• #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.



  • # 25 George Monbiot, Value and Balance

    On Friday last week we sat with around 80 farmers to listen to George Monbiot speak at the AGM of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners. I heard he had been nervous the night before – indeed he opened his talk by saying that when he woke up he did consider jumping on a train and heading back down south. But, to his credit, he’s open to debate and open to discussion, and he stood up and shared his views. He didn’t start well, with his (now frequently quoted) phrases about the Lake District looking like a post-apocalyptic landscape, sheep-wrecked and depressing. But he soon steered his talk away from utter negativity by emphasising that he wasn’t calling for all farmers to take sheep off the fells or asking anyone to do anything they didn’t want to ...

    What puzzles me is that George Monbiot even is, or thinks he is, in a position to call for anyone to do anything. He is an ecologist and a much respected one, and has a considerable amount of knowledge. He is not, though, a policy maker or a landlord, but somehow his voice in the debate regarding the place and value of sheep farming in the Cumbrian uplands has become disproportionately loud.

    Monbiot shares his view that eco-tourism would be far more lucrative than sheep farming, and farmers should be given proper incentives to do this – something he sees as a real choice. I can say with certainty that there are very few farmers out there who’d prefer to sit back and tend hotels for tourists. One joked on facebook that he’s not here to farm tourists. I would also say that eco-tourism is not long-term sustainable. Quite apart from either of these arguments, Monbiot’s logical reductions completely miss the consideration that a human being, or a community of human beings, might have passion for what they do, knowledge of the land and stock, and a deep even spiritual connection with the land; or what these qualities lend to the local and national community and landscape. He seems to think in terms of pounds and euros.

    To his credit, Monbiot admitted that he knows very little about Cumbrian hill farming (although this didn’t stop him from suggesting the best way to live in and work this landscape). Apart from his observations of the land here, his arguments are based on ‘facts’ he has gathered in connection to research in Wales and reflections on what has happened in the Amazon. He said he would like to learn more – I say why not come here and spend a year, or more, with one or more farmers, and see how it FEELS to be in and with this land; and get to know the land at least enough to have a more realistic context for his ideals of wilderness and rewilding.

    Julia Aglionby, Dave Smith, George Monbiot, Will Benson, Will Rawling: open debate

    Monbiot also said that he would be keen to see farmers learning more from him. Unfortunately, he told us, he has a tendency to rub people up the wrong way so I’m not sure this would work. But his call for mutual exchange of information is a valiant one, and it’s not the first. This is already happening between commoners and representatives from Natural England, Friends of the Lake District and other bodies. In fact, right there in that room, after Monbiot had left, Pete Leeson from the Woodland Trust and Hannah Dickinson, from Brockstones farm started talking about getting together to discuss the kind of tree planting that will work best for her (she has to plant 3000 trees as part of her stewardship agreement). Pete told me that he’s really busy – and word is spreading as he works with one farmer, and then the neighbours ask to meet him. This is one kind of partnership that is really beginning to show results.

    I don’t think we need provocative or extremist views from people like Monbiot to bring about change. Thanks are due to him, for coming and facing a community that he had angered – they welcomed him cordially. And do you know what? Underneath all the journalistic wrangling and the occasional tongue wagging about his views, few farmers really spend much time thinking about George. What’s of greater value is for the farmers’ voices and views to be heard more widely and if there is anything Monbiot has been good for, even if this is entirely the opposite of what he has intended, it is that he has raised awareness of the hill farmers and their value.

    On this subject, it was well timed perhaps that the article Rob and I put together for the Telegraph 'Hill Farmers Fighting for their Livelihoods' came out the day after we met with Monbiot. I wonder if he’ll read it and think back to the faces and passion of the farmers he met on Friday.




  • # 24 Exhibition at Wordsworth Trust

    The launch of the Land Keepers exhibition drew in more than 200 people - a busy day and a great chance to catch up with so many of the people who have helped make Land Keepers what it is, and share the photographs and words that have resulted from the last couple of years work. We've also got display cases showing items generously lent to us by Hannah Dickinson, including old flock books, rosettes and clipping shears, and some of Harriet's notebooks.

    We've since taken several school groups around the exhibition, and hear that there's a steady flow of visitors. The comments book is filling up, and so is the list of email addresses (enter your name here and you're in with a chance of winning an original piece of art from the exhibition). It's in place at the Wordsworth Museum until May 10th. The exhbition will then tour Cumbria, and head down to London, but it will never be as complete as it is now in Grasmere.



  • 23 Marking the Tups

    Anthony makes it look easy, but getting hold of this massive ram, and keeping it still while slapping on the raddle is something that takes years of practice. He'll do this every other day over the next two weeks, so that each time the ram (or 'tup') moutns a ewe, her back end will be marked yellow. The ram has over fifty ewes to tip ...



  • 22 Up and down and up again ...

