Farming v rewilding: the battle for Borrowdale in the Lake District

“The buggers are out of control and the trust just let them away with it. It’s not good enough.” That’s the verdict of Billy Bland, 75, a lifelong resident of Borrowdale, in the English Lake District. He’s talking about the farmers – including friends, family and neighbours – who work the land here, and of the valley’s principal landlord, the National Trust, which owns eight of Borrowdale’s 11 farms along with large tracts of woodland, wetland and fell.

With its rugged crags, wood-lined valley sides and stone wall-fringed pastures, Borrowdale for many visitors is the most picturesque valley of the Lake District. But Bland is concerned that the way this landscape has been farmed in recent decades is pushing its wildlife into severe decline.

Best known as one of the greatest long-distance fell runners of all time, Bland was born and raised on a farm just down the valley from his current Borrowdale home. Since childhood, he has seen farming undergo dramatic change. Farm machinery rolled on to the land, then steadily got bigger. Synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides arrived. And, driven by the post-second world war imperative to grow more food, and farm subsidies designed to maximise productivity, sheep flocks swelled dramatically. Though Cumbria’s sheep population has receded from its turn of the millennium peak, it is still nearly twice as big as it was when Bland was born in 1947.

As a boy, Bland remembers competing with his classmates to see who could pick, press and name the biggest variety of wildflowers from the hay meadows. Those traditionally managed meadows are all but gone now. And so too, Bland says, are the clouds of yellowhammers, the curlews and the lapwings that used to frequent them. Natural England judges just 21.6% of the Lake District’s several dozen sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) to be in a “favourable condition”.

Farming v rewilding

On the one hand, the Lake District is a farmed landscape where people work the land and where food – mostly lamb, mutton and beef – is grown. The desire to protect these pastoral traditions was a primary driver of Unesco’s decision to inscribe it as a world heritage site in 2017.

On the other hand, the Lake District is a vital haven for wildlife and wild landscapes. The varied and lush habitats form one of England’s largest and most crucial reservoirs for biodiversity and naturally cleaned drinking water. As we slide ever deeper into the climate crisis, this land has immense potential to draw down carbon dioxide and provide resilience against extreme weather events.

Billy Bland
Billy Bland has seen farming undergo dramatic change since his childhood. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The challenge of balancing these sometimes contradictory demands applies across most of UK’s upland areas, which make up 40% of the nation’s surface. But it is particularly acute in the Lake District. William Wordsworth, 212 years ago, described it as “a sort of national property in which every man has a right and an interest”. Today, more than 19 million tourists come here each year, bringing their own views about how this part of Britain should look and function.

Who should decide how this land is best used in the future? Is Bland right that sheep farmers have been controlling the narrative for too long? Is it time for them – aided by their landlords, including the National Trust – to make more space for nature and step up efforts to make the land do more to serve the public good?

These questions came to a head in 2016 at Thorneythwaite, a farm near the remote southern end of Borrowdale that was put up for sale by its private owners. The National Trust, keen to extend its Borrowdale landholding, opted to buy the 303-acre plot of farmland but not the farmhouse. This elicited a furious reaction from sectors of the local farming community.

The charity was accused of severing the crucial link between people and place that, in the farmers’ view, had allowed conservation and farming to operate hand in hand for generations. The Cumbria-born broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg weighed in, accusing the trust of using “mafia-style” tactics and pricing out would-be local buyers. The Cumbrian farmer and bestselling author James Rebanks declared that “Thorneythwaite farm is dead”. In the background, rumours circulated that the National Trust’s real aim was to get rid of the sheep and rewild the land.

In a public statement at the time, the trust made clear that Thorneythwaite would remain a “farmed landscape”. To this day, it employs a local grazier to manage a flock of Herdwick sheep and a small herd of hardy, local breed cattle.

Herdwick sheep in the Borrowdale valley
Herdwick sheep in the Borrowdale valley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The National Trust declined to be interviewed for this article but a spokesperson provided a statement that said the priority for all of its Borrowdale properties was achieving “mutual success for nature, climate and the farming traditions that sustain our cultural and natural heritage, and livelihoods.” It’s a fine ambition, but can all those jostling interests really be satisfied?

