Land Manager's Diary: Read it here>

We have been having a break from workparties on Friends of the Lake District’s land this week, there is always less to do in summer as there is not much we can do in the woodlands at this time of year. But that does not mean we have not been busy.

On Tuesday our Policy Team had a very wet catch up with the Wild Ennerdale team talking about woodland and habitat restoration and the potential reintroduction of beavers. It is always good to learn more about what other people are doing, ponder the practicalities, whether it would work on our own land and indeed across wider parts of Cumbria, and of course what the impacts on the landscape would be.

On our Little Asby Common we have 60 or so cattle roaming over 464ha, roughly a cow to 8ha. In Ennerdale at the top end of the valley, there are a similar number of cows, but they each have a notional area of 20ha of land, due to different terrain and vegetation. Meanwhile, a beaver could be looking at way more than that. Ennerdale although we think of it as a wooded valley has only a cover of 12% or so of woodland, the Wild Ennerdale Partnership want that to rise to 40%. One of the characteristics over at Little Asby is the wide open spaces and huge skies with hardly any tree cover at present yet we know from the archaeology work we did via the Westmorland Dales  project that at one time, going back to the Mesolithic period, it was a heavily wooded place, gradually cleared over time. 

We had a very different meeting on Wednesday night with our commoners over at Little Asby. We always meet up once a year for our Commoners Association AGM in the Chairman’s kitchen to review what is happening on the common, any issues and what may happen in future. Times are really uncertain and challenging for farmers, land owners and land managers right now.

The Basic Payment Scheme is now reducing so by 2027 many farmers will have lost one of their main sources of income. The new Environmental Land Management Schemes are still being developed and may or may not be live by 2024. More details are coming out all the time, but there is still very little detail of what each scheme would require and none on how much the payments would be. Add to this lamb and cattle prices being the same as two years ago, fuel and fertiliser prices rising on an almost daily basis and you have mass uncertainty and an inability to plan for the future as there are too many unknowns. Then factor in a nature crisis and a climate crisis and things become very daunting.

Our Little Asby commoners like so many others are on a rolling Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, which means their current scheme where they are paid to farm more environmentally is rolled over on an annual basis. They could swap to another scheme but there may be no benefits and they may have to deliver more. They could wait and enter one of the new schemes. The middle scheme, Local Nature Recovery looks like it may be similar to what they do now with the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme. The top scheme, paying the most but also requiring the most, Landscape Recovery would mean they would have to join forces with an adjacent common and could potentially mean drastic changes, swapping hefted sheep flocks and the traditional way of managing common land for scrub pasture and cows.

One of the constants in life is change and we need to embrace that, but right now the potential for huge changes to what our Cumbrian landscape looks like, how we manage it and what this means for all of us is very uncertain.

There are some really hard decisions to be made by all of us. Can we help nature and yet also retain the traditional characteristics of common land and traditional sheep breeds, can we achieve a win-win or will we have to make some hard choices that may involve sacrificing one thing for another and fundamentally change what we know and see now…

As land owners we ourselves will have to make some hard choices, but also as a policy based organisation we continually review our policies to ensure they are relevant and realistic. Things may be very uncertain but rather than that being unsettling and depressing, we need to be optimistic and embrace the opportunities we feel are right for our landscape. The next 10 years may see more landscape change than we have had in decades but we have to be optimistic about that and what additional things we may be able to deliver.