Karen Lloyd is the author of Abundance: Nature in Recovery, published by Bloomsbury in September 2021, and the award-winning author of The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay and The Blackbird Diaries, both published by Saraband. She is an environmental activist and produced and edited the Curlew Calling Anthology to raise funds for curlew conservation. She is Lancaster University’s ‘Literature, Landscape and Environment’ scholar and ‘Future Places’ Writer in Residence. Twitter: @karenlloydwrite
In the opening lines of his Guide to the Lake District of 1810, William Wordsworth wrote that he intended it for those possessed of a ‘taste, and feeling for landscape,’ and whose attention recognises the beauty to which the area can justifiably lay claim. Some thirty years previously the Jesuit priest Thomas West published his guide; one in which a new breed of tourists (denied access to the Grand Tour of Europe thanks to the French Revolution) were instructed to visit a series of ‘viewing stations’ where West operated like an eighteenth-century Trip Advisor contributor. Once in place at each designated station, taking their Claude, or ‘landscape mirror‘ from their pockets, West instructed tourists to turn their backs on the landscape and instead to view it through the mirror itself. The kinds of questions I’m interested in are about how we should situate beauty and taste against restoration and repair from the viewing station of the Anthropocene.
In July 2017, the Lake District was granted World Heritage Status (WHS) under the ‘cultural landscapes’ category. What this designation actively sought to do was to preserve the landscape, locking it into a particular state of evolution on the basis of its aesthetic and cultural values alone. It is useful to remind ourselves then, that although the bid document emphasises that the landscape is in a ‘harmonious’ state, it also states – assertively less obviously – that the Lake District uplands are in poor condition. Pursued by a highly active minority (The Lake District National Park, the National Trust, the Foundation for Common Land and more agencies still whose agenda was to boost tourism (oh god; please) and to maintain traditional ways of managing the land through sheep grazing. This preservation status now causes nightmare scenarios for those charged with bolstering the uplands against the loss of soils and attempting to do something at least to boost dwindling biodiversity.
We have known for some time that the uplands have been stripped of their inherent biodiversity, and that increased rainfall is leading to the serious – and irreparable – erosion of soils. What I want to know therefore, is what does it mean to preserve a landscape widely recognised to have impacted negatively on wider biodiversity and where the impacts of climate chaos are already deeply and repeatedly felt.
The 2019 State of Nature report demonstrates that the abundance and distribution of the UK’s species has, on average, declined since 1970 by 60% and that this decline has continued throughout the most recent decade. ‘There has been no let-up in the net loss of nature in the UK.’ Furthermore, the report also suggests that a quarter of UK mammals and nearly half of the birds assessed are at risk of extinction. This goes some way to explain when in my twenties, I’d set off into the hills in anticipation of seeing amazing wildlife, but mostly all that was on offer were corvids, a few meadow pipits and in the summer months the odd wheatear flitting amongst the boulders. And I didn’t understand why. Most of us would not have understood why. These days though, we are furnished with more than enough knowledge to fill in the gaps. We know we are in in the middle of an environmental disaster. We know we are losing biodiversity on a dangerous scale. We also know that the web of inter-related life of the Lake District’s uplands has been blown apart through the single, continuous actions of sheep grazing due to the long-term creation of a uniform carpet of grass that lacks structure and the associated biodiversity. I read online that a fifth of the nations of the Earth’s ecosystems are in danger of collapse, yet we are still to agree that the ecosystem of the Lakes collapsed some time ago.
For wildlife to thrive in the Lake District – as in many other key areas of largescale habitat degradation such as the Scottish uplands – the key element is the loss of flowers. This gross loss of pollen and nectar has driven invertebrate numbers down nationally, and the Lakes is no different. Think of it; the loss of 97% of flowering hay and flood meadows: the loss of most areas of unimproved grassland able to flower and seed: the loss of flowering ledge vegetation and colossal losses of flowering scrub on the moorland edge: decades of loss of relatively short-lived species such as rowan, birch, cherry, bird cherry, crab apple, blackthorn, aspen and willow – species that support thousands of invertebrates. Hawthorn is often the only remnant of this rich cohort due to its longevity – a species that can live for around 400 years. When such lone individuals are encountered in the Lake District uplands – what we have come to think of as iconic trees – actually represent the loss of habitat on an immense scale.
