I am, by my own admission, quite fond of the Lake District: affection born of pleasant memories forged during my time in the area as an undergraduate. Memories build on exhilarating wildlife encounters – with ospreys at Bassenthwaite, with rutting red deer at Martindale and, most indelibly of all, with England’s last remaining golden eagle at Haweswater – but also on the unique appeal of the area itself. The national park providing the ideal place to observe and roam during my studies, and the areas unique culture and clear sense of community providing a welcome change from an upbringing in the occasionally dreary North-East. Fondness aside, however, I find it hard ignore the parks inescapable flaws.
The Lake District, by large, is not a natural landscape – despite the pristine image of rugged beauty painted by everyone from tour operators and local farmers. Indeed, the current ascetics of the park are vastly different from what could, and should, exist; and with the exception of a few tirelessly managed nature reserves, many of which now find themselves in an unfavorable condition, the vast majority of the Lake District is now dedicated to pasture. The majority of the park reduced from wilderness to sea of close-cropped grassland given life by centuries worth of hill farming – forest, scrub, copse and meadow transformed, entirely, by the grazing of Herdwick’s and the hand of those who tend them.
The practice of hill farming has left much of the Lake District barren and scarred – so much so, in fact, that most of the species you would traditionally find in such a place have been displaced, eradicated or forced into increasingly isolated pockets of greenery. This trend stretching far beyond those species extirpated in centuries past – the sea eagles, lynx and wolves that once roamed the wider region – to squirrels, woodland passerines, butterflies, raptors and specialist invertebrates that should, rightfully, call the park their home. It is all rather sad and, unfortunately, the trend of alteration continues until the the present day despite the economically unsustainable nature of hill farming itself, and a gradual shift in public attitude towards a more environmentally friendly nature.
Now, in keeping with my views on other facets of the rural community, I bare hill farmers no ill will. In fact, I believe that they, like anyone else, are entitled to their way of life and agree, fully, with the sentiment that the Lake District itself would not be the same without those who work the land the the little blue ungulates that graze it. Like many, I believe that tradition should be celebrated, safeguarded even, and unlike many hardcore rewilders would not have the practice abolished entirely. Rather, I would see it worked into a sustainable framework that benefits man, beast and land equally; though just how this can happen given the precarious financial state of hill-farming is a little beyond me. At present, however, it is clear that this is not happening and that the are scales firmly towards the former – the needs of wildlife continually playing second fiddle to the requirements of man. This is why I find it impossible to agree with the recent designation of the Lake District as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The idea that the Lake District – fraught with problems and ecologically lacking – should receive the same recognition as locations such as the Pantanal and Białowieża Forest does not sit right with me. Yes, I am aware that status was awarded based on cultural heritage, much like Westminster Abbey and Stonehenge; though this, I fear, will make it almost impossible to enact any sort of positive change to the area in the future and is, in essence, paramount to directly rewarding those who have, albeit inadvertently, damaged the landscape. The decision, in my opinion, serving only to consolidate the view that the current look of Lake District is, in fact, the correct one. A myth perpetrated by those reluctant to change, easily dispelled by one visit to the park, that will, ultimately, cost us all. While costing our fragile flora and fauna much more still.
Conservation has made gains in the Lake District over recent years and doubtless could make many more should a suitable compromise be reached with farmers, or government be persuaded to intervene (unlikely, I know). While the outlook for wildlife in the lakes has been grim for some time, there has always been hope; although this appears to be evaporating fast, sped along by this decision on behalf of the UN, and the choice of many conservation NGOs to back the application for heritage status. A mind-boggling decision that saw many bodies seemingly abandoning purpose and uniting with those who paint a false image of rosy prosperity that they, themselves, have spoken out against on occasion. Alas, however, the Game of Thrones style maneuvering of conservation organisations are sometimes hard to comprehend and I sincerely hope that the choices made were part of a wider game plan. If our conservation organisations stop clamoring for change, who else is there to speak up?
While I do not share the, in my opinion, impractical outlook that the Lake District should be returned to a primeval wilderness and the views of locals discounted entirely, I believe that there considerable room for change. Change that would see some areas returned to nature, practices altered and views shifted – all with the aim of bolstering native wildlife. I hope this still comes to fruition; though prospects look less promising now than they did in the past. The decision to grand this fractured ecosystem heritage status only serving to strengthen the norm and entrench positions further. A great shame, if you ask me: the Lake District may be beautiful in the eyes of some, but there is great potential to make it appealing to all, while also retaining its heritage and sustaining livelihoods.