• George Monbiot and the Depressing Lake District

    Last week we were lucky to be blessed by warm, dry days for a four day walk in the hills around Buttermere and Borrowdale. While we were out and about enjoying the views, some pretty strong views were being shared in the national media: George Monbiot published an article in the Guardian that described the Lake District as the most 'depressing' place in the country, 'sheepwrecked' - 'devastated'. For him, sheep are the 'white plague' and have no place on these fells.

    So, does he have a point? His wish for the fells to be wooded from valley to summit (something that geologists suggest may have been the case in Mesolithic times) and free of sheep might appeal to some environmentalists. But it is like a red rag to the farming community here, and to others including the Lake District National Park Association and Friends of the Lake District who are striving to establish a balance in this landscape for the variety of demands placed on it - including both shepherding and biodiversity of plants (and extending to carbon capture, access for leisure, and provision of good quality water for the millions of people in the conurbations of the northwest).

    This challenge of creating a system that meets all of these needs is ongoing. The issue with sheep, though, is that it is not just about meat and food security - it also concerns the culture of Cumbria's farming communities and the heritage of this region of the UK. On this point, Monbiot is right to draw attention to the conflict between the persistence of this culture and the provision of environmental services; he is right to state that the conflict is there, and there's no gain to be made from pretending otherwise. But he does seem to be missing a huge part of the picture in his rash and aggressive scapegoating of sheep and the people who tend them: humans are part of nature, and we sculpt the land around us according to our needs. This is the same whether you go to London, to the forests of Scotland or to Cumbria - the land does not remain static and there is a symbiosis between man and land. Human culture has a value alongside biodiversity and there must surely be a way that both can – and should – thrive. In the Lake District, the culture is marked by generations of farmers:

    There’s a sense of permanence and a sense of commitment in a world where everybody else is highly mobile, slipping in and out of jobs, changing place, changing role. It’s a very rare part of society. I’m worried that in thirty, forty years time, we will not have farmers living on our fells, or very, very few.’ These words came from Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, who is passionately in support of farming in Cumbria being supported to continue in balance with other demands.

    The place of man within the land, in the particular fashion that suits local topography, is important, precious even. Julia Aglionby, from the Foundation for Common Land, shared her view on the importance of staying connected when we met her earlier this year: ‘Man’s relationship with the environment is critical to our spiritual wellbeing, because we are part of the landscape, we are a species. Often we see ourselves as separate, as disconnected.’ To follow on from her point, the more disconnected we become, the less we are able to work with the land – it may be seductive for Londoners to come on a ‘break’ and enjoy peace and quiet and the absence of city-type concerns, but for those who live in the countryside, nurturing and keeping the connection with the land seems very important.

    It's imperative to engage with figures such as Monbiot as we consider the balance of nature and culture in this national park - just as people such as Richard Leafe (LDNPA CEO) did on Newsnight; as James Rebanks has (as he campaigns to establish the Lake District national park as a world heritage site); and Julia Aglionby (from Foundation for Common Land). This is a big question and one that is worthy of opening to debate but without outlandish statements, such as Monbiot’s suggestion that the Lake District could win the title for ‘Britain’s worst kept countryside’.

    When we began to plan Land Keepers more than two years ago we set out with an intention to celebrate the value of farming here in the national park. As time has passed we have realised the strength of the culture of farming and its ties to the land, and the conundrum of balance. There is no place for extreme views - on either side - but the debate will continue. And it needs to take account of the ways in which farmers are working with conservation agencies, such as the Woodland Trust, Eden Rivers Trust, and Friends of the Lake District. There are many layers to the bigger picture.

    The Land Keepers exhibition in February at the Wordsworth Trust will be a showcase for the culture of farming, and a space for the debate to continue. We’ll be winding up our thoughts and bringing together the views of the people we have spoken to, from farmers to National Park executives, from the National Trust to United Utilities and Natural England – we may even have a word or two from Prince Charles.

    1 Comment

    • 1. Oct 15 2013 10:23AM by somewherenowhere

      This blog post was shared via facebook (on the somewhere nowhere page) and received a lot of interest. Here's the comment thread that followed.

      Rachael Clyne

      Monbiot seems to thrive on winding people up in a clever sort of way


      Clever - articulate. But blinkered/short-sighted. Anyway, the positive side, I guess, is at least the stimulation of debate. And the more people who join in to counter rants and reveal agendas, the better.

      Fiona Russell Well, he seems to think he's being clever. Others differ on that point!

      Rachael Clyne

      I suppose I meant clever in the ironic cleverclogs sort of way

      Fiona Russell

      Yes, exactly Rachael. There is so much to this debate that GM is not airing, or possibly even considering in his drive to achieve a 'rewilding.'


      Yes, it is a challenge that crops up worldwide and finding a balance is no simple matter - there are no quick answers. It is a question of 'multiple truths' and many needs, both locally and internationally. It doesn't feel right, yet, to give up on the question for balance and a search for sustainable living and the co-existence of biodiversity and rich human culture. It's good that the debate is live and kicking.

      Rachael Clyne

      indeed not, I fail to see why he keeps vilifying sheep quite so much as if we were talking centuries past and now we have the added dangers of a radioactive pacific on our plates which we are sleepwalking into. Meanwhile apparently Monsanto's shares are diving and long may they dive. It's hard to accept that there are duds on our own side, never clearcut them and us is it?


      No Rachael, not as simple as 'them' and 'us' or 'black and white'. There are so many issues of land and sustainability that are concerning, and the ideal is to have debate, with open minds on all 'sides' with due consideration of the knowledge that is being acquired by today's scientists as well as people who know their local environments well and have watched the patterns, and the changes, for decades, and through generations.

      Andreas Kornevall

      precisely the same argument of cultural landscapes can be had in South America, and Africa, and many other places - whose beef cattle, or goats are eating every scrap, and where the rainforests are decimated and the large fauna on the brink of extinction. Before we start looking at how the Lions, Tigers, and Rhinos are driven to extinction, we have to look at what we have done to our own landscape. Where is the lynx in the pastures of the lake District? I believe in balance with wilderness, and this is where rewilding has an importance in our ecological impoverished age. When you look at those fell mountains, there is absolutely not any sign of balance - the wild has been shot and in exile, we have to consider what the implications are for that and George Monbiot brings this to the forefront. A cultural landscape is all very well, and should always have a place, but not to the point where we rid the Earth of all big fauna, as we have done in the UK. Hardly a vision to share with the rest of the world I am afraid.


      Andreas Kornevall - we did reply to this when you posted but somehow it has disappeared. Thank you for commenting and sharing your views. Yes, it is all about balance. The more detail we go into in the course of the Land Keepers project, the more we find out about the attempts by environmental agencies, land owners and farmers to work towards balance. It is like a holy grail, but not something to give up on yet! The current situation is not either-or, it's not black and white, and with some careful planning, cooperation and open consultations, there is a place for sensitive hill farming to thrive alongside sensitive conservation so that the land can deliver all that we ask of it, including wildness, pleasure, water, leisure, food, culture ... and a future.

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