    It's about one o'clock in the afternoon. I'm sitting on the fell above Seathwaite looking across to the snow sprinkled range of Scafell, Scafell Pike and Great End. The light on the lower fells lies golden in the dry bracken, and a couple of hundred ewes in the rough and sloping inbye beside us bray and bleat as they settle in. I'm eating a couple of pieces of chocolate regaining some energy - we've brought these ewes in over the last three hours, running over moss and stone, up and down gullies and covering a vast area of moor and fellside that are part of the land farmed from Turner Hall.

    Anthony Hartley, whose farm it is, and Andrew, who has been working on this farm for twenty years, have worked tirelessly today each with their three dogs, to coax ewes down the hill. Rob and I have been running around with them, and often after them, occasionally helping out by blocking the route for any sheep that might fancy heading back up the hill, instead of moving downwards.

    Anthony and Andrew are relaxed, savouring a warm cup of tea and quietly taking in the view. This is a perfect early winter’s day – crystal clear blue sky and a sun that’s warm enough to take the edge off the freezing breeze. Already, though, the sun is dipping behind the hills and there’s a feel of evening creeping in.

    I ask Anthony how we've done this morning. ‘We’ve got about half,' he says. I smile, taking it that he’s quite happy with the morning’s work. I did see some sheep higher up on the craggy hill tops when I was walking with Andrew, and he had said ‘ we'll get then next time ...’ When Anthony says 'we'll go back up there now and get them,’ I realise that next time is today. All the gathers I’ve done in the past have been done within 4 hours, maximum 5, but today we’re heading back out. I classify that as two gathers in one day and feel surprised, but, as with every visit I make to a farm, I learn something new. Today, it’s important to go back up – the sheep that didn’t come in this morning need to fetched before they spread out again. When farmers talk about gathering in the sheep, they mean getting all the sheep in from the higher ground to the low ground. This may mean two journeys up and round in one day; and up to six days may be needed to gather in the entire flock.

    Now we need to head up again onto the ridge leading to Dow Crag, and cover all the land behind it, including Blind Tarn and beyond. In the morning, with Anthony on the quad bike and Andrew on foot, we covered what must have been hundreds of hectares. And now we’re going to run over even more. I hadn’t realised just how large the area of land connected with Turner Hall is, or how much effort it takes to gather the sheep in. In figures, the common land falling under Anthony’s care is around 4800 hectares. What that looks like in reality is a massive sweep of high mountains covering an area whose edges you can’t see all at once, where ever you stand. There are high mountain tops, wide backs and spiny ridges, steep crags and scree slopes, gullies full of loose stone, tarns of cold black water, quarries, bogs and wooded areas. The height of this land varies from 300 metres, where the fell wall marks the inbye land from the common, to over 800 metres at the highest points. It’s enough land to keep a fell walker happy for at least a week; enough land to need 6 or more trips, each of 3-4 hours, for Anthony and Andrew to bring in the farm’s flock. With more people, it may be done more quickly, with only one, it’s just not possible.

    After our short rest we remount the quad bike and swerve and bump up the Walna Scar track to the tip of Buck Pike. Anthony and Andrew pull one dog each onto their laps – the ones that have tired already from the morning’s work. From buck Pike, Anthony sets off on foot up towards Dow Crag and then scurries down the severe scree-covered drop on the east face of the hill, with Rob in pursuit (laden with camera gear). I watch as they separate, Rob now with the task of driving a small packet of ewes towards Blind Tarn while Anthony runs back and forth with his three dogs to fetch stragglers from far away.

    Andrew sets off on the quad to cover the high ground (the ridges here are wide and easy to cover) and I walk on, spotting sheep for Andrew, occasionally blocking their path, and generally taking it in. My path, from Buck Pike down to Brown Pike and up again to White Maiden and White Pike follows a broad flat path, but I leave it frequently to stand on outcrops and look down the sides for sheep that Andrew may reach, and to the shepherds on the scree slopes below. Rob and Anthony make good headway even though the ground is tough underfoot – the names of the land like Blind Tarn and Dropping Crag betray its qualities and I know how tricky it can be to move fast in this terrain and am repeatedly impressed by the shepherds’ ability to move smoothly, quickly and confidently.

    Soon other figures appear beyond Rob and Anthony: the Inman brothers are gathering their flock from the same common and will drive them back down to their farm in the Coniston valley. There are whoops and whistles and coordination as the shepherds work to get the right sheep into the right place. By the time the Turner Hall flock is gathered loosely together we’re back within site of the Duddon Valley, and the sun has dipped into low clouds just above the flat waters of Morecambe bay which shimmers in the south.

    Andrew urges the sheep through a single gate into the inbye land. Here they’ll stay for a couple of days before being put to the tup. Anthony and Andrew will prepare the ewes by cutting away the excess fleece on their tails, and choose carefully which ewes he puts to which tup. We’ll be heading back on Monday to witness the tups being marked with strong colours so they mark the ewes they tip, and then being set among the flock to do their job. It’s the start of the shepherd’s year and the most important part: getting the tupping right, knowing the blood line is strong, and caring for the ewes and rams right now sets the flock and the farmer up for the year ahead.


