The cultural environment and the natural environment collide

I am at the very early stages of a PhD in the LEEP Institute at Exeter University. I am researching the politics of farming and the environment and trying to answer the question ‘Why is it so difficult to gain consensus on the Commons of Dartmoor?’ At this point, being at the beginning of my efforts I have questions and not answers!

I was therefore very interested in a story about the Uplands,  this time about the Lake District opposed to Dartmoor which poses many questions which are central to my research: the saga of Thorneythwaite Farm in Borrowdale.

This story began to unfold in late August this year when the National Trust acquired the farm but not the farmhouse. Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster led the assault suggesting that the NT  was using its position and power to bully Lakeland farmers and was threatening the very basis of fell farming in Cumbria. By not acquiring the farmhouse with the land there were questions about what would happen to the 400 plus Herdwick sheep and concerns that a working farm had been destroyed – see here for more details.

Herdwick Sheep

The National Trust was caught somewhat off guard but did produce a detailed Questions and Answers briefing – see here. Three months on and the story has not gone away as illustrated by a piece in last Sunday’s Observer – see here. The article updates the reader on what has happened at Thorneythwaite Farm but also includes some unguarded comments from Helen Ghosh, the NT’s Director General and an un-named press officer in the organisation about James Rebanks – the best selling author (The Shepherd’s Life) and Lake District Herdwick sheep farmer. This had led to two apologies being issued.



There is still deep anger amongst Lake District farmers about the splitting of the farm from the farmhouse and about the price the Trust paid for the land. The National Trust now owns all but one of the farms in Borrowdale and therefore all the farmers in the Valley bar one are tenants of the Trust.

At this point I need to ensure transparency – until last December I was the National Trust’s General Manager on Dartmoor and in total I have worked for the Trust for 18 years. I left the Trust because it was time for a change and I wanted to embark on my PhD. I am clearly not a spokesperson for the NT and neither am I an apologist for them. I am not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of the acquisition because it’s not my ‘patch’ and I don’t know all the details. What I would say though is that this is a calamitous situation for both the National Trust and the Commoners / farmers of the Lake District to find themselves in. The future of the uplands and upland farming are at a crossroads now, especially as a result of Brexit – it is surely in the interests of both the NT and the farmers to pull together now as the ground they share is much larger than that which is contested.

As Rodgers et al (2011) set out in Contested Common Land – environmental governance past and present, in order to understand the Commons of England and Wales you need to understand their history, acknowledge the role of custom and tradition and accept that their governance has changed over time and will continue so to do. Rodgers et al (2011) argue that the history of our Commons over the past 900 years or so can be divided into three main phases.

Up to the late Medieval period Commons were overseen by Manorial Courts, where soft laws applied and much was driven by custom and tradition. The practices of transhumance (summer grazing and winter resting) along with levancy and couchancy (the rule that determined the number of grazing stock that could be summered on the Common by reference to the capacity of the land to which the rights were associated to feed stock over the winter months i.e. all stock on the Common in the summer had to be accommodated and fed on the farm in the winter months). Such practices ensured that the common resource was fairly shared and sustainably managed.

From the 17th century there was a drive towards agricultural improvement. Many Commons in the lowlands were enclosed and the rights were lost. In the Uplands this practice was much less widespread but significant areas of land were improved (by the creation of ‘new takes’). This era saw the end of levancy and couchancy along with the decline of transhumance.

Finally starting in the middle the 19th century driven by the Commons Preservation Society, the public interest in the Commons was redefined and a public right of access began to emerge. One of the key figures who drove these changes was Robert Hunter who later went on to form the National Trust with Octavia Hill and Canon Rawnsley. One could argue that a second period of agricultural improvement commenced after the Second World War, funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which was reported on and campaigned against on Exmoor, for example, by the MacEwans (1982). By the late 20th century environmental protection had also become a key driver in the management of the Commons. Today the term ‘cultural landscapes’ is widely used to acknowledge the role that people (predominantly farmers) have played over the centuries to create the landscapes that are so loved in the uplands, be they in the Lake District or on Dartmoor. Rodgers et al call Common Land ‘cultural ecological landscapes with a long time-depth‘.

This short history shows how intertwined the National Trust and the Commoners are. If the farmers and the National Trust are to continue to receive public money (without which farming in the uplands will be seriously compromised) then they will have to work together to protect cultural, ecological, historic and recreational landscapes along with other ecosystem services such as peat protection, water supply and flood control.

Following on from his apology from the National Trust James Rebanks also said this.

He has clearly given a great of thought to how a viable future may be created as on his Twitter account (@HerdyShepherd1) he has set out 16 suggestions for the National Trust. I have set them all out below without comment.

