• 3 The enigma of 'natural' balance

    Picture: Stanley Jackson and Hannah Dickinson checking Herdwick rams prior to the autumn auctions

    We’ve spoken to a lot of people over the last few months. Two of the big topics we’ve discussed have been Balance and Nature. And this has thrown up a curious question about what ‘nature’ is; and the place that hill farmers have in the overall balance of the Lake District.

    We are discovering various points of view that fall between two extremes. The farmer-centric view ... places farmers at the centre of the action, working outwards from what they know and what they do to manage the land, and considers how they can work best with the land, in a way that does help to maintain biodiversity, commercial success, and the continuation of local culture; while the other places biodiversity and landscape management at the centre and asks farmers to fall into line.

    The second point of view puzzles me: it’s almost as if ‘nature’ involves bio-diversity, varied plant species, wild birds and clean water, yet humans and livestock are on the side line. Depending who I talk to, I sometimes get the impression that the people who work with the land are not being seen as an instrumental part of the equation of ‘natural balance’.

    For Wordsworth, the Lake District was a rural idyll, and for many people it still is. There’s no denying that; and even in the harshest, wettest weather, there is no end to the beauty you can find out on the fells, or in the woods. This truly is an amazing part of the planet. But it is also a lived in landscape and it has, for centuries, been shaped by humans. When you talk about ‘natural balance’ in relation to the Lake District, it seems to me that the men and women who tend it, and live in it, must be considered as an equal part of the equation alongside rare flowers, woodland, clean water production and carbon sinks. The farmers of the Lake District have been working with the land for centuries; they know it intimately, their livelihoods depend on the livestock it can sustain, their souls are fed by its beauty. It’s not just a local thing: across the planet humans have been adapting for centuries and ‘natural balance’ can’t exclude them.

    Before I started the Land Keepers project, I knew very little about farming. I happily wandered over the fells taking in the stunning views, enjoying the challenge of long day walks and waterfall scrambles; I lapped up the chance to take photos, spot wild flowers. But I didn’t have the smallest idea of what it means to work the land, as the hill farmers do. I’m beginning to get more of a sense now of what this entails, of what it is like to be intimately connected to an area that may spread for two or four thousand acres, and know each square foot like the back of your hand. A farmer may know the lineage of each sheep from a flock of hundreds, and the cycles of some plants within a year, or over a decade, and the behaviour of a river through the seasons. His or her connection with the land is in their blood, it’s in their nature; and their place here is part of the natural balance. Discovering how this is perceived, honoured and valued, and supported by local and national policy makers is an aspect of Land Keepers that’s proving to be very interesting indeed.

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