The Lake District – World Heritage Site

On Sunday 9th July 2017 UNESCO announced that the Lake District had been awarded the ‘inscription’ as a World Heritage Site (WHS) on account of its cultural landscape. I suspect that the vast majority of the 17 million visitors to the Lake District last year will not be surprised by the new designation and will welcome it. It is the culmination of 31 years of hard work by a consortium of people and organisations led by the National Park Authority.

The Lake District is loved and visited by so many people because it is spectacular and beautiful – a mix of lakes, mountains, fells, small walled fields and woodlands. A landscape moulded by thousands of years of man’s grazing animals – thus its designation as a ‘cultural landscape’. A landscape is the interface where nature and people meet, the people in this case are the hill-farmers of the Lake District.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Lake District but I do know another cultural landscape pretty well – Dartmoor and the two places have much in common.

A Herdwick on Dartmoor!

I imagine that hill-farmers across the whole country will be celebrating the Lake District’s designation as a cultural landscape WHS as it officially recognises their role along with their forebears in creating what is now considered so special. Dartmoor may not have the ‘designation’ but hill-farmers on the moor will rightly make the connection that they and those that went before them are responsible for another National Park which is treasured by the public at large.

The WHS designation therefore cements in place the notion that the Lake District is an open grazed landscape managed by hill-farmers to produce a wide range of public goods such as public access, biodiversity, conservation of key archaeological features, water and carbon management and high quality food production.

It is perhaps strange that it appears to have taken a decision by UNESCO to arrive at this point – the 1995 Environment Act re-defined the role of National Park Authorities and charged them with the conservation and enhancement of the cultural heritage in addition to their other duties. National Parks’ cultural heritage includes for example their archaeology and buildings but also includes the distinctive customs and traditions of the people who have created the landscape.

For decades though hill-farmers have felt an endangered species as they perceived that the statutory bodies cared more about nature than them and their traditions, customs and livelihoods. The 1995 Act, despite much effort has only made modest progress in making hill-farmers believe that people are as important as nature. The WHS designation embodies this notion further.

This is not the end of the story, rather the opening of a new chapter as there is still much to do and resolve. Perhaps, two of the central issues at stake in the Lake District and our other upland areas are how do we support hill-farmers who are unprofitable without subsidies (especially now as we are leaving the European Union) and how do we restore ecological habitats following decades of unsustainable, but highly contested, sheep grazing practices.

However, the celebrations of the Lake District’s new status have not been universal. George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner and journalist has campaigned against the WHS designation (see here), reacted furiously to the news (see here), calling it ‘a betrayal to the living world’ and he lambasted the conservation organisations which had supported the bid. Monbiot believes that sheep are the root cause of the problems in the Lake District (and elsewhere), that they should be removed and that the hills be allowed to re-wild. He considers that now the Lake District has been designated as a cultural landscape any prospect of improving habitats for nature have been lost.

Is he right and should the conservation bodies such as the National Trust, RSPB and Cumbria Wildlife Trust have campaigned against the designation?

I don’t think Monbiot is right and I do think that the conservation bodies were right to support the bid.

I don’t think that the designation of the Lake District as a cultural landscape is an impediment to ecological restoration. The upland habitats which existed before the Second World War which are so cherished by conservationists were of course created in the first place by extensive upland grazing. Yes of course following the War UK / EU Agricultural Policy encouraged increased stocking densities to unsustainable levels and the subsequent agri-environmental schemes are attempting to redress the balance but the traditional narrative that overgrazing by sheep is the reason for the ‘unfavourable condition’ of our upland habitats is over simplistic and misleading.

Ecologists and conservationists have consistently failed to take into account the role played atmospheric pollution particularly nitrogen deposition (see here and here) and ozone concentrations (see here) along with the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change.

Atmospheric pollution and climate change are not simply obstacles to be navigated around as part of the restoration process they are instead responsible for driving the changes in upland habitats and help to explain why the detailed ecological prescriptions put forward, in good faith by English Nature and then Natural England, failed to deliver ‘favourable condition’. As a result, upland habitats have changed and will continue to change.

And that is why the conservation bodies needed to be involved in the WHS consortium. Hill-farmers, conservationists and the statutory bodies need to work much more closely together to understand where they now find themselves and how to devise solutions to move forwards. That is not a comment aimed solely at the Lake District it applies to the uplands everywhere.

Then comes the massively important matter of the economics of hill-farming post Brexit. The Government by supporting the WHS bid have signalled that they want to see farming in the hills. Again hill-farmers, conservationists and the statutory bodies need to work together to enable the best deal for hill-farmers and other land managers to be struck in the ‘public money for public goods’ debate. For without that settlement being financially viable there will be no hill-farmers in the future.

