Martin Holdgate, Friends of the Lake District President.
Annual General Meeting Speech, 30th May 2015

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A perspective of change
Of course our landscape is dynamic, and always has been.  Over the sweep of400 million years of geological time volcanic outpourings have been buried by sediments in ancient seas, uplifted, eroded and most recently carved in recurrent glacial epochs.  But the events of the last 12,000 years have been the key to the landscapes we see today.

The ice began to retreat a bit before that, but things really speeded up about 10,000 years ago and it was then – in the so-called Mesolithic period – that people first invaded our area in some numbers.  They lived by hunting and fishing, and very probably they moved seasonally, wintering near the coasts (where most of their artefacts have been found) and following the deer upwards as the grazings flushed in spring.  In the late Mesolithic and especially the Neolithic periods farming began, with crop growing in patches and on terraces, especially on the lighter soils, and livestock in the shape of cattle, pigs, sheep and goats.  Hunting remained important but forest  areas were cleared to create new pastures, and stone axe factories became important in places like Langdale.

Let’s pause then and think about what the Lake District would look like if by some curious accident it had come down to us as it was around 6,000 years ago, before the first farmers, with their stone axes and fire, got to work on the land.  The coastal zone would have been a pattern of salt marsh, sand dune and rocky cliffs and headlands, the drier ground capped by wind-laid scrubland grading into taller forests inland.  By 5,500 years ago we were into the Atlantic period, with a warm, wet climate and the inland forests would have been dominated by oak, elm, hazel, holly, rowan, birch, yew and other familiar species, with ash prominent on the limestone.  The lakes would have been fringed by reeds, fens and willow thickets.  The inland forest would have been extensive and dense in places like the Eden Valley, but  domed raised bogs would have carpeted parts of the coastal flats around Morecambe Bay and on the Solway plain, and inland there would have been extensive blanket bogs on the wet hillsides, restricting the woodland to drier knolls, ridges and becksides.  You can still see such a landscape today if you go to the fiord country of Southern Chile, where the only human inhabitants remained hunter-gatherers.

Had this landscape come down to us we would have doubtless rejoiced in it.  It would have been the British equivalent of Yellowstone, and it would still have had what some describe as the ‘charismatic megafauna ‘ – bears, wolves, lynx, wolverine, the great wild ox or aurochs, red deer, roe deer and wild boar. We would now be debating how to manage this wilderness as a wonderful National Park, allowing people to enter and enjoy it without disrupting its natural processes.  But, of course, that has not happened and we inhabit a different world – and with all respect to the enthusiastic ‘re-wilders’ I do not think there is a remote possibility of re-creating that wilder Lakeland unless humanity is decimated by some global catastrophe.  Indeed, I doubt if many people would want to go back to the pre-human past.

Neolithic people were the great agents of change.  They settled the land, started farming, and cleared forest to make way for their croplands and pastures.  They doubtless also began to attack the big predators and the big wild  herbivores, just as people do in Africa today.  And for good reason.  A nocturnal visit from half a dozen aurochs would have made a real mess of a primitive oatfield, and a family of wolves would have brought chaos to a sheep flock.  Indeed it is rather surprising that wolves persisted in northern England into mediaeval times. For in Roman times there was a great surge in agriculture in our area, and in the mediaeval period, although the country was scantily populated by our standards, with perhaps 4 million nationwide in 1340 before between a third and a half perished in the Black Death, the pattern of settlements we know today was largely established.   We know from place names that it involved the coalescence of distinct ethnic groups – British, Anglian (or Saxon) and Nordic, and in the Lake District there was a substantial settlement of Norwegian Vikings from Ireland from around 900 onwards. 

Mediaeval land use patterns were different from ours.  For one thing, people moved with the season, taking their livestock up to the higher ground as the grass flushed in early summer, living in shielings (the name ‘scales’ identifies these).  According to Angus Winchester cattle were the principal herbivores in Lakeland in the early mediaeval period, with vaccaries (cattle farms) in the heads of most of the dales.  In the shielings in summer maybe they made cheese as a high-protein winter food rather as they still do in Switzerland today.  Sheep replaced cattle as the chief grazing animals from around 1400 onwards – and perhaps they milked some of them, too.  Another huge difference came from that fact that a large part of upland Cumbria was common.  In early mediaeval times each village would have had a string of small crofts, with their strips of ploughland in common fields and big expanses of shared, unenclosed pasture beyond.   The common ploughlands were parcelled up into separate fields – today’s inbye land – in  late mediaeval times and as the population grew in the seventeenth century bits of common pasture were nibbled at, but much of Cumberland and Westmorland remained open common.  It was this countryside that Daniel Defoe described as “the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even in Wales.”  It was not until the late 18th or the 19th century that the more productive areas of shared pasture were enclosed in ‘intakes’ or ‘allotments’ leaving only the poorest, highest, least valuable land as the residual commons we have today.  The woodlands that once covered much of the scenery were also penned back – in around 1900 only about 8% of Cumbria was wooded.  Some important fragments remained none the less, and the ancient oakwoods of Borrowdale, growing in England’s wettest climate, have been described as ‘the English rain forests’ and are festooned with epiphytic mosses, lichens and filmy ferns.