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  • 21 At Glencoyne

    The clouds have been pressing down heavy on the fell tops, rain has been hammering the leaves from the trees, and Ullswater is rising and pressing at the edges of roads and fields. But it didn’t stop me from getting to Glencoyne today, on the west side of Ullswater, to meet up with Sam and Candida Hodgson, and their apprentice, Lizzy Weir.

    They share a joke while looking at the tups in the field between the farmhouse and the lake shore (the joke is either about a tup, or about Sam’s concern that I’m taking a picture and he hasn’t shaved). We’re all watching ‘the Lion’, a strong tup with a thick and bushy fleece that is thickest around his jowels and chest - it looks like a mane. He’s an eight shear that came originally from Turner Hall: one of Anthony Hartley's fine rams. One of the younger tups striding alongside him was sired by this Lion, and it shows in his gait.

    The Hodgsons know their sheep well, like any of the stockmen in the Lakes. As we watch the tups stomping on the wet grass they talk about each one’s characteristics and laugh at the origins of some of their names. Inside one of the barns, two Swaledale tups are in quarantine, having just arrived from the sale rooms in Kirkby Stephen. They stand proud and look straight at you – Candida says they know they’re good. One of them is the grandson of a tup the Hodgsons sold several years ago: just goes to show how a good blood line can keep producing strong rams.

    The wellbeing and quality of the stock are at the heart of what the Hodgsons do here at Glencoyne. But caring for the land is equally important: they believe that keeping the land in a good state is part of what it means to be a hill farmer. They don’t diversify in the usual sense of the word – no B&B here, no cafe or holiday houses – but, Sam says, their diversification is in caring for the land, and they do it as best as they can, in conjunction with the HLS agri-environment scheme delivered by Natural England. And it works well for them.

    ‘Since we came here,’ says Sam, ‘we've always tried to be farmers sympathetic to the landscape, that's how we work. And it's important, is people's perception of what you do. We're hill farmers with a slight bent towards the environment and it’s good to feel as if you're wanted - in the past you've not always thought you're wanted, different governments, a brush of a pen and they can affect whole income streams. That's the nice thing about Natural England, I think they want us, and when they appreciate what you're doing, that is even better ...’

    I spent the afternoon with Sam, Candida and Lizzy, and as they talked to me about their sheep and the way the landscape around them has reacted to changes, I felt no shortage of appreciation. It’s clear they are blending sensitivity to the environment and sensitivity to their stock in their day-to-day work on the farm. I was interested to hear about the way heather is flowering and sensitive plants are thriving, even woodland is regenerating, on areas where grazing is low, and about areas where grazing has been excluded. Ten years, says Candida, is not that long in the grand scheme of things, and they are fortunate that their farm is large enough to adapt to changes in land use. Sam and Candida assure me that sheep and natural biodiversity can, and do, go together if the shepherding is done right.

    As we sat drinking tea in the kitchen, warmed by the AGA, we talked about wild flowers and hawthorns, regeneration of woodland, how sheep behave among the trees, the impact of cattle on the ground and, of course, the quality of the sheep and the stories that run through generations of ewes and rams. And Lizzy shared her passion for hill farming and herdwicks. She’s happy doing the apprenticeship, and may well be one of the fell farmers of the future. On her course, there’s almost a 50-50 split amongst students between those who come from a hill-farming background and those who do not – and if they have anything near the interest and acumen of Lizzy, that’s good news for the fells in the future.

    I left Glencoyne feeling positive, reminded that farming is not, at its core, about politics. Though it may be affected by politics, it is driven by the engine that is the farmers who get up each morning to look after their stock, and the land they depend on.

    Here's a link to a walk around the farm, from the National Trust



  • Hefted

    Hill farmers in Cumbria carry a deep knowledge of the land, including the weather, the flocks, the behaviour of rivers, bogs and birds and the passing of the seasons. And with this comes a sense of belonging, something that grows from close contact with the land, every day, whatever the weather, and from one generation to the next.

    Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, puts it very clearly. ‘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. And the level of commitment again is rare. They are deeply aware of what has gone into creating this landscape, how walls and fences are structured, how different bits of ground work, exactly when you separate the yows from the lambs, exactly how many yows you can put on this or that field, what condition you’re expecting the grass to be in before you do any of these things ... That’s the core.'

    The hill sheep in Cumbria also know their land, particularly the Herdwicks. They are said to be 'hefted'to the land, and this is something that helps them thrive. As they graze on the commons, where there are vast expanses of open land without walls or fences, they stick to their own 'heft'. Sheep from more than one flock may graze the same common, yet stick to their patch. Hefting also involves learning where to find shelter, where to find good grazing, and where to go for lambing (although most sheep are now gathered into the lower fields for lambing). Young lambs become hefted with the guidance of their mothers each spring.

    Hefting is not a word that is easily translated. Perhaps it is most easily understood by being out on the fells with the sheep and the shepherds, by spending time with the shepherds through the farming year. It is a word that seems to apply as much to the hill farmers as it does to their sheep, and has been wonderfully captured in a film by Tom Lloyd. You can watch the Dreamtime film by following the link below - you won't be disappointed.

    Hefted, A Dreamtime Film by Tom Lloyd


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