Shifting Baseline syndrome has entered mainstream narratives – the idea that we simply don’t see species dying away – the ground nesting birds once common on farmland before the era of the big machines and sileaging got going: the fertilisers that put paid to the invertebrates: (you see, as John Muir indicated, everything is connected,) the warblers and swifts and swallows for whom an ever-decreasing insect biomass increasingly means insufficiencies of the food necessary to raise a brood. It is no surprise then that in the Lake District these losses increased exponentially in the 1970’s at a time when headage payments incentivised farmers to put more and more sheep out on their land and on the common grazings of the uplands.
But here’s the thing. The plants (I like to think of them as tiny Jodrell Banks whose sensors are locked onto the planet’s position in space, to light and warmth) lie dormant in the earth, and if and when grazing pressure is reduced, back they all come, those tenacious givers of food for pollinators. Make no mistake; if and when, the restoration of biodiversity is absolutely achievable. And yet, if you are concerned about all this and you want to do your bit and are fortunate enough to be in a position to be able to do so, should you want to plant trees and scrub in the remit of the WH site, then I’m afraid to say that the WH administrators need to assess your application, and if they believe that your plans conflict with their particular way of looking at the landscape, they will object. To say this is worrying is like saying ‘that’s a bit hot’ when pouring water from the kettle into your mug, you pour it over your hand instead.
I should lay lay my cards on the table here and say that I am decidedly not anti- farmer. I grew up in South Cumbria amongst farming relations and friends and know very well what a committing and hard life it is. I still have many farming friends – but they tend to be people who have recognised the urgency of the situation. And actually, I feel that we have wronged our farming communities by a) allowing things to go this far wrong, and b) to not have the balls to have conversations with them about why exactly change has to happen. And to the older farmer who called those of us who are deeply concerned about our children’s futures ‘doom sayers’ at a meeting about the end of subsidies and what this means for hill farmers, and that went unchallenged by the host, I say, let’s sit down in the farm kitchen and have that mug of tea, (taking care with the hot water of course) and even though I’m no expert on farming, we can chat about the kinds of futures we hope are possible.
Yet we cannot avoid the fact that hill farmers have been in receipt of specific subsidies the purpose of which is to help keep them afloat in an otherwise unprofitable market. And fair enough – if the big guys upstairs offer – which of us would have refused? But we now understand that thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy farmers have for decades been politically and economically disincentivised from maintaining a relationship with wildlife. New payment systems (ELMS) involving payment for environmental benefits will come on stream from 2024. This, we know, is an opportunity for that relationship – and for all our relationships – to be re-imagined and restored. It is not yet clear if the nation will grasp this opportunity.
Just two years prior to the WH inscription, one of the most devastating weather events ever recorded in the UK, Storm Desmond, lay waste to vast swathes of Cumbria, Lancashire and Southern Scotland before calling in on Yorkshire too. Over 5,000 homes became uninhabitable in Cumbria alone. Kendal – where I live – was the hardest hit, though this was not reported at the time – because the press couldn’t get into the town. Over 150 roads were washed away, including the A591 – the main arterial route through the central lakes – when a mountainside collapsed underneath the weight of rain, blocking the road for 9 months and leaving workers and school children in Grasmere no other alternative than a 150-mile round-trip commute to work and school each day in Keswick. Hundreds of bridges were trashed as over 15 trillion litres of rain fell on the area in 24 hours. I don’t know how to imagine that much rain. I can only imagine it because I was present at the time. You may think, well; this is all some time ago, so why bang on about it now. But consider for a moment the communities of Pooley Bridge on Ullswater, whose replacement bridge opened in October 2020 after five and a half years of no bridge after the original had collapsed into the River Eamont on that fateful day. So yes, actually, here, now, in the eye of the Anthropocene, the way rain behaves and therefore the way landscapes are managed are both pivotal aspects of the ways we experience, look at, think about, imagine and reimagine the Lake District.
Worry not, the World Heritage folks say! Since the WH inscription, (whether we make use of our Claude mirrors or not) we can delight in the Lakes as a cultural landscape shaped by sheep farming and further shaped through the prism of our literary and cultural forebears – Wordsworth, the Romantics and Beatrix Potter et al. But what does a ‘cultural’ and ‘harmonious’ landscape need to look like in an age of disastrous biodiversity loss and extreme weather events? In its implicit denial of there being even a hint of a problem, what the Lakes’ WHS does is to behave as a giant roving eyeball floating above our landscape but choosing not to look at the evidence staring the rest of us in the face. It is, in other words, in deep and troubling denial. There is an overwhelming bias for culture over wildlife.