Into the cultural landscape.

We are familiar with the cultural landscape that has evolved from this background.  .In preparing this talk I looked again at Wordsworth’s Guide through the District of the Lakes published in 1835.  He begins with what he calls the “view of the country as formed by nature” and enthuses over the wilder scenery – the mountains and lakes – before, in his second section, turning to the “aspect of the country, as affected by its inhabitants” or “in what manner it is indebted to the hand of man”.   Like us today, he recognises how the scenery has been moulded by its inhabitants – especially its farmers and cottagers, living in self-sufficient communities and “dwelling houses that are, in many instances, the colour of the native rock out of which they have been built,” although in his time many dwelling houses were “distinguished from barn or byer by roughcast and white wash”. 

Like Wordsworth nearly two centuries ago, we cherish the stone-built villages, the spreading pattern of drystone walls, and the rolling, open, fellsides rising from the lake shores that for many make the essential Lakeland.   And, as a Conference that Douglas Chalmers and I attended at Newton Rigg earlier this month recognised, the ‘hefted farmers’ remain at the heart of the landscape.   This is clearly recognised by the National Park Authority and the National Park Partnership, and is strongly emphasised in the case being put forward for the designation of the Lake District as a World Heritage site. 

But attitudes are changing, and serious problems remain.  To start with, hill farming is not profitable.  Contributions to both this year’s and last year’s Conferences, organized by the National Centre for the Uplands at Newton Rigg, emphasised that an average hill farm is unlikely to do more than, at best, meet its costs by the returns from its sheep (and in some cases cattle).  Typically such farms actually lose money on their livestock enterprises, make a modest profit on diversification into bed and breakfast and other ventures, but are kept going by the farm support payments and agri-environment schemes under the two Pillars of the European Common Agricultural Policy.  This balance can, however, be uneasy.  Under Higher Level Stewardship agreements, stocking densities have been reduced and areas have been planted with native broad-leaved tree species.  The aim is to enhance biodiversity and reducing grazing pressure can indeed benefit the landscape – as the Friends of the Lake District have shown by our management of Asby Common above Sunbiggin Tarn, where heather, reduced to invisibility by decades of excessive sheep grazing, has now recovered to the prominence it last enjoyed in the 1940s.  Yet many farmers are devoted to food production as the primary justification for their existence and feel that this reduction in stocking density has gone too far and has been fuelled by theoretical concepts at a variance with their own practical experience.  As for the ‘re-wilding’ advocated by George Monbiot, that indeed is a red rag to most agricultural bulls!

But there is a real issue here.  In fact Monbiot did not start this debate over the alleged damage done by heavy sheep grazing.  Let me quote from the writings of a man who was both an agriculturalist and an ecologist, the late Sir Frank Fraser Darling, in his Natural History of the Highlands and Islands  published in 1947.  When we look at a rugged Highland landscape, he said,  "more often than not we are looking at a man-made desert....The bare hillsides, kept bare by burning and the grazing of an artificially large stock of sheep, are not wild nature.  The last consequences, the hundreds of thousands of acres of bracken and wastes of deer's hair sedge are not nature but the results of ill treatment of nature."

We need to discuss this interaction between grazing patterns and vegetation more fully and engage high-quality science to deepen our understanding.    But there is also something else, even more important, on which to achieve consensus.  It is that farmers, as managers of our upland environment, provide a wider range of services, and deliver a wider range of products, than meat and livestock.  As the recent uplands conference showed, with the help of current support systems including agri-environment schemes, farmers keep the hills open for walkers and maintain the natural beauty that inspires so many visitors.  This beauty may be intangible, but it makes a significant contribution to the health and well-being of the nation.  Then again, the uplands provide 70% of our drinking water.  Restoring upland peat bogs – reversing the ‘gripping’ that was undertaken for the good reason that food production was seen as of paramount importance after the second World War – helps to mitigate floods by slowing water run-off.  It also increases the capacity of these peatlands to abstract and store carbon (just as new woodlands not only enrich the scenery and  living diversity of an area but also abstract and store quantities of carbon.

Of course I accept that there are other significant forms of of upland land use.  Forestry is important in many areas, and can provide more revenue and more employment than farming does.  The important thing is to plant in the right places.  We have a protocol, agreed in the 1930s thanks to efforts by the founders of the Friends of the Lake District, that now keeps large-scale conifer afforestation out of the central Lake District, and I am sure we all support that policy.  But extending native woodland on steep stony slopes and bracken-covered areas can enhance the landscape, help prevent flash floods, fix and store carbon and increase biodiversity.  Planted in the right places, on land of low agricultural value, new woodlands can be a benefit all round, and cropped in a patchwork, in rotation for fuelwood, they could help replace oil, aiding action against climate change.

