• #26 Rewilding? A Reply

    When I shared a post on facebook this week, showing the ITV news coverage following Monbiot’s talk to Cumbria Commoners, I got a few replies and this seemed a better medium to continue the conversation, so here goes.

    Richard says that surely there must be a point of balance; Rhyddian asks ‘not an advocate of rewilding Harriet?’; and Innis joins the conversation with a very lengthy comment, which I’ll paste here. And then I’ll do my best to answer ...

    “From my researches into sustainable farming systems it appears that grazing animals never improve soil quality or general ecosystem health - throughout the course of history pastoralists have destroyed ecosystems over decades or centuries then moved on to the next patch of land to repeat the cycle. Now we have a hopelessly overpopulated planet, any sensitive use of large-mammal livestock management must be an exercise in damage limitation rather than hoping to maintain soil fertility and ecosystem equilibrium for future generations. We have enough excess wealth from our fossil fuel legacy/borrowing from the future to subsidise the hill farmers for a couple of decades so we have to make a decision as to whether or not we value this tradition. In the mid- long term we are facing systemic collapse of the system subsidising hill farming so in the scheme of things it all pales into insignificance. Hill farmers win = short term fix.

    PS I have no more right to my way of life than the hill farmers and possibly have a greater claim to earth parasitism - I work in carbon management/environmental sector; totally car-dependent; grow 30% of the food I eat.”

    So, to start with Richard, Oh Yes, I do believe there is a place for balance! I have written about this in my piece ‘Enigma of Balance’ which you’ll find on the articles page of this site (just click the link on the nav bar to the left).

    Rhyddian. No, I am not a fan of ‘rewilding’ if this implies widespread removal of sheep from the hills of Cumbria, and with them, the hill farmers. But Yes, I am a fan of ‘rewilding’ sections of land in balance with the presence of humans who work the land: boosting biodiversity and ensuring there is space – a lot of space – in Cumbria for flora and fauna to flourish.

    ‘Rewilding’ is a curious term. A farmer said to me this week that she wanted to ask Monbiot a question last Friday at the meeting: ‘I’ll give you a piece of woodland and a loin cloth and staff; or you can have a shelter a couple of cows and sheep, and a bag of oats. Which would you choose? In Cumbria the choice was made many hundreds of years ago.’ When we talk of ‘rewilding’ what is the ‘re-‘? Does this include people? Cumbria, like most of the UK, has been hand sculpted ever since people arrived here.

    And Innis, well, your words prompt a lengthier reply ...

    Finding balance in these hills is not a simple thing: the act of balancing continues as different elements change, whether these be climate, politics, economics, livestock health or other factors. For the last 1200 or more years, shepherds have been working the hills here and finding a balance that suits them – the louder voices now of the ecologists call for a balance that makes more room for biodiversity.

    Before I go on to the particular points you raise about grazing I wanted to share a little bit about my own journey. I began this project, having my first lengthy conversations with farmers, back in 2011. I hadn’t expected anything more, as a writer, than going on to write about their daily lives and their livestock. Three years later, after countless hours in kitchens, on fells, at shows, meetings and auctions, I have got to know many farmers, and had the great privilege of being able to see the bigger debate from their point of view. In some ways, you could say I am able to look from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. When I am drawn into debates about ‘rewilding’ I find that the other people I talk to are speaking about farmers from the edge of the farmers’ world, bringing into their arguments all kinds of preconceptions and myths. There is also the often inappropriate application of data from models from elsewhere in the country or on the planet to this small patch of land that is called the Lake District; and/or some unwritten expectation that the Lake District ‘should’ be a perfect place to rewild.

    At the centre of the Lake District, where 28% of land is under the care of commoners, are the farmers. I don't think I have ever met a more gentle group of people and I believe this gentleness is something that comes from living in and from the land. I have walked the fells with many shepherds and they have told me about the plants underfoot, the rivers, the weather cycles. They have pointed out to me single trees and talked about them over the years; rocks that have been pushed down the hill by melting snow; cranberries at my feet; blanket bog thriving; and grass that is so thick that it smothers the growth of all else. A single farming family may care for and know intimately, thousands of acres, and often these thousands of acres have been well known by several generations of the same family. This is quite distinct from knowing a flock of sheep that dwell in fenced-in fields. The hill farmers of Cumbria have a rare overview and knowledge of vast swathes of land.

    As you say, you have no more right to your way of life than the farmers do – each one of us has our own lives and find value in our choices, whatever they may be. And this is significant: within the overall picture of ‘biodiversity’ humans do play a part – we are a species. Granted, we are ‘parasitic’ on the earth – but that is a separate debate. In terms of hill farmers it seems that in discussions about the use of the land in Cumbria the voices that tend to be given most prominence are those from the intellectual elite, ecological pin-ups like Monbiot, or champions of biodiversity – this is the current fashion. But what happens is that the debates are often underpinned by an unspoken expectation that farmers can be done to. They are, after all, reliant at present on payments under government stewardship schemes – but it’s important to note here that these schemes are paid in recognition of the role farmers play in supporting and boosting biodiversity (they are set by Natural England). I think the reason that the voice of the hill farmers is quiet is in many ways due to their characteristic humility, and the farming life, which keeps them busy and in their individual valleys. It is others who speak up for them, such as the Federation of Cumbria Commoners, or the Foundation for Common Land. And we have unexpectedly found myself in a position where we are speaking up for them too – as we did in the Telegraph last weekend. This has grown, quite simply, out of my personal experience with farmers over the last three years, the deep respect we have developed for them and the friendships we have formed.