Let us not forget that Wordsworth was the original conservationist. When, in his Guide, he imagines standing on a cloud above Rydal to describe how the Lake District valley’s radiate outwardly from the centre like the spokes of a wheel, and if we imagine him there now, watching the silver stream of thousands of cars pouring incessantly past Dove Cottage on their way to a car park that is, by now, full anyway, I think he would wag his finger at us and say, ‘Shame on you!’ As well as an illustrator and farmer, Beatrix Potter was also a scientist and pragmatist. It is my belief that both Wordsworth and Potter, were they able, would say of World Heritage, ‘Not in my name.’
So what do I want to do about this? Right here, right now (Covid travel permitting of course) I want to extend the hand of friendship amidst our shared concern for our children’s futures (because I’m guessing these folks are also concerned about their childrens’ futures) to the high-ups in World Heritage and UNESCO. And what I want to do is to invite them to come over from Europe and accompany me and some of my conservationist pals on an alternative tour of the Lake District. And to make sure we’re being as sustainable as we possibly can be (despite the as yet un-evident cohesive strategy for sustainable transport – sustainable anything, actually – in the Lake District National Park) we’ll hop onto one of the open top buses that ply the central Lakes routes from Kendal, come sunshine or Biblical rain. I’ll suggest that we begin by looking at the environmental destruction taking place along three miles of the River Kent in Kendal in order to build a concrete flood scheme that is supposed to defend the town against more extreme flood events, but that at the cost of over £76 million, even the Environment Agency have said will not protect homes and businesses against another Storm Desmond. I will show them where over 550 mature riparian trees are being ripped out to make way for these concrete walls and how the attendant ecosystem is being laid waste as a result because we forgot how the uplands can and should be an intrinsic part of natural flood protection. And on the bus, (it is raining now; well, summer in the Lake District, umbrellas up, waterproofs on) as the landscape slips past we can talk about and explore and share our ideas about what a cultural landscape needs to look like in the Anthropocene. We can look through our binoculars at the uplands and see and understand how yes of course, sheep grazing and its attendant infrastructure of dry-stone walls and inbye land is a form of culture, but we can also be clear that once the soils are washed away, that’s curtains for landscape restoration anyway.
We can hop off at some of the places that are under restoration, such as the Vale of Rydal in Wordsworth Central where farming families have been generously incentivised under Natural England schemes to restore wood-pasture, and for local contractors to do the donkey work of planting trees and scrub. On Ullswater we can call in on the Beaumont family at Gowbarrow Hall Farm who have turned traditional hill farming on its head and are restructuring the soils through cycles of mob-grazing with hardy cattle alternating with resting the ground. And when Sam shows our guests some of the many holes he has dug to prove how traditional grazing impacts the roots so that soils are densely compacted and the rainwater just runs off, but that under regenerative farming, the roots become elongated and entangled and the rain is absorbed by the soils. (Oh – and it’s a win-win – the invertebrates return! And flooding is ameliorated!) And where this kind of change is happening, this is not about putting the landscape back to some long-lost sylvan Lake District idyll, but about putting resilience in place against an increasingly uncertain future.
On the way back, whilst we’re log-jammed in Keswick because of the extra millions of tourists incentivised to visit the Lakes as a direct result of WH, we can consider the Kafka-esque regulations that govern Countryside Stewardship grants and that even after 3 years of work by Natural England working with landowners, commoners and farmers, the scheme cannot now go ahead. Not even where said farmers are ready and willing – on what would have been one of the largest landscape restoration schemes ever envisioned in the Lakes, and that would have re-connected the Coniston and Duddon valleys with habitat corridors along which species can travel and expand their range. (All those burgeoning native flowering plants! All those pollinators!) So despite the government’s commitment to plant 30,000 ha per year, the bureaucratic and logistical barriers (including WHS) remain overwhelming. And here it is worth another reminder, that denuded of these kinds of habitats, the Lake District valleys have been described by one conservationist as wildlife ‘dead-ends.’