Other uses of the uplands can also bring benefits, but again they need to be done well.  Large tracts of Scotland are deer forest, and these can produce venison and provide employment although many have been poorly managed in recent decades.  There are extensive grouse moors in the Pennines, and again- although not everyone approves of shooting for sport -  these can provide returns in terms of money and employment although burning has to be got right or it can damage peatland and flush pollutants into watercourses.  Minerals are an ancient form of land use – going back to those Neolithic stone axes – but there is very little mining or quarrying in the hills today, fortunately for the scenery.   Renewable energy is another potential output, though in Cumbria we have set our faces against wind farms – in my view rightly – and such hydropower schemes as we have are small-scale. Military training is important in part of the Cumbrian Pennines.   The point is that upland land use is bound to be a mosaic, and the essential thing is to get the right activity in the right place. 

Challenges of the Future.

Looking to the future, I believe we have three main challenges to face.  One is environmental, one economic and political and one presentational.  I will take them in turn.

The environmental challenge comes from climate change.  Obviously, it is nothing new.    The Ice Age gave place to boreal and then warm Atlantic periods and there has been variation since.  What is new is the belief that the world is now warming as a result of human action.   Global mean temperature has risen by about 0.8ºC since 1850 and a further rise of between 2º and 3ºC is predicted – largely as a result of our increased emission to the atmosphere of so-called greenhouse gases.  Because the oceans will warm less than the continents and Cumbria is close to the cool North Atlantic, we may get away with a rise of only 1ºC to 1.5ºC by the end of the century.  Winters will be warmer and wetter and summers a bit warmer, and the growing season will extend by about ten to fifteen days.  We will lose some of our glacial relict species – such as our rare fish - and gain others from the warmer south, although the wild flora and fauna are not likely to change dramatically. If some of the models are right, northern Europe may well become more important agriculturally, in a world with maybe 9 or 10 billion people.  Our uplands may become more productive and more important as a source of food, and this may improve the economics of upland farming.

The second issue is linked.  I have said already that hill farming today depends considerably on farm support payments under the Common Agricultural Policy.  Even so, hill farmers are not prosperous.  Many have a net income little if any better than they would get if they were working a standard week on the minimum wage.  They go on because they relish working in a wonderful environment, are their own masters, and love their livestock. A warmer climate, a longer growing season and stronger demand for food might help but what would happen if the United Kingdom left  the European Union? What new domestic scheme might be adopted – and would the taxpayer remain willing to support loss-making upland farming?  If we did not sustain hill farming and instead turned the better areas into cattle or sheep ranches and the less productive ones into wild land only grazed by red deer, while the uplands would remain beautiful we could see trends – such as the expansion of bracken – which would not be welcome, especially among those who want to walk the hills.

The third challenge is one I consider a key.  We need to satisfy the electorate that tomorrow’s farmers and land managers will be providing a wider range of products and services than hitherto.  This would justify financial support, but it would also call for a change in attitude and training.  Those who speak for the upland farming community will need to emphasise their essential role as land managers.  They should point out that the uplands cover nearly half the island of Great Britain and that cattle and sheep are almost the only way we can derive high-quality food from the coarse herbage that covers much of the land.   But the public also needs to understand that our upland managers deliver essential drinking water, mitigate floods, fix and store carbon, maintain biological diversity, keep the hilltops open and easy to walk on, and so sustain that pattern of landscape in which so many people delight. 

Presentation that establishes the value of good upland management could help attract younger people into hill farming – and this is important because the profession is currently dominated by the over-50s.  But the new entry will need training, and this must be to instil understanding of how to deliver the blend of services and the mosaic of land character which the public is keen to support.  Here Cumbria, and Newton Rigg Agricultural College in particular, have a key role. Newton Rigg houses the National Centre for the Uplands.  It has a hill farm, and will be working with Cumbria Wildlife Trust on the new reserve at Eycott Hill to demonstrate how farming and conservation can work together.  Hopefully they will develop together methods which can be applied more widely, to the public benefit.  

My final point is that we need a new methodology.  We need to be able to bring all the interests together to discuss just what pattern of management is best in what area.  If farm support is to be apportioned on a multi-functional basis, bureaucracy will demand some kind of points system or scoring system that evaluates all the various uses and services in a particular area in a manner that is logical, transparent and accountable.  And it must be simple – for land managers need to be on the land, not on the computer.  At Newton Rigg earlier this month the Upland Alliance was launched as a forum or network that aims to bring all the diverse interests together to seek consensus on the way ahead.  As Douglas Chalmers told the Conference, the  Friends of the Lake District has already done this at Asby Common.  I hope and trust that we will be joining the Upland Alliance and contributing our values, insight and experience so that the wonderful scenery of Lakeland has an assured future in a changing world.