Grazing pressure

I invited the conservation ecologist Rob Dixon, founder of the habitat restoration consultancy Wild Lakeland, to walk the patchwork of different habitats that make up the Thorneythwaite landholding. Starting in the valley bottom, Dixon echoes Bland’s point: the traditionally managed upland hay meadows are no more. Yet, with a few targeted interventions, he says, these dry stone walls could once again contain florally abundant, bird- and insect-rich habitats.

The National Trust spokesperson confirmed that meadow restoration was its ambition, and said work started after the charity bought Thorneythwaite but was largely halted in 2020 by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Old growth in Borrowdale
Old growth in Borrowdale. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Through a gate, we enter woodland. Borrowdale contains England’s largest surviving fragments of the sprawling temperate rainforest that once cloaked much of the UK’s Atlantic seaboard. Thorneythwaite’s small part of this once mighty forest contains veteran oaks, birches and rowans, multi-trunked alder, pollarded ash, holly and tangled hazel coppice, all lichen-crusted, fern-spangled and moss-carpeted.

But apart from a smattering of tiny seedlings at ground level, Dixon reckons no new trees have been able to grow here for at least 70 years. The cows that have been grazed here are not the only culprits: Herdwick sheep are famous for their wall-hopping prowess, as are the resident red and roe deer.

The National Trust has said it is working with its current grazier “to ensure that the current regime is working”. But Dixon suspects the tender seedlings we’re seeing underfoot will be bitten off before the year is out. And at some point a woodland without regenerating trees ceases to be a woodland at all.

A little higher up the valley’s edge, tree cover thins and we enter a waist-high sea of bracken, a coarse, fast-growing fern that few other plants can compete with. “This is where I sing the praises of cattle,” says Dixon, gesturing to areas where cows have trampled the bracken flat. He had hoped to spot many more young trees and wildflowers starting to flourish. “Everything is raring to go here,” he says, “but [under the current level of grazing pressure] it can’t.”

Rob Dixon on the fells overlooking the Borrowdale valley
Rob Dixon on the fells overlooking the Borrowdale valley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Passing through a gate in a stone wall on to the open hillside is like stepping into a parallel world. For a professional ecologist like Dixon, it is a scene of ecological devastation. There is scarcely a bird or flower and the rocky slope is flecked with sheep that have mown the grass down to a tight, monotone sward.

A rocky outcrop juts out of the thin turf, decorated with tufts of juniper, bilberry, rowan and ferns. For Dixon, it’s a glimpse of the biodiverse riches – as well as opportunities for carbon sequestration – that this terrain could support. “That’s all we’ve got left. It’s a sad sight,” he says.

Further on, the ground runs away steeply to a racing stream, or beck. Dixon points to numerous patches where, under intense sheep traffic, the thin soils, lacking the deep root structures that would otherwise bind them together, have started to erode into the watercourse below. Everything that runs off these fells will soon end up in the fast-flowing, canalised River Derwent.

The intense grazing on this particular common – where several farmers, or commoners, have a right to graze their flocks – is replicated over huge expanses of the Lake District fells. Dixon has little time for anyone who might try to defend it. Using cultural heritage as an excuse for this kind of farming is, he says, like dressing “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

A sheep among bracken.
A sheep among bracken. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Nor does he accept the argument that the unfolding global food security crisis should justify running more sheep on this land. “Lamb doesn’t feed the nation,” he says. The 2021 National Food Strategy review placed the Lake District within the least productive 20% of the UK’s land, producing only 3% of our calories. “The sheep aren’t the profitable part of this farming system,” says Dixon. “The profitable parts are BPS [basic payment scheme] and environmental stewardship payments.”

The cost of degraded landscapes

The idea of restoring the ecology of the Lake District fells may be becoming easier to justify in hard-nosed economic terms. In December 2015, Storm Desmond subjected Cumbria to 300-plus millimetres of rain in a 24-hour period. Water, soil and rock cascaded off the fells, stone bridges were swept away and towns across Cumbria were paralysed by floods. The storm then crossed the North Sea, picking up water and power on its way, before dumping almost twice as much rainwater on to south-west Norway.

