Upland hay meadows – the work of Friends of the Lake District
My latest book manuscript delves into the changes that have happened (and are happening) in the Lake District over the years. As part of my research, I recently visited the High Borrowdale site owned and managed by the Friends of the Lake District to interview Jan Darrall about their environmental work, as she supervised some volunteers protecting newly planted trees. Taking a break, we sat on the grass at the edge of the meadow, and discussed topics ranging from their upland hay meadow re-creation project there, to campaigning work across Cumbria.
[The interview transcript is reproduced here with permission.]
Tell me a little about Friends of the Lake District and your role there?
I am a Policy Officer at Friends of the Lake District (FoLD). The organisation was established in 1934 ‘to campaign to create a national park to protect the Lake District landscape for future generations’. Friends of the Lake District was launched that year at a public rally in Fitz Park, Keswick. The Lakes (along with Peaks) was the first National Parks to be setup in 1951. Back in 1936 there was a separate company to Friends of the Lake District established that was called Lake District Farm Estates. At that time the National Trust didn’t have money and they weren’t into real land ownership. Lake District Farm Estates went around buying up hill farms to look after them. The reason they felt it was so important was because when you look at the landscape here you have got open fells, walls, inbye land, and the culture of communing, which are all the essence of the Lake District. Lake District Farm Estates got up to 22 farms eventually, including some important ones like Nook Farm (Borrowdale), and several in the Duddon Valley. But, they found they didn’t have a large enough number of shareholders or the capital, so in the end by one vote they wrapped up the company in 1977 and gave the remaining 11 farms to the National Trust with covenants.
What at Friends of the Lake District’s aims and ambitions?
The aims and ambitions have changed over the years. So, after National Park status was achieved in 1951 some were saying, “we have got it now, do we just pack up and go home?”. However, it was decided that there was still work to be done. Between 1934 and 1951 Friends of the Lake District had campaigned hard for undergrounding of wires in Borrowdale and keeping afforestation in check. In 1978 Friends of the Lake District widened out their remit to include the whole of Cumbria, and also took on the remit for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), but independently.
Would you say FoLD was more active or political?
It is predominantly a campaigning organisation, but you can campaign through lots of different mediums. In Sept 2002 FoLD started back into land ownership with the purchase of the land in High Borrowdale (east Cumbria). That marked a period of healthy finances. The National Park boundary at that time was the A6 (to the west of High Borrowdale valley). The land was sold by auction and it was from somebody that had farmed it but hadn’t lived here. This was the beginning of positive actions from FoLD, to campaign through that. We wanted to try things other people can’t. We can set best practice, put what we say into practice, and learn from it. You get a circle: put policy into practice on the ground, then you work on the ground things into your policy. From my point of view, it has been a brilliant thing to have done.
Is this High Borrowdale project wider than the meadow work?
Yes. Down here we have been ahead of the game, not especially through intelligence and judgement, more through luck really. We bought the property, decided what we wanted to do and then we started looking at larger landscapes. We were looking at ecological links, so you can see a strip of land going right the way round. If you go down to the other end of the valley you will see a lot of ancient oak and ash semi-natural woodland. Coming back to this end it felt very bare. We thought we would do tree planting on the ‘allotment’ behind us, but immediately put in this strip right the way down to connect to the landscapes at the other end of the valley. We were thinking of slowing the flow of the river, beck stabilisation, and a wildlife habitat corridor. This is now, after Storm Desmond, what everyone is talking about. But we weren’t thinking of it in those terms then, we were just thinking it would deliver lots of good things. Then we thought about trying to show if it is possible to recreate this rapidly declining habitat of upland hay meadow.
So, is that the nub of this particular roject?
Yes, we re-created a hay meadow and monitor it, after taking a baseline survey at the beginning. The second thing was to re-create another hay meadow with a completely different technique, so we can compare and contrast the two. This first one cost £20,000 and the second one cost £500. The first was done with donor seed from various different sites and spread on with a lot more ground prep, and a lot more after-care. The other one was just an all in one day thing, rather than three weeks, taking our own green hay and putting it on the top.
What other actions are involved here?
We have repaired every single wall on the property. The inbye land has been put in the agri-environment agreement, you know where you are paid to manage in a more environmentally friendly way. All the woodland we have put into a Forestry Commission grant, and what we found was that on this land we were being paid to take away say metal gates and put wooden ones back, because they were traditional. We were paid to repair our drystone walls.
You have the same status as farms when it comes to grants?
Yes. On the land behind us the Forestry Commission weren’t interested in the landscape of walls, they just wanted a deer fence. We said, “we don’t want a deer fence, we want to fix our walls”. “Well you will have to do that yourself, then”, they said. We were able to start making some political points to the grant authorities about these aspects. Sometimes they were going against their own policies. We have had Forestry Commission here, DEFRA, Natural England, all manner of people. What we didn’t really realise with the hay meadow, was that we were re-creating habitats which no-one really knew how to do at that time. But since then there is a lot more knowledge and we know more about techniques.
Why not let everything go back to trees?
We are doing that, but selectively. That is a trial too. It is interesting because we planted that allotment in 2005, putting 10,000 trees in, and the idea was to plant the bluffs and the rest would re-gen up to the top. Nearly 15 years later and you might be saying, “where are the trees?”. So, now I sit on a lot of post-Desmond flood groups and am hearing, “you need to slow the flow, you need to plant, you need to rough up”. You need to do all these things, and I am thinking we did all of that and where are the trees?