1) have an executive reference group to monitor local actions/initiatives with community and farmer representatives on it (+ ecologists etc)
2) develop with us a strategy for how they will sustain the historic farms/flocks full of progressive approaches learning from best practice
3) become vocal champions for small traditional farming in this globally significant landscape – stop being merchants of doom
4) use massive NT membership to create/add value to our products – learn from Community Supported Ag. Schemes in US/Europe
5) develop reward systems to reward farmers for best practice in having on farm woodland or wild areas or flood alleviation
6) press PAUSE on any changes that make small traditional farmers worse off without working with them to find new income sources
7) ‘do no harm’ should be the first guiding principle of NT intervention – as a backstop where a threat exists not simply accumulating land
8) recognise that in a world of industrial farming small traditional farming systems and heritage breeds are vital things of public benefit
9) investigate bold new ways to pay for amazing historic landscape – and how to make it of even greater public benefit Instead of defeatism
10) learn from best practice in implementing flood alleviation with farmers from excellent river trust initiatives – work with us
11) help connect £2.2 billion tourism economy to 300 traditional farms so what we do is shared, valued and provides opportunities both ways
12) recognise that slow and local food systems are vitally important and help recreate the lost infrastructure to make that viable
13) challenge us to adapt/change/evolve – not one of us is saying farming is without flaws or doesn’t have the potential for improvement
14) start thinking about what we do as a cultural and economic farming SYSTEM Flocks don’t exist in isolation Must judge effects on system
15) do much much more to identify and support development of young farmers who can become tenants
16) you own 21,000 Herdwick sheep, the most culturally important heritage breed in the world – act interested. Come to our shows and sales.

Without doubt the National Trust will also have a list and I hope that soon the difficult task of jointly amalgamating the various ambitions of the various stakeholders into a plan which provides for a viable future for the Lakes will emerge. It will not be easy but it must be done.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Ian Mercer who had just died. What I wrote about Ian and Dartmoor is I think directly relevant to the Lake District.
“His approach was to ensure that all the main protagonists: conservationists, landscape campaigners, access bodies and commoners all remained in the same tent. He knew that in order to conserve Dartmoor and its cultural heritage no one group could achieve all it wanted to and therefore compromise was necessary.”
“…… his view was that in order to conserve the wildlife and historic landscapes of Dartmoor whilst still providing access for all, the Dartmoor Commoners  also needed to be conserved. He became their champion to ensure the necessary compromises could be negotiated – he was of course entirely correct.”
Ann MacEwan and Malcolm MacEwan (1982) National Parks: Conservation or Cosmetics? George Aleen and Unwin. London.
Christopher P. Rodgers, Eleanor A. Straughton, Angus J.L. Winchester and Margherita Pieraccini (2011) Contested Common Land. Environmental Governance Past and Present. Earthscan, Rutledge. Oxford.

7 thoughts on “The cultural environment and the natural environment collide

  1. Interesting points and good luck with the PhD – i think the NT issue in the Lake District needs to be set in a wider context, of the viability of hill farming in the UK, and the heavy reliance on public funding (between 60-70% according to various sources). This public funding is now under close review following Brexit, and in reality is likely to be significantly cut. It was interesting to hear some commentators describe this as a potential “starter” farm, given the combined price was well over £1 million, i don’t think this is a very realistic description. The real issue (in my opinion) is what do we want to use our land for… for delivering a range of ecosystem services of which food is just one… who decides and who pays are the subsequent questions. Is hill farming viable in the Lakes without public support, should local tourist business pay a higher “land management” tax to keep the Lakes looking “beautiful”. This is a debate that urgently needs to be had, not on Twitter or in national newspaper, or in seminar rooms with narrowly invited audiences but in the open and with a full understanding of what is at stake, and of the costs and value of the various trade-offs that need to be made.

  2. Thanks for your usual highly succinct and thought provoking description of the issues facing this particular area of commons. The approach of the NT makes rather depressing reading; as a long term NT member I really do hope that the organisation is sufficiently open to embrace the change / flexibility that is urgently needed here..

  3. Late in the debate for which I apologise, but many thanks Adrian for an excellent and thought provoking piece. I read James Rebanks book about this time last year; beautifully written and a wonderful evocation of why those involved in the traditional management of sheep in the Lakes care so deeply. But flawed, carefully avoiding the economics of what has become a dependency culture….fiercely independent in all aspects bar the one that hits hardest and is most unforgiving in the long run, economic viability. At no point in a Shepherds Life does James look closely at the economics of hill farming, nor comment that his own situation is now very different given the income derived from consultancy and writing. His 16 points the NT need to consider covers many aspects that NT (and many other institutions) would be well advised to take note of and perhaps act on. But it would have hit home so much harder if he had added a parallel 16 (or 6…or even three!) that hill farmers and others faced with economic oblivion as a result of Brexit might need to consider in return. One obvious one might be acknowledgement of the fact that their economic and cultural support comes from the taxpayer and the customer in cities and the visitors and tourists in the Lakes (and no doubt, Dartmoor). Such partisan stances are great for establishing leadership amongst those one seeks to represent. Flawed when it comes to seeking solutions within a broad tent seeking solutions to extremely challenging situations…in that respect Ian Mercer was certainly on the right track.

  4. Pingback: The Uplands Alliance and the National Trust – A Dartmoor blog

  5. Pingback: Glover’s Landscape Review and Cultural Landscapes – A Dartmoor blog

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