How should we develop landscapes now that climate change is bringing ever-changing conditions and, in many cases, increasing adverse impacts?
I’ve had an inspirational visit to Cumbria looking at re-naturalisation projects with Natural England’s climate change adaptation people. Yes, the impacts are undoubtedly getting worse - Storm Desmond was continually on the locals’ lips – yet there are enormous opportunities for meeting the challenges in new, joined-up ways that benefit a range of different interests.
Wild Ennerdale in western Lakeland shows how a partnership project is shifting away from economic productivity as the primary output, towards lower input, more sensitive management which give natural processes a greater hand in determining how the valley will evolve in the future. Low density cattle grazing is replacing sheep, encouraging better floral diversity amid large scale mixed oak plantings on the fells. In the valley, the river Lisa and its tributaries are given the freedom to move around the floodplain without constraint. What are the benefits of this approach? The re-naturalised catchment and river combine to give cleaner, slower flows of water downstream and enhanced nature everywhere and it all looks amazing – think Canada! Water management in harmony with nature - is this what much more of the Lake District could, or even should, look like?
In the east Lakes, the RSPB in Swindale is delivering catchment scale restoration in the valley alongside Haweswater. The river has been re-meandered and there is some upland planting. Sheep remain, at lower stocking density. The approach is less extreme than at Wild Ennerdale, Swindale is about demonstrating potential, as at the RSPB lowland Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire. And it all looks do-able, widely, elsewhere – whilst of course throwing up things to consider, such as what to do about the hay meadow if the flood plain becomes wetland.
Bolton Fell Moss, east of Carlisle, is a former peat extraction site. It took an awful lot of effort to get this site designated, and I’m glad we did. Five years ago the site was commercially mined, some 360 hectares of mostly drained and bare soil. Today, Sphagnum moss is starting to grow through the nurse crop mix and the site is starting to look like a peat bog again - as a welly-boot over-topping demonstrated (not mine!). Peatland restoration is pressing now, to achieve a robust functional state that’s resilient to the longer, more frequent dry periods expected in summers ahead – we probably have about a decade to get on with this, whilst things are still relatively benign.
Some great snapshots from individual sites, yet what’s the bigger story?
First, climate change affects everything. So we all have do things a bit differently and be forward looking, and not hark too much to the past. Current ways will be – in some cases already are – no longer appropriate. We are in an era of inescapable change and this offers opportunities, such as to develop more resilient, multi-function catchments and landscapes. Sustainable management and increased emphasis on natural processes is gaining wider favour – such as at the National Trust’s Glencoyne Farm on Ullswater and Troutbeck Park.
The ‘re-naturalisation’ of the sites that we visited showed that there are many ways to do this. One size certainly does not fit all. Nevertheless, it seems wise to adopt a way forward that favours natural processes and does not fight obsessively against them. This approach will also benefit more people - through using natural means to contribute to society needs, such as flood management. The more traditional management of land can be brought into this, and we must find ways to do this.
Brexit may offer an opportunity, through being able to develop a funding framework that meets UK needs for climate change and the 21st century. Another hard task, but achievable if we start now with clear asks and outcomes.
And that leads to my final thought. The three magical places we visited are all largely hidden – both geographically and in the public eye. We need to change that, to build a better understanding of what the Cumbrian landscape has to really offer, and to respond to, in this era of environmental change that is with us for at least our lifetimes. The hearts and minds of Cumbria’s residents and many visitors are also key to helping this beautiful part of England meet new needs and opportunities, and to be a prosperous and safe place to live and visit.
Facing real problems, with real vision and strong partnerships – Cumbria is perhaps leading the way towards more vibrant, resilient and innovative landscapes across Britain. A silver lining to the havoc of Storm Desmond’s dark, grey clouds.