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When the Rooted argue – The National Trust, Rewilding and the Lake District Farmers


A view from Wray Castle near Windermere

It is an argument that has been simmering for some time. And it is between people and organisations that all have a ‘Rooted’ spirituality in that they care about nature; They care about a place, in this case the Lake District; and they all think broadly and inclusively about people and communities.

The particular issue is focussed around Thorneythwaite Farm in Borrowdale, where the National Trust has taken the unusual step of purchasing most of the land belonging to the farm, but have not bought the farm buildings. Local sheep farmers foresee the end of sheep farming in this place as the buildings become holiday cottages, while the National Trust appear to be considering new ways of managing this piece of land in the interests of nature and the public.

The back story to this moment is profound, extending through centuries of farming tradition, supported by patrons like Beatrix Potter, who grew to love this area, moved there, learnt to farm sheep and bequeathed almost 4000 acres to the National Trust as a ways of preserving that way of life. It also features the local clergyman Hardwicke Rawnsley, who helped to set up the National Trust and campaigned all his life for the conservation of the Lake District. And it features countless sheep farmers, ably represented most recently by the writing of James Rebanks in The Shepherd’s Life. This book takes the reader deep into the soul of the sheep farming tradition and the rootedness of the farmers who see themselves as absolutely belonging to the landscape in which they live and work. You could say they are ‘hefted’ to their place in the world in the same way as their sheep are hefted to the fell on which they graze and do not wander. Yet James Rebanks writing is not a simple romantic attachment to the ways of the past. He sees the value of tourism to the area and realises that change of some sort is in the air.

herdwickshsmThe other side of the back story is the growing recognition that upland fells are not well treated by sheep. Sheep create a monoculture of grass. We may like this, because we of the fantastic, wide open views that we have become accustomed to, but in the absence of sheep a much more diverse ecology would develop. Much of the area would return to forest, with a proliferation of diverse species, which would be enormously attractive and beneficial both to humans and other creatures. Such a process of rewilding might also have serious benefits in terms of protecting valleys against the flash flooding that has become more and more frequent in this area.

So what is the resolution here? As I see it we need to learn to feel the different sides of argument. They are both important. Ultimately the questions may reduce to an assessment of values and priorities. Is it adequate to just preserve a way of life because it has been going on for centuries and is embedded in communities? Or is it appropriate to test the wisdom of a tradition against new insights that may be important for our future well-being? There can be little doubt that we need to learn to live in a better harmony with the natural world, but we are still learning exactly what that looks like. My sense is that there has to be a profound engagement with these questions. Simple preservation of ancient traditions may be inadequate. We need to test both the value and practicality of alternatives.

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