President’s Address, Friends of the Lake District, 11 June 2016 - Martin Holdgate

At this Annual General Meeting, Marion Temple will report of the work of the Board of Trustees during the past year and Douglas Chalmers will describe our various activities and campaigns.   I have been asked to take a wider view and address the challenges of the future.

I want to make clear at the start that I am not going to discuss the coming Referendum.  Whatever its outcome, major challenges will remain in the United Kingdom.  Some are economic in origin.  The country has an unhealthy debt burden.  Pressure for cuts in public spending will continue.  Pressure to spend more on health services will increase.  Public expenditure on the environment is already under pressure – already Historic England’s capacity to support work to safeguard ancient monuments and Natural England’s capacity to manage National Nature Reserves have been curtailed. The National Parks have done a bit better, but we can see one pointer to the future in the decision of the Lake District National Park Authority to divest itself of most of its land holdings. I think we in the voluntary sector need to be prepared for Government effectively to withdraw from the care and management of landscape, nature reserves and historic buildings, restricting the role of statutory agencies to the designation of protected landscapes, reserves and monuments and occasionally intervening when owners blatantly ignore such designations.  Instead, bodies like the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the CPRE – and ourselves – will find ourselves in the front line, caring for areas of historic interest and natural beauty, supported by volunteers and donors rather than the taxpayer.  Are we prepared for the partnerships – and indeed the leadership – that this would entail?

Then – what about agriculture?  Everyone here knows that our cherished Cumbrian uplands are grazing land, mostly cropped by the iconic local Herdwick sheep, owned and managed by farmers, including commoners.  Everyone here knows that hardly any hill farmer makes a profit on these farming enterprises – most just about break even.  It is the various kinds of Farm Support payment – extended by Stewardship on land of outstanding ecological value – that keeps them in business.   But will Governments – in or out of the EU – be willing to sustain this funding?  Will Treasury officials, in their splendid isolation at the corner of Whitehall and Great George Street, mount challenges to this alleged subsidisation of an uneconomic industry?

It may be our task to mount a counter-argument.  Many of us believe that the hill farmer provides a far wider service to the community than just the production of sheepmeat or beef.  They maintain the cultural landscape that is the foundation of outdoor recreation and tourism in Lakeland.  In the future, upland catchment management – including measures to ‘slow the flow’ of water run-off after heavy rains - will be important, and much of this management will inevitably fall on the hill farmers.  Their role in maintaining biodiversity is also crucial. We may well find ourselves championing them against measures that might undermine centuries of tradition in the management of our uplands.

But what would happen if support for hill farming was reduced?  Some of the most marginal upland grazings might well go out of pastoral farming.  In New Zealand a great deal of the highest and wildest mountain country has never been farmed.  In many parts of Highland Scotland wild red deer have taken over as dominant herbivores in areas from which the drovers once drove their cattle to the English markets.  We already have one long-established deer forest in Lakeland – Dalemain’s forest in Martindale: could we see more?  Frankly, I doubt whether red deer ranching for venison would catch on in much of upland England, and I doubt if there is much scope to extend commercial grouse moors either, but I suppose both are possible.  However such management, involving shooting on the hills, itself brings prospects of conflict with walking and tourism.  

Forestry is another possible alternative form of land use.  The Friends of the Lake District was instrumental in the past in the concordat with the Forestry Commission that resulted in the exclusion of large-scale conifer planting in central Lakeland and I am sure we would defend that concordat relentlessly today.  But it is true that forestry offers the prospect of employment and financial return.  Its advocates argue that it would bring in more income and support more people that hill farming does.  The snag is that over 90 per cent of the commercial market in this country is for softwood – most of it produced by non-native coniferous species like Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine. We may be planting native broadleaved species preferentially today – but most of their timber will end up as fuelwood.  So – are we willing to accept new coniferous afforestation in upland areas outside the National Parks?  

Let us not shout ‘no’ too instantly or loudly.  Coniferous forests can have their own quality.  Many of you will know the German Schwartzwald.  Many will have travelled in the Canadian Rockies or Scandinavia.  Nearer home, many of you will know the Glen Trool Forest Park in Galloway and Kielder, just across our county boundary in Northumberland. To my eye, the hills, forests and lochs of Glen Trool, viewed from the summit of Merrick, look like a detached bit of Canada, with high scenic quality and recreational value.  I have sometimes pondered the prospect of a Border Black Forest extending from Galloway to Cheviot, and I believe that it could become a popular tourist venue.  If we don’t like the idea of such afforestation, for example in the North Pennines, what should be the basis for our opposition?

