blasted and largely empty land with the delightful ambience of a nuclear winter.

Conservation groups in this country are obsessed by heather. Heather is typical of the vegetation that colonises land which has been repeatedly deforested. You can see similar vegetation – low, scrubby, tough, thriving on burnt ground and depleted soils – covering deforested land all over the tropics. There, the dominance of these plants is lamented by ecologists, for it is rightly seen as a symptom of ecological destruction. Here it is fetishised and preserved.

Even in the Eastern Sheffield Moors management plan, published by the RSPB and the National Trust, “cutting and burning” are listed as the requisite tasks for managing heather(4). Imagine what a tropical ecologist would say if she saw that. “You people have been telling us for decades that we should stop cutting and burning. You’ve been sending us money and lobbying our governments to discourage us from doing it. And all the while you’ve been telling yourselves that cutting and burning are necessary for the protection of wildlife.” If she concluded that we are hypocrites, that we are unambitious, irrational, anally retentive and ecologically illiterate, she would not be far wrong.

The same plan reveals that these two august conservation bodies will maintain cattle on the moors at their current level, but keep them there for longer. “Their grazing and trampling will manage the vegetation in a way which should improve the condition of the habitats and benefit wildlife.”(5) What does this mean? Yes, it might benefit some wildlife, but only at the expense of other species. Yes, it might “improve the condition” of a habitat, if by improvement you mean a better representation of the state of arrested development you’ve chosen. It sounds uncomfortably close to the 19th Century agricultural meaning of “improvement”: which means draining and clearing land to make it more suitable for farming.

It astonishes me to see statements like this left unpacked. Asserted without qualification, they create the impression that all wildlife benefits from management of this kind. Of course, all interventions (including a complete cessation of management), are better for some species than for others. But in my view, the losses inflicted by cattle ranching – here, as in the Amazon – outweigh any gains.

An even starker example is provided by a report commissioned by the RSPB on changing livestock numbers. It contends that “undergrazing and loss of vegetation structure is now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some species such as golden plover and other waders.”(6)

“Undergrazing” is an interesting concept. The report seems to be referring to “undergrazing” by sheep. How can a native ecosystem be undergrazed by an invasive ruminant from Mesopotamia? Is our wildlife underhunted by American mink? Are our verges underinfested by Japanese knotweed?

I would question what undergrazing by any domestic animal means. “Not farmed enough” is what the term appears to signify, “or not sufficiently damaged”. Sure, the golden plover is among a small group of species that benefit from scorched-earth policies, but a far greater number are harmed by them. So why is the golden plover the priority? And how can a report for a conservation organisation blithely use the term undergrazing without qualification or explanation?

Another RSPB report advocates “the eradication of invasive tree species” from the bare uplands of Wales and claims, without citing any evidence or explaining what this means, that “extensive grazing, ideally mixed grazing, is important in maintaining upland pastures in a state that benefits upland birds and other wildlife.”(7)

A document published by the Welsh government revealed something I have never seen in the RSPB’s literature: that the society advises farmers “to cut down trees to discourage buzzards which kill other birds.”(8)

I checked with the RSPB in Wales and it confirmed that it does “at times provide advice to landowners on the management of trees to reduce available vantage points and nest sites for some avian predators.”(9)

Isn’t that more or less what the British government wanted to do to protect pheasant shoots? And didn’t the society contest those efforts?(10)

I wonder whether, in their arbitrary choice of target species and target habitats, British conservationists are influenced by the legacy of hunting. Many of the birds on behalf of which this extreme and brutal simplification of the ecosystem takes place are those which, in the 19th Century, were pursued by gentlemen with guns. Perhaps we should see conservation efforts in Britain as a form of gamekeeping, which regards some of our native species as good and worthy of preservation, and others (such as trees and buzzards) as bad and in need of control.

Sometimes I receive coherent answers from the conservation managers I speak to, which are debatable but at least consistent. Sometimes the only answer I receive is “that’s what the rules say.” But isn’t it time we began to challenge the rules? Isn’t it time we began to question the way sites are designated, and to challenge the ecological blitzkreig required to maintain them in what is laughably called “favourable condition”? Isn’t it time we began asking why we have decided to privilege certain species over others? Isn’t it time we started wondering whether the collateral damage required to support them is worth it?

After all, how did nature cope before we came along? To judge by the actions of British conservation groups, it must have been in a pretty dismal state for the three billion years before humans arrived to look after it.

George Monbiot’s book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is published by Allen Lane.


1. http://www.wildennerdale.co.uk/

2. National Trust and RSPB, 2012. The Eastern Moors Management Plan summary, page 15. Eastern Moors Partnership, Curbar.

3. This, of course, is speculative, as palaeontology gives us few indications of numbers. But the circumstantial evidence seems powerful: the habitat required for breeding populations of these birds, many of which need to nest several hundred metres from the nearest woodland edge to avoid predation, was in short supply. See for example:

NJ Whitehouse and D Smith, 2010. How fragmented was the British Holocene wildwood? Perspectives on the ‘‘Vera’’ grazing debate from the fossil beetle record. Quaternary Science Reviews Vol. 29, nos. 3-4, pp539–553. doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.10.010

FJG Mitchell, 2005. How open were European primeval forests? Hypothesis testing using palaeoecological data. Journal of Ecology Vol. 93, 168–177

JHB Birks, 2005. Mind the gap: how open were European primeval forests? Trends in Ecology & Evolution Vol. 20, pp154-156.

R Fyfe, 2007. The importance of local-scale openness within regions dominated by closed woodland. Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol.22, no. 6, pp571–578. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1078

JC Svenning, 2002. A review of natural vegetation openness in northwestern Europe. Biological Conservation Vol 104: 133-148.

RHW Bradshaw, GE Hannon, AM Lister, 2003. A long-term perspective on ungulate-vegetation interactions. Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 181: 267–280.

4. National Trust and RSPB, 2012, as above, p16.

5. National Trust and RSPB, 2012, as above, p11.

6. http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/Final_Report_tcm9-340975.pdf

7. http://www.assemblywales.org/6_rspb_formatted.pdf

8. Welsh Government, 2010. Glastir: frequently asked questions, Section 13. This document is no longer available on the government site, but you can read it here:  http://www.fuw.org.uk/glastir-faq-miscellaneous.html

9. Emma Roberts, RSPB Wales, 10th August 2011. By email.

10. http://www.rspb.org.uk/media/releases/316283-back-off-our-birds-of-prey


Will leave you with the following picture.

Ennerdale Lake, Cumbria
Ennerdale Lake, Cumbria