Sheepwrecked or a World Heritage Site? Thoughts on the Lake District

Herdwick lamb. by Adam Jennison licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

As the inevitability of President Theresa May being crowned on June the 9th seems without doubt now, we are hurtling, possibly out of control towards the exit, or rather the hard Brexit. This means the UK tumbles out of the Single Market, out of the Common Agricultural Policy and into a brave new world, of Free Trade, if you believe the Conservative Party manifesto. Without a Free Trade deal with our largest export market (the EU) exporters pay a significant tariff for the benefit of exporting. With a Free Trade deal, exporters in other countries can gain unfettered access to our markets.

One of the consequences of this will be a big shift in the economics of farming, particularly farming in the uplands – and nowadays there is only one upland farming “gunslinger in town”, and that is lamb production.

So it is interesting, to say the least, that one particular upland area of England is seeking to bolster its upland farming system at the moment, via what is rather an unusual route. That route is an application by The Lake District National Park (strictly speaking a partnership broader than the National Park, but led by it) for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  World Heritage Status is not given out willy-nilly. It’s a challenging process that takes years, and of course the process began before Brexit. That Brexit has happened in the middle of the process, gives extra impetus to the application, some might say an urgency.

The first bid for WHS status for the Lake District was made in 1985, so this is just another stop along that long trek. The difference this time is that the Government is right behind the bid.  James Rebanks of Rebanks Consulting prepared an an influential report, economic case for the bid in 2009 and this was updated in 2013.  Through these report, Rebanks advised the National Park on how best the Lake District could best secure its economic benefit from the bid and the possible inscription. This is the same James Rebanks as the author of The Shepherd’s Life – and someone who has become a modern and eloquent champion for the sheep farming industry in the Lake District.

The WHS bid is interesting in the way that it places sheep farming at the heart of the concept of “Outstanding Universal Value” which is the way that UNESCO use to decide whether a site is up to the standard required for a World Heritage Site.

Outstanding Universal Value can be defined according to different criteria depending on the type of site. For instance,  down here in Dorset the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site’s Outstanding Universal Value is defined solely by its geology, geomorphology, the history of the development of geology as a science; and the global significance of the Jurassic Coast in the teaching of those sciences. Despite the fact that the coast also supports wildlife sufficiently important for almost the entire area to be designated under European law (Birds and Habitats Directives), this was insufficient for it to qualify as a WHS for natural features.

World Heritage Sites also qualify if there are globally significant cultural features in an area or a site. Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site as is the Cornish tin mining landscape – and Kew Gardens. This is how the Lake District WHS bid defines its universal outstanding value in this document:




the bid goes on to describe in more detail how this fusion arose and what it means today








This is where it gets interesting. The suggestion, as I see it, is that the landscape of the Lake District today is rooted in and reflects centuries of farming – and indeed the farming that exists today is a continuation of that thousand year history.

There is no mention, anywhere in this document, of the decades of overgrazing by sheep. While the worst excesses of farm-subsidy funded overgrazing may have been in the past (I wrote about them back in 1999 for Friends of the Earth), the consequences of such overgrazing persist, in the form of altered habitats. Overgrazing by sheep contributed (and still does) to the decline in upland breeding birds. The impact on vegetation is profound: heathland has been replaced by grassland dominated by a few species. Even now, Natural England is recording areas of nationally important wildlife habitat as being overgrazed, such as this recent assessment of the Buttermere Fells SSSI.

Now George Monbiot, who often appears in these pages, has recently written another polemic against the proposal to designate this landscape as being of global importance and value and worth giving extra special protection. Monbiot argues that the Lake District is “sheep-wrecked”, that real natural value only resides in the fells being allowed to revert to forest, with or without Lynx, Wolves etc. This is hardly the first time he has attacked the Lake District and notions of natural beauty developed by the Romantic Movement  – a movement the Lake District WHS bidders seek to use to justify the global significance of the landscape.

I must admit that I also have difficulty with this line of argument. While I can understand the importance in art and literature (and therefore our culture and to an extent global culture) of the English Romantics and their associations with the Lake District, I don’t necessarily see that that association gives the landscape global value. Writers, Artists and the like take their inspiration from a wide variety of sources – including nature, wild or tamed.