    A word on grazing. I have met many farmers who know by observation, and have told me of studies that have shown, that on certain areas of land when grazing animals are completely removed the diversity of the bird population declines. The entire system is integrated and if you take away one piece of the puzzle, everything else alters. A peer reviewed scientific paper published in this February through PLOSONE relates to the UK and the benefits of measured grazing: ‘Mixed Grazing Systems Benefit Both Upland Biodiversity and Production’. Also, if you are not already aware of the philosophy of Allan Savory it might interest you – In this TED talk he demonstrates how controlled grazing supports fertility and can be a powerful tool to repair land that has become barren. (His theories are not drawn from the Cumbrian hills).

    If you were to take farmers off the land there would be other knock-on effects. Would there be paid or volunteer workers coming into the area in polluting cars or buses to keep mend walls and tend hay meadows? If there’s no concern for keeping walls here, and the aim is just to leave the entire uplands to ‘wild’, that involves a clearance of culture and people that would rob the land itself, not just the human culture, of a richness. This would be deeply sad. We as humans must live in symbiosis with the land, whatever our jobs or personal politics or beliefs ... And most hill farmers do that very well, tending their sheep, their hay meadows, their walls, hedges, rivers, woodland and moorland. When looking for balance I firmly believe that their voices and views need to be heard and respected. And it’s important to note, finally, that the Lake District National Park Authority, Natural England, United Utilities, Friends of the Lake District and the National Trust each has, on paper at least, a policy that states that their vision includes supporting the continuation of the hill farming culture.

    That’s it for now, thank you for reading.


    • 1. Mar 17 2014 6:09PM by Rhyddian Knight

      Thanks for clarifying your position Harriet. I agree, the last thing we need is to exclude more people from the landscape; god knows there's enough of that that's gone on over the eyars. Hill Farmers aren't the threat, but then again neither is George Monbiot.... Since when does a care for environment get pitted against the tenders of the land themselves? As for the Farming Industry... well let's face it, ergonomically; we are doomed. Fighting amongst ourselves isn't going to solve that.

      Not being a local myself (I live in an upland area in the Central Highlands) I'm not sure if i can comment on how farmers contribute to biodiversity or what they teach at Newton Rigg agricultural college these days. I do know from talking to some wallers and hedgelayers in Westmorland that traditional skills which maintained habitats and linear features have now given way to mechanisation. I wonder how many of (y)our traditional skills are being passed on by old to new hands? Hands are often tied I suppose; especially to the banks and the ministry.

      On a lighter note, i spoke to a friend about all the perrenial edible seed he's been broadcasting and planting on top of various fells in the lake district for years. He described himself as an 'ecological terrorist' ... & was partly what inspired me to write this... http://www.rhyddianknight.net/2014/03/tenders-on-the-edge-anthropogenic-mycelial-islands-for-future-foragers/ Seems we are both musing on different types of landkeepers! All the best Harriet; hope to see you again this year.

    • 2. Mar 17 2014 6:31PM by Rhyddian Knight

      There's a theme developing here about landscape formed by indiginous knowledge being mistaken for natural history. Over the border...

      “The so-called ‘Wild Land’ of South Uist has been occupied, managed, altered, built on and farmed by island residents for thousands of years. Calling it an untouched wilderness disparages the long history of island living and imposes a romanticised and erroneous external construct on this community that will perpetuate the economic decline of the island economy. […] Much of Scotland was once designated as land fit only for sheep, which resulted in the Clearances. If Scotland continues to be designated as fit for nothing but conservation, a new clearance of rural Scotland will take place.”

      Hope this helps the debate....

      (Ref: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/03/12/whose-land-is-it-anyway/ )

    • 3. Mar 20 2014 1:09PM by somewherenowhere

      Thanks Rhyddian for taking the time to write, and sorry there's a delay in reply. Good to be talking about this and yes, landkeepers come in all different shapes, sizes, persuasions etc. Meeting up sometime soon would be great! I will follow your link, and will make sure to create time to sit with your piece and read it with due attention.

    • 4. Mar 20 2014 1:14PM by somewherenowhere

      ... and I have been reading John Lister-Kaye's 'Song of the Rolling Earth' where he talks about the natural history of Scotland. Again, I will follow up on your link, sounds interesting. For myself, I have to say that I enjoy it when, in Cumbria, I experience a blend of indigenous knowledge alongside the abundance of natural growth of woodlands, grasses, moorland etc. I don't think it is a case of either/or. Take care and see you when you're next in Cumbria I hope.

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