I’m going to ask the driver to let us off in Grasmere, where we can meet and talk with some of the Commoners whose sheep graze the uplands but who say that the nation needs to be fed, and that sheep are an intrinsic part of this. To them I say, yes – and I do love my Sunday roast – but isn’t it time we were realistic about what happens if we carry on, regardless? (By, now, some of our UNESCO guests are stroking their beards or looking into their rucksacks or pointing at the Lion and the Lamb on Helm Crag with sudden interest. I hear one of them say quietly to another, ‘What time’s the train back to the airport?’) And if we can find a free table amongst the tourism overload, we can take afternoon tea and whilst pretending not to make a mess with our freshly baked scones and we can also consider that unless they can begin to grasp the seriousness of the situation here in the Lake District, then what UNESCO and WH have done is to build our farmers – and all our communities – a life-raft, but allowed it to drift further and further out of reach.
But what if we stopped pretending? What if, when we think about culture, we are able to come to terms with the fact that without a secure future, the notion of aesthetic culture will become increasingly redundant anyway? Without, in other words, a more fully functioning ecosystem where wildlife can once again thrive and help us in turn to thrive. Where the landscape is able to be less overwhelmed. Where, when it rains too heavily, too disturbingly again, because we know that it will, the mountainsides are more secure in the knowledge that their stones can rest easy against the re-invigorated soils and the trunks of the trees and the scrub and the plants that help to knit them all together. Where the flood meadows and their attendant restored habitats and all of the restored bends in all of the becks and rivers will slow the flow so that we in our towns and villages downstream can rest more easily in our beds.
Do I want my two sons to inhabit a cultural world? Of course, I do. Mostly though, what I want is for them to have a future. Is this alarmist? Yes, I think so. Sometimes I allow the alarm to creep in but like most folks, pretty soon I shut it out again. Because how do I live otherwise? But still, I have to look the future square in the eyes.
In all of this is to be found something of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ William Forster Lloyd’s assertion published in an essay in 1833, that in the dominance of specific individual actions and in their control of a particular narrative, the presiding culture of common land actually causes the depletion of that common resource. Self-interest then, prevails against the greater good. To put it another way, viewed from the Anthropocene, the continuing unenlightened dominance of a particular practice that we know in no uncertain terms is damaging the wider world, damages us all. Like it or not, this is what is at stake in the instrumentalisation of both traditional upland farming narratives and frustratingly, dangerously, in the Lake District WHS. Having said all this, still I do not want to point the finger. But what I do want is for due recognition to be given to the parlous nature of our tenure at this particular time – and for those controlling the narrative to come to the table.
I want to return for a moment to Storm Desmond and those hideous, nature destroying, false-hope-purveying concrete flood walls with which the Environment Agency will ruin my town. What if, instead of this, we take that roving eyeball and allow it to survey from source to sea, from mountain to beck, to stream, to river and to community. What if we recognised the nature of connection, of cause and effect? What if, instead of continuing to barge chaotically into the future, instead of paying external contractors £76 million to destroy an ecosystem and to build their walls, we invite farmers to be part of the solution. In the Kent catchment, for example, a group has been devising plans for exactly this, working with a nationally recognised hydrologist, with landowners and farmers to devise a scheme that, at a fraction of the cost, will naturally slow the flow, will ameliorate extreme weather events, will remunerate said farmers and landowners and therefore keep that money in our local community – and will work. This, against the controlling narrative of an Environment Agency whose Orwellian double-speak is hefted to the narrative of concrete.
What will the Lake District become when farming practices have changed; when finally, that ridiculous idea of preservation has been swept away because we have learned to stop turning our backs of the landscape; to stop looking at it through the distorted mirror of WH and take the mettle to face it square on? I suggest that what we will behold is a landscape that is wilder, more complicated, more entangled with life of all kinds; a landscape that is meaningful because we have recognised that without pollinators and the rest of biodiversity, it’s curtains for us anyway. And it’s all achievable, so what’s stopping us? Like this, the future Lake District will become a place where Wordsworth could hold his head up, where Miss Potter could join Sam at Gowbarrow and in the rain in her brand new Gortex waterproof coat she can inspect the holes Sam digs and marvel at the regenerated roots and the cattle grazing on grass that once appeared unfamiliar to other farmers but is now mainstream now across the Lakes. And finally, we can shake hands with the UNESCO officials because the scales have fallen from their eyes and they have taken the courage needed to rethink the nature of a cultural landscape in the Anthropocene; to recognise that it must serve a multitude of purposes. A landscape that is of actual, significant, future-proofed cultural value to my kids – and to theirs.