The debate about rewilding in the UK really took off with the publication of George Monbiot’s Feral in 2013. The idea that some – maybe a lot – of our land should be left solely to nature for regeneration, caught the imagination of many, at the same time as horrifying many farmers – for whom land was for food production.
It was a foundation for the idea of ‘sparing’ some land – conserving it as a natural treasure – while intensive, destructive industrial methods of food production continue to jeopardise biodiversity in the rest. Judging from the recent contribution by Baroness Penn in a debate on the Dasgupta review on the economics of biodiversity in the House of Lords, it is an idea that some members of the government still hold.
Restoring nature versus farming – a timely compromise?
It is to be hoped, not least from a contribution from DEFRA Secretary of State George Eustice last week to the Soil Association’s conference, that some parts of government have grasped that we need land ‘sharing’ – looking after every inch of land on our much-abused, intensively cultivated corner of this planet. We need to make it as welcoming to wildlife and biodiversity as possible, while also producing food from it. This means deploying agricultural management techniques described as ‘agroecological’ or ‘regenerative’, although the only certification method that can – fairly well – guarantee the goals are met is organic farming.
But there’s still a paucity of detailed, experience-based, evidenced accounts of what ‘sharing’ might look like, which makes Wild Fell by ecologist Lee Schofield an extremely timely book – as well as a highly readable personal account of the author’s progress in learning and sharing his knowledge with a community that is not always highly receptive to ideas of change. It is one that should inform the new House of Lords inquiry looking into land use in England, driven by Labour’s Baroness Young of Old Scone.
Tragic extinction in the Lake District heralds a change that recalls the past
The story starts with an eagle, sadly the last, lonely golden eagle. The RSPB arrived as a land manager to try to protect the golden eagles at Haweswater – a reservoir owned by what is now United Utilities, the water company supplying northwest England in the iconic – and World Heritage-listed – Lake District. The first pair of eagles for 170 years nested nearby in 1969, and from 1970 to 1996 they raised 16 chicks on Haweswater’s shore – which the existence of ‘Eagle Crag’ shows was a traditional home. But from 2004, only a single male was left, and he disappeared in 2015.
Schofield was employed to oversee the management of the reservoir and two accompanying hill farms. He set about trying to keep the area as productive farmland, while restoring its natural abundance. That has meant making changes within the farming system, rather than abruptly ending it.
Sensitive areas, and some big patches of pasture, have been fenced off from grazing to allow plants to regenerate. Trees have been planted where they won’t naturally regenerate. Sheep numbers have been reduced and hardy fell ponies, as well as Galloway cattle, have been introduced – wearing GPS collars that act like ‘virtual fences’, allowing the beasts to be guided away from the pre-defined area Schofield and his team want to protect. The author notes:
“Putting the right animals in the right places at the right times is allowing our habitats to thrive. We’re not just a sheep farm any more – we are edging back towards the more traditional mixed-farming model that was the norm until just a couple of generations ago.”
Livestock thrive with ‘hundreds of different plants to feed on’
One of the key points that Schofield found hasn’t been widely grasped, is that what is there today is not a long-term historical norm. Headage payments under the Common Agricultural Policy pushed numbers of sheep up to extraordinary levels – and that’s what people remember. Schofield says, “during the last three decades of the twentieth century, subsidies did more damage to the ecology of the uplands than had occurred since Neolithic times”.
And those cattle and sheep have an increasingly rich choice of feed, excellent for their health and wellbeing. I made this point in a recent parliamentary discussion; that animals self-medicate against worms and do well nutritionally by grazing on a range of plant species. It was met with frank astonishment in some quarters that animals could eat anything but grass.
“Given the choice, all livestock like a varied diet. Cattle grazing in a typical wood pasture might have hundreds of different plants to feed on. The leaves of trees, fruit when it’s available, as well as a mix of wildflowers and grasses, not only help to keep animals healthy and happy, but they make them taste better too. When fed only on high-energy rye grass and concentrated feedstuffs, often made of soya and other monoculture crops, livestock may grow faster, but they often suffer from a range of ailments and require medication to keep them fit.”
Does Norway hold the answer to plant species extinction in Britain?
A crucial part of the book is its account of an area of Norway very similar to the Lake District, which shows how such land can be rich, vibrant and productive. Schofield visits Fidjadalen, which “has acid rocks, steep terrain, high rainfall, a short growing season and broadly comparable summer temperatures”.
‘Rare’ plants often found only in bogs in the UK are all over the landscape there – not having to seek refuge from overgrazing. Plants selected to grow low to the ground in the UK stand proud in Norway, such as tormentil (its Latin name Potentilla erecta giving away the fact that’s how it was identified.)
Schofield cites typical sheep density there as one ewe per five hectares over about four months. In the Lake District, it is roughly one ewe per hectare, typically for a much longer period.
A deep passion for ecology
This is a book containing lots of facts and information, for all that it bears them lightly. On plant extinctions, it quotes stats from the charity Plantlife on the number of species lost per county over the past century. Worst was Banffshire in Scotland, losing nearly a species per year, with Cumbria mid-table at one every three years – its critically endangered species include the distinctive burnt orchid and lady’s slipper orchid.
As Schofield says, this isn’t just a disastrous loss for insects and other animals, but for us – for even where species cling on, abundance has often collapsed; “It means the chances of having flower-rich experiences have been taken from us.”
And where there’s biological information, the author’s passion shines through – the description of free-floating, carnivorous bladderworts is detailed and fascinating:
“Threadlike leaves are interspersed with tiny hollow spheres. By moving water from the inside to the outside of these bladders, they become filled with air, helping the plant float, but also enabling it to perform a deadly trick. The bladders are fitted with a tiny trapdoor, surrounded by a ring of sensitive hairs. If some aquatic insect or tiny worm brushes past them, the trapdoor opens, and because of the lower pressure inside the bladder, the hapless creature is sucked in and the trapdoor slams behind it. The whole process happens with astonishing speed, in less than 0.03 of a second. Enzymes in the bladder dissolve and consume the trapped insect. In less than 30 minutes, water is pumped back out of the bladder and the trap is reset.”
Hope and transformation – as wildlife returns in abundance
You’ll easily learn a lot from Wild Fell. And it offers that most precious commodity, hope. For Haweswater clearly is on the way to being transformed. In the final chapter, Schofield takes a walk through some of the improvements:
“The first changes to the birdlife came after the bogs were restored. Snipe returned immediately, drumming and chipping and then flying out of the moss like enraged bats. Red grouse arrived as soon as the weather got going. The woodland and shrub birds came in with the habitat too. Cuckoos are a common sight and sound up here in the spring, along with tree pipits, linnets and yellowhammers. In places, red squirrels can now cross the common without having to touch the ground.”
As I write this review on a train in Herefordshire, I gaze out over a county that’s seen enormous environmental destruction just in the past decade – permanent pastures ploughed up for maize, the air and water heavily contaminated by intensive poultry units. But it – like the whole of the country – could continue to produce food far healthier and varied than now and become rich in biodiversity. The geography’s very different to the Lake District, but the same principles apply. Schofield is showing the way.