Perspective: Wildlife Charity.

Stephen Trotter: Chief Executive, Cumbria Wildlife Trust.

“What makes the Lake District a World Class Attraction?”

Wildlife and Wild Places 

There is no doubt that the Lakes deserves its world-class reputation for beauty. But what if we scratch the veneer of this apparently green and pleasant landscape? Do its wild places and wildlife rank on the global stage?  Is the Lakes a world-class attraction for naturalists as well as for the adventurer and holidaymaker? 

When I think of wildlife in the Lakes, my first thoughts are of oak woods in valleys like Borrowdale.  I love the structure of these living cathedrals - especially where the trees are smothered and dripping in mosses and lichens.  Even better if they come with a carpet of bluebells in spring.  These temperate rain forests are special and thrive in the cool, wet conditions of Western Britain – and can contain lots of rare species.  We should celebrate them, they are world-class.  

If you want to see fine examples of temperate rain forests – the Borrowdale oak woods are good but there are other places to see them too, for example, in the West of Scotland and North Wales.  

Lakeland woods have changed in recent decades – many are darker and less rich than they were.  Coppicing, the once widespread practice of cutting broadleaved trees to promote the growth of young and useful stems, has nearly died out.  As it’s declined, the old craftspeople have disappeared.  The five once common species of beautiful Fritillary butterflies, which depend on the cycle of regular coppicing, are now clinging on to a mere handful of nature reserves like Howe Riding.  They rely on coppicing as it creates the light and the warmth in which violets, the food plant for these butterflies, and their larvae can flourish. 

We have great woods but there’s plenty of space for lots more trees and hedges without having an impact on farming or the Lake District’s cultural heritage.  This could transform the quantity and quality of wildlife in the Lakes, if we recruit more of the right trees in the right places. 

We celebrate and promote the Lakes to visitors on the back of the iconic Red squirrela cherished inhabitant of the Lake District’s rain forest.  But Squirrel Nutkin is now in real trouble and vulnerable to local extinction because of invasion by Grey squirrels and the deadly virus they carry. Its future is precarious and depends on the ongoing hard work of local volunteers and a few wildlife charities. 

Internationally, the Lakes has relatively few species of mountain flower.  This is mostly because, apart from a few sites, the geology isn’t conducive to a rich flora and our mountains aren’t that high which means they’re relatively warm.  The mountain flowers are confined to tiny inaccessible crag ledges where they are free from grazing.  On these ledges, they can be a botanical pleasure but globally, botanists would probably go to the Cairngorms, Alps, Himalayas or Carpathians for their alpine flowers.  

Other than crags and bogs, the Lake District fellsides are impoverished and dominated by just a few plants like mat grass and bracken.  This is typical of UK uplands and, over the last century, grass has replaced a more diverse mix of heathers, small shrubs and scrub, juniper, trees and flowers. 

Here in Lakeland we rightly celebrate the beauty of our becks, tarns and waters.  We expect them to be pristine and clean - and, generally, their quality is better than elsewhere. However, beneath the shimmering surface, many are not as good as they used to be – or could be.  Some suffer from pollution in rain fall; others are contaminated with the nutrients from the sewage of visitors and farm animals, the runoff from roads and farmland - or the silty sediment that runs off eroding tracks and footpaths.  

This is important because water and wetlands can support the most diverse and abundant populations of unseen insects and invertebrates – which in turn, feed the fish, amphibians, birds and mammals that we want to see.  Excessive nutrients and pesticides have impoverished our freshwaters over recent decades and although progress has been made, much work remains to be done to get them into good condition. 

Iconic lakes like Windermere are no longer good places to swim in the summer.  Minute algae feast on the nutrient overload and the once clear water turns green as they ‘bloom’.  Salmon are effectively extinct in Windermere and relict populations of notable fish like the Arctic Char survive at perilously low numbers in the murky waters. 

Occasionally in summer, the walker may happen upon a flower-rich hay meadow in one of the valley bottoms.  But sadly, whilst most of the enclosed meadows may look green and pretty, the majority have lost their wildlife interest.  

In fact, the best places to see special wildlife in the Lake District are the network of relatively small nature reserves and specially managed sites – looked after by some private landowners, farmers and by conservation organisations. 

So, my conclusion is that few of our apparently wild places and wildlife in the Lakes are unique or world-class.  The Lake District is good in places but, overall, it’s average at best and underperforming for wildlife. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way; I passionately believe that it could be so much better.  

The Lake District has the potential to be a world-class natural and cultural attraction in which wildlife can thrive - and farmers and local people can make a better living from it. 

If we are to transform this amazing place and bring back the wildlife, we’ll need a collaborative effort by everyone.  It’ll take a lot of tender love and care – and substantial investment in restoring habitats and species in the right places.  Cumbria Wildlife Trust is determined to work with everyone to make this transformation happen and to put nature into recovery. 

Imagine if people could once again enjoy the sight of eagles soaring over the mountains, swathes of orchids blossoming across the fields, fells and road verges - and have the chance to see flower and bumblebee-rich meadows on every farm.  

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see beavers, the missing ecosystem engineers, working away in some becks creating wildlife rich pools for dragonflies, fish and water voles - reducing flood risk and helping to clean up rivers and lakes. 

Imagine how brilliant it would be if boring grassy fellsides and empty bracken beds were transformed into mosaics of woods, flowery grassland and heathland. Restoring vibrant juniper and shrubby forests, intermixed with heathers, blaeberry and flowers could revitalise some of the steep fellsides and fells – and benefit grazing animals.  On the high tops, I’d love to see mountain flower meadows and montane scrub spreading out from the crags across the slopes they once occupied.