Monbiot may argue that is desirable but I disagree. I have been re-reading James Rebanks’ book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ which details beautifully the culture and traditions of the Lake District hill-farmer. To me these cultures and traditions along with the Herdwick sheep, the intricacies of their breeding regimes and the agricultural shows where successes are valued and celebrated are as important a part of our history as heather, peregrines and stone circles and as such it would be a tragedy if any of them were lost.

So, what of re-wilding? I have spent much of my former careers involved with re-wilding projects but they have been conducted where there has been consent, nothing I have been involved with has been imposed on unwilling landowners or occupiers. I wrote the following in October 2016 about re-wilding on Dartmoor

So how does this debate on rewilding fit into the Dartmoor landscape? There are of course some who specifically advocate a full blown rewilding approach with re-introduced herbivores and carnivores.

I, however, do not support such an approach here as it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s historic landscapes (its reeves, hut circles, standing stones, stone circles, pillow mounds, tin mining artefacts, medieval farms etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s cultural landscapes (the Commoners, the Commons and the tenements etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s existing and ecologically important habitats and species and it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s landscape  with its ‘long views for which Dartmoor is renowned‘ (Ian Mercer’s words in his 2009 Dartmoor Collins New Naturalist, page 27).

That is not to say that everything should remain as it is. Matthew Kelly writing in the updated paperback edition of Quartz and Feldspar (2016) perhaps makes the best case for what could happen in the future. This is where he introduces his phrase ‘soft rewilding’.

Those awakened to the issues by winter flooding should need little persuading of the pragmatic reasons for one what might call soft rewilding. Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands. Monbiot, Colston and others argue—with varying degrees of emphasis—that the water storage capacity of the uplands should be increased by creating hydraulic roughness through more trees, more scrub and gully reforestation, as well as less dredging of rivers and, most excitingly, the re-introduction of beavers, water engineers par excellence. All of which would produce richer wildlife habitats. The government should be lobbying the EU, seeking changes to rules which makes agricultural land eligible for financial support only when ‘permanent ineligible features’ like trees, scrub and ponds are removed in order to create land in ‘agricultural condition’; farmers will need to be compensated, but that would be much cheaper than the huge clean-up operations and insurance costs currently faced by lowland communities.

I agree with Matthew – I would like to see a bit of soft re-wilding in the uplands.

Gaining consensus in the uplands, especially in National Parks will always be challenging as there are so many different groups all wanting  different things. As the century unfolds it will become more difficult as the climate changes and reconfigures the landscape.

Globally peatlands and blanket bogs are threatened by climate change and Dartmoor is one of the most vulnerable peatlands in the northern hemisphere on account of it latitude and relatively low altitude. The climate on Dartmoor may have already shifted enough so that the bioclimatic envelope required for the formation of peat is no longer available, except at the highest altitudes, as the peat formation process requires a cool and wet climate. By the end of the century the bioclimatic envelope in the Lake District will also be unsuitable.  (Gellego-Sala et al 2010).

By 2100 there is the potential for much change in the uplands, many of the bird species which are today considered to be iconic of National Parks are predicted to disappear, for the moors these are dunlin, golden plover, ring ouzel, curlew, raven, peregrine, hen harrier, red grouse, black grouse and whinchat (Huntley et al 2007).

These challenges all need to be addressed, for example whither ‘favourable condition’?,  but progress will only be made if everyone works together. This includes fighting atmospheric pollution – the scourge of our cities as well as our countryside along with climate change. Of course atmospheric pollution and climate change are different sides of the same coin and are the biggest challenges we now face.

By a fortunate co-incidence this week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’ John Clare – I’ll leave the last word to James Rebanks @herdyshepherd1


Gallego-Sala A.V., Clark J.M., House J.I., Orr H.G., Prentice I.C., Smith P., Farewell T. & Chapman S.J. (2010) Bioclimatic envelope model of climate change impacts on blanket peat distribution in Great Britain. Climate Research 45: 151-162. (Open Access)

Huntley B., Green R.E., Collingham Y.C. & Willis S.G. (2007) A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds. Durham University, The RSPB & Lynx Edicions. Barcelona.

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London.

Mercer I. (2009) Dartmoor: a statement of its time. Collins. HarperCollins. London.

7 thoughts on “The Lake District – World Heritage Site

  1. It’s a thoughtful consideration of the issues, thank you. Where I part company from you is on your assessment of the reasons for the barren state of the uplands. Whilst nitrogen deposition and climate change are factors, they do not account for the continued absence of tree cover, scrub and general habitat for a wider range of wildlife than we have become accustomed to seeing. With a more varied habitat we could have a much more varied and abundant wildlife and I’m afraid it is the herbivores, sheep mainly, that are the culprits here.

  2. Pingback: The end of livestock farming? A world of narratives and counter narratives – A Dartmoor blog

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

Leave a Reply to Adrian Colston Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.