The First World War poets and artists were inspired (if that is the right word) by the horrors of the trenches and the destruction and loss of life wrought on an industrial scale never before seen. Does that justify World Heritage Status for what remains are left from that apocalypse? Perhaps.  France has put forward on the WHS “tentative list” the  cemeteries and memorials (not battlefield remnants though) associated with the First World War, though this has not been taken forward to a full bid yet (as far as I can see.) Still, this may be quite different from the idea that the art inspired by the event was a reason for WHS status.

I would be the first to admit not having an expertise in this area, and am very happy to be corrected on this.

Let’s go back to the idea that the Lake District as it is now is worthy of WHS status because of its centuries of previous agro-pastoral systems. Can it really be true that the farming system that operates in the Lake District today has any tangible link with what was happening a thousand years ago?

In the past the Lake District farming system would have included  hardy sheep (which lived on the fells year-round) and cattle breeds grazing on the hills in the summer and being brought off the fells in the winter. Hay Meadows and special pollards were grown to produce winter fodder called tree hay. In the past small-scale arable cultivation was also an important element of the Lake District landscape (obviously not on the high fells) – going right back to Roman times.

There is another aspect to the Lake District landscape though  – and that is its long history of industrial use. I think it’s fair to say that, as with many English upland landscapes, the Lake District is as much a post-industrial landscape as it as a pastoral one. Because of its geology the Lake District contains some very valuable minerals and these have been known about for millennia. The mining quarrying and processing of ores has greatly influenced the modern Lake District landscape  – but imagine what that landscape must have been like when those industries were flourishing. It would have been very different, with chimneys belching smoke, strange smells and of course the many people who would have come to the Lake District to work in those industries. And the imagine all the fell ponies which would have been working hard to power these industries and haul their lodes. Where did they graze, what were they fed on?

I’ve seen a couple of pieces of “backlash” against Monbiot’s sheepwrecked claims in the press. I enjoy reading Private Eye but often wonder who writes the “Agri-Brigade” pieces. Here’s the latest one:







leaving aside the MoD’s plan to enclose a common (perhaps for another time), the author claims that the Foot and Mouth crisis led to “irreversible losses” of grazing and conjured up the demon of Gorse. I took a rather different view back in 2001 in a piece for ECOS called “any room for scrub?”.  Back then George was staunchly defending the upland farmers!

The Guardian also published a couple of letters responding to Monbiot’s latest article.

It’s what you would expect from the NFU, and the Hill farmer Louise MacArthur flatly rejects any suggestion that the fells are overgrazed.






But when you look at statistics for how many sheep used to be around and how many are around now, it does paint quite an interesting picture. I had a look through Defra statistics (so you don’t have to.)

The Lake District National Park was designated in 1951, just four years after the Hill Farming Act gave the Government powers to fund hill farmers to “improve” hill-land for agriculture. Improvement in this context means fertilising and re-seeding wildflower meadows and pastures, draining bogs, removing woodlands and so on. Payments continued to be made to hill farmers to increase the numbers of sheep on the fells through the next four decades.

In 1940 there were 13.17M sheep and lambs in England. Bear in mind this would have included many lowland sheep flocks which effectively disappeared after the war.

By 1950 England sheep and lamb numbers had more than halved to  8.5M in 1950. This had gone up to 20.8m in 1990 and had declined to 14.2M by 2010.

Cumberland supported 576,000 sheep and lambs in 1905 , 723,000 in 1935 and this had not really changed in 50 years, with 611,000 sheep and lambs in 1950.

Westmorland, which together with Cumberland formed most of Cumbria after the 1974 reorganisation, had the following populations of sheep and lamb. 1905 385000; 1935 465000; 1950 419000.

so Cumberland and Westmorland together had 961000 sheep and lambs in 1905; 1,118000 in 1935; 1,030,000 in 1950.


By 1985, at the height of the intensification funded by the Common Agricultural Policy (and preceding UK farm subsidies), this had increased to 2.04m sheep and lambs in Cumbria.