What has happened?
We have tried to ascertain what the reason was for that failure. I think it is lots of things coming together here on this site. We have got high winds, heavy rainfall, shallow soils, and the biggest population of voles in the whole of the world. We have also got deer even though we deer fence. It all just comes together, but what I have been saying, particularly to people like the Forestry Commission, is why each time you are doing a big public scheme are we not logging height, aspect, slope, and soil, because I can virtually look at things now and say that is not going to work on there, because of that, but it will work elsewhere.
What is your profile, would you say?
We are known in DEFRA for the hay meadow re-creation, and we are known for the public work we do, engaging the public. The number of people that come down in the summer is huge. We will talk to anyone who will listen. We have done TV, radio, and have written stuff. All our properties are dedicated as open access to people. The other property I manage is 464 hectares of common land. Again, we try and set best practice for the common.
The other thing we did was we felt that in our submissions before 1951 about the National Park boundary we always claimed this [Borrowdale] and Bretherdale over the top there should be in, because it is the same landscape. So, we spent 10 years getting our act together, building our evidence and this is now part of the extension of the Lake District National Park, together with the bit down near Sizergh. We have got land in the extension zones.
Where might this project lead next?
It is long-term. We are taking a 20-year view. The latest thing is we had four landslides at the back end of last year. We had a significant one in Desmond that nearly wiped out the field barn and came into the hay meadow. It did the same again last November. We are currently involved in a trial project with the University of Cumbria.
We have laid out three types of matting with the aim of trying to get vegetation back on eroded slopes as fast as possible to stabilise it. With the volunteers this summer we have been pegging out three types of matting and will leave that there for three years and monitor it. It will not stop the landslip, but it may help the landscape repair itself. We are trying to assess, with others, why we are having all these landslips because this valley is really like a Lake District in miniature. Everything in it is extreme and intense so we have the fell land, the inbye, fast flowing beck, huge winds, high rainfall, as I mentioned.
Is it scalable in money and manpower terms?
We are looking at that. We knew full well, for instance, that after the first hay meadow re-creation your normal famers are not going to spend £20,000 to get grass that they think is a poorer quality. But they might spend £500 if they are in a grant scheme. When we first started we did shut-up (excluding livestock) from the 1st April but we knew most Lakes farmers were still lambing then. So, we have put the shut-up back to the first of May now. All the time you are trying to make it as relevant or replicable as possible to a normal land manager.
What else would you like to see FoLD doing?
Well, everything is changing. Agendas change, new things come up, like the post Storm Desmond stuff threw up whole new questions for us and the landscape. It may be a question of where are we prepared to compromise.
What about the World Heritage Status and its effect on the Lake District?
I am not sure how much a difference the Heritage Status for the Lakes will make. It is great in that it has got a lot more focus on the cultural heritage side of it, but it isn’t as some organisations think a fight or argument between natural heritage and cultural heritage. It is all one. The chief worry that we have is that it is already bringing in more people and areas of the Lake District are suffering. There is traffic congestion, there is footpath erosion, more commercialism, and at what point do you say enough. That is what we are talking about with LDNPA now.
The basic problem is we have so many businesses that depend on tourism, they don’t want the word to go out that the place is full. One of the worst aspects is the travel. Until there is a realistic and viable option what can you do? We have input to the consultation the National Park are doing because it is far too tourism-led. There is not enough for the residents. One of the big concerns is they want to set up what they are calling showcase areas. So, for example, Keswick would be a hub, and the showcase area would be all the way down Borrowdale. But the showcase areas are going to have more lenient planning rules. Borrowdale has small roads. It can only take so much traffic. Its quality is its setting. With these big hotel extensions, are they after the conference market? They don’t need to be.
Any other specific issues?
The zip wire proposal in Thirlmere is really interesting because it is almost led to a feeling for the re-birth of the role for the National Park. People have been coming out very emotionally about ‘National Park not Theme Park’. It has shown to many people that things have started to go wrong. When change is slow and incremental you don’t notice, but when you stand back you suddenly think hang on a minute, do we really want this. Do we really want the whole of Thirlmere and Borrowdale to be like Windermere and Bowness?
The government have said that from 2021 to 2027 will be the transitional period (post-Brexit). Payments just for your land will be phased out over that time and they will bring in this pilot called Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), whereby you will be paid for public benefits. That could be bio-diversity in a hay meadow, landscaping (e.g. stone walls), tree for carbon, etc. But, perhaps the agricultural organisations will say, where is the food in all this?
What should the other stakeholders be doing?
I think there are some fundamental questions. World Heritage status has shown this. What level of visitor interaction do we really want? LDNPA seem to be saying bring in even more people. It is 19 million visitors a year, compared to 44,000 residents. Where do the residents and their daily lives fit in? Where does the culture of commoning and upland farming fit in? Where is the balance between them? Where is the spiritual refreshment and physical enjoyment that was part of the original National Park ethos? There is too much instant gratification in society now.
Photos 1,2, 3, 5 and 6 courtesy of Friends of the Lake District. Photos 4, 7, 8 are the author’s.