So far I have speculated about directions in which economic forces might drive us.  But there are wider social and environmental pressures that might change the future operational context for Friends of the Lake District.  Climate Change is the one most usually trotted out at this point.   Today – partly because the upward trend in global mean temperature seems to have slowed in the first decade of the present century, and also because there are clear signs of international action to reduce global use of carbonaceous fossil fuels – there is less emphasis on the gloomier and doomier scenarios than there was a few years ago.  Also, because we expect the oceans to warm less than the land, we can be fairly confident that Cumbria is unlikely to experience as severe a range of problems as places like North Africa or central Australia.  But we may well see an uplift of a full degree Celsius in our annual mean temperature and this would be enough to shift the distributional limits of some species of wildlife.  We might lose some of the relict fish like vendace and Arctic charr that are just hanging on in our lakes, and some of the arctic-alpine plants that just hang on in the highest coves of Helvellyn.  More to be feared, perhaps, we may see an increased incidence of high rainfall events like those of the 2015-2016 winter with the unprecedented downpour that hit Honister and other areas in the high fells. 

Douglas Chalmers and I have been taking part in the discussions of the Cumbria Floods Partnership, chaired by the Minister and local MP, Rory Stewart and convened by the Environment Agency, and a report is due to appear later this month.  I do not know what will be in it, but expect that it will essentially be a framework, guiding community actions for the future, especially on a catchment basis.  Catchment management to slow down run-off from the hills will certainly be encouraged.  This will entail a range of measures. They will include increasing the ‘roughness’ of surface vegetation by substituting heather, tall grass, and streamside woodland for close-bitten swards and bare ground. Hollows that act as temporary pools, holding back run-off and spreading out the peak flow in the rivers may be constructed.  Upland peat mires which act as living sponges, holding rainfall and releasing it slowly after the storms pass, will be restored – indeed many already have been.  We in the Friends will need to be involved in evaluating the implications of each scheme in detail, to ensure that freedom of movement on hill paths is not impeded, the scenery is not damaged, and there is a win-win’ outcome for the landscape, the hill farmer, the upland villages and the vulnerable communities downstream like Keswick, Kendal, Cockermouth, Appleby and Carlisle that suffered so terribly last winter.  More positively, let us do what we can to ensure that their front-line role in flood mitigation brings home to the Treasury and others the multiple benefits that the hill farmer confers on the wider community. 

But what might climate change bring to Cumbria on a wider scale? I suggest that we need to look way outside Cumbria to evaluate that.  All the scenarios indicate that the Mediterranean basin will get hotter and probably drier, and parts of Spain may become semi-arid.  That is turn may imply a northward movement of the main agricultural areas in Europe.  We may, indeed, already be seeing this, in the shape of the emergence of Kent and Sussex as producers of fine wine including sparkling white wines which we would call fine champagne if they were produced in Champagne.  The same trend could improve agricultural production in Cumbria and remember, a one degree rise in mean temperature may not sound much, but it lifts the limits of a species around 150 metres upwards in the hills and 120 kilometres northwards on the map, and stretches the growing season by a couple of weeks, all of which favours productivity of crops and livestock.

But another kind of migration could have a greater impact – that of humans.  I appreciate that here I tread on the forbidden ground of the Referendum but there is in fact nothing new in what I am going to say.  It was said over thirty years ago by an old friend and colleague, Michel Batisse, a Frenchman working in UNESCO in Paris.  Michel pointed out that the North African Mahgreb countries – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - then had a population growth of 2.8% per year and an environment that was already semi-arid,  He suggested that if the climate warmed those countries, like most of circum-Saharan Africa, would become even more arid and less able to sustain their population.  A warming of the Mediterranean basin implied a northward movement of people in Europe.  There would be nothing new in this.  People have always moved as their environment changed.  The European Neanderthals must have migrated north and south as the ice sheets grew and shrank.  Modern humans migrated north into Europe about 100,000 years ago and must also have moved as the habitable areas changed.  People are not stupid and they readjust their distributions with circumstances – unless other humans use violent means to stop them.  We cannot be sure, but the next fifty years may see a substantial increase in the population of Britain, and if that happens Cumbria will not be immune.

So – I have set out some possible areas of change that will bring new challenges to all who are concerned with the care of our environment.  Much that I have said is speculative.  But of one thing we can be certain.  New challenges will emerge.  And as they arise, the Lake District will need its friends!