According to preliminary analysis conducted by Duncan Halley, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), the storm caused an estimated €833m (£724m) of damage in the UK, compared with €31.8m in Norway. On a per capita basis, Storm Desmond was nearly 10 times more destructive in the UK than it was in Norway, despite hitting Britain with less fury.

Halley thinks this is because the hills of southern Norway have undergone dramatic natural forest regeneration in recent decades. As well as locking down a lot of carbon and stabilising soils, this has improved the landscape’s ability to absorb and hold water.

The National Trust says it is restoring peat bogs – which have massive potential to soak up water and carbon – at several sites, including nearby Armboth Fell. Plans are in hand to renaturalise and therefore slow the flow of water in several small sections of the Derwent and its catchment.

Dixon is clear that wholesale banishment of livestock farming from this landscape is not the answer. If people just step back and let nature reassert its grip, he says, much of this land “could end up just being covered in very dense bracken for a very long time”. Instead, using livestock in ways that “replicate wild processes” can help habitat recovery.

Tracks used by cattle in the Lake District
Tracks used by cattle in the Lake District. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

There are signs that land-sharing – farming that balances productivity with habitat restoration – is being adopted by some of the Lake District’s farms.

But it can only be part of the answer in a place like Borrowdale. A mile or so downstream of Thorneythwaite is another fragment of Britain’s primeval forest called Johnny Wood. Guy Shrubsole, the author of the upcoming book Lost Rainforests of Britain, reports an alarming absence of successful regeneration there.

Shrubsole is sympathetic to the National Trust, which he thinks is too often “attacked on all sides”. Nevertheless, he says: “I hope they have the courage of their convictions and remember that their mission is as much about conserving natural beauty as it is about cultural heritage.

“I want to see them doing all they can, not only to protect what they’ve got but to help [Borrowdale’s woods] return to their past grandeur.” For Shrubsole, that means establishing livestock-free buffer zones and corridors that protect and reconnect Borrowdale’s precious relic woodlands.

This has long been a dream shared by Maurice Pankhurst, who retired last year after working for 24 years as the National Trust’s woodland ranger for the north, and who was part of the team charged with looking after Thorneythwaite. In 1999, he worked with a local farmer, Will Cockbain, to create a sheep-free corridor around Falcon Crag that links the woods at Ashness Bridge with Great Wood at the northern end of Borrowdale.

After Pankhurst hatched the idea for rewilding Falcon Crag, he knocked on Cockbain’s door and asked the farmer what he would say if the National Trust connected him with a modest (by today’s standards) environmental stewardship payment for taking his sheep off the fell. As Pankhurst tells it, Cockbain’s response was instant: “I’d shake your fucken hand!” In short, this rewilding project was a clear win-win for both farmer and conservationist.

A patch of rewilding (lighter area) seen from high up on the fells overlooking the Borrowdale valley
A patch of rewilding (lighter area) seen from high up on the fells overlooking the Borrowdale valley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Twenty-three years on, Falcon Crag is a thriving patchwork of scrub and regenerating woodland, and one of the best places in the Lake District for spotting migratory birds. Pankhurst thinks the National Trust should push forward with more projects of this kind, but he suspects that one obstacle is the Lake District’s world heritage status, which imposes additional bureaucracy and emboldens the more change-resistant sectors of the local farming community. Next month, a strongly anti-rewilding motion is due to be voted on at the National Trust’s AGM.

What happens in Borrowdale does not concern only the people here. The recovery of flower-cloaked fields and felltops would act as sanctuary for the insect pollinators that are under assault across the UK and beyond. Migratory birds that can find refuge here sustain ecosystems around the globe. The absorption of stormwater by this land will save the homes of towns and villages downstream. Reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff here will limit the toxic algal blooms that increasingly blight the Lake District’s major tourist draw – its lakes. And every extra ton of carbon that can be locked down by recovering peat bogs, trees and scrublands in this remote valley plays a part in safeguarding the future of all the world’s citizens.

On the fell above Thorneythwaite, Dixon surveys the damaged yet undeniably beautiful tapestry of pasture, wood, wetland, heath and scree that forms the Borrowdale valley. “[There is] a massive, massive opportunity to do something on an epic scale here,” he says. “Instead it’s just lying waiting to happen.”