By 1995, when reforms were being brought in to reduce overproduction, there were  2.66M sheep and lambs in Cumbria.

Most recent figures for Cumbria (2013) show 1.95M sheep and lambs.

So this suggests that for Cumbria there are pretty much as many sheep and lambs now as there were at the height of food over-production in 1985 (the time of wheat mountains and wine lakes). And that there are  twice as many sheep and lambs now as there were in 1950 when the National Park was established.

Compare this with what has happened to cattle numbers. Cumberland supported 153000 cattle in 1905 and Westmorland supported 71000 giving a total of 224000 cattle. The figure for 1950 for these counties was 327000 cattle.

The total figure for Cattle of all kinds across Cumbria in 2013 had declined to 143000.

There are now less than half as many cattle in Cumbria as there were in 1950.

There is also a big change in the number of dairy compared to beef cattle – there were 75000 dairy cows in 1905 in Cumberland & Westmorland and that figure is now 85000 across Cumbria. Most cattle in Cumbria now are dairy cattle, with only 57000 beef cattle. Whereas in 1905 or indeed 1950 there would have been far more cattle on the hills (in the Summer) now there are very few.

what does all this slightly amateurish number crunching show?

With the sheer number of sheep in Cumbria nearly as high as it ever was, and around three times as high as it was before agricultural intensification took off after the war, it is difficult to see how an argument can be made that the current farming system is essentially unchanged from the previous thousand years of pastoral farming. Combine that with the change in the grazing system, where cattle (and ponies) are no longer part of the grazing system; and I think it’s reasonable to say that the farming system in the Lake District, while on the surface appearing to be unchanged, has actually undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 70 years, and especially so in the last 40.

This is not to say that I want to see all of the Lake District converted into a rewilded landscape, and I also believe that there are good arguments for supporting farming systems which conserve rare breeds such as the Herdwick Sheep.

I just think that we need to be honest about what modern intensive farming has done to landscapes like the Lake District and how those farming systems have affected things like wildlife and historical features. Only then can we think about what public money, through for example farm support schemes, should be being used for.



About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Common Agricultural Policy, farm subsidies, farming, George Monbiot, Lake District, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Sheepwrecked or a World Heritage Site? Thoughts on the Lake District

  1. Miles King says:

    Comment received from Dave Dunlop (via email)

    Hi Miles,

    I don’t think it invalidates the thrust of your arguments, but just to point out that what, since Ted Heath’s local government boundary reform of 1974, has been Cumbria previously consisted of all of the county of Cumberland, all of the county of Westmorland, a “Yorkshire Dales” part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the northern part of the County Palatine of Lancashire (extending to the summit of Coniston Old Man). It was known then as “Lancashire-over-Sands” and is known to me on and off in facetious correspondence with staff at Cumbria Wildlife Trust since 1992 as “Cumbrian-occupied Lancashire”, often accompanied by a ‘lament’ for our two “lost” nature reserves and an aspiration for Lancastrian re-unification. “Our Day Will Come!” 😉

    • David Dunlop says:

      I know of two poems William Wordsworth wrote about sheep-farming, one quite well-known one “Michael”, written early in his career and set above Grasmere in what was then Westmorland (I think); and another, which I’ve just discovered through Google, in broadly similar vein but set in the Quantocks rather than the Cumbrian Fells – and in the latter part of his career, when his poetic skills are generally reckoned to have declined somewhat: Both tend to view urban sophistication as corrupting rural simplicity; but both also show sheep-farming in both periods and settings as financially precarious. How true either is to reality I don’t know of course.

      • Miles King says:

        references to flax, and mending sickle, flail or scythe certainly suggest (unless this was poetic licence) that the Shepherd and his son worked fields and cut hay in meadows as well as tending their flocks.

  2. John Kay says:

    “Inevitability” may be a bit strong. I thought it inevitable that we would vote not to shot our own foot, and remain in Europe. And that the other candidate, who wasn’t Trump (sorry I can’t remember her name) would win the Presidential election because she wasn’t him. With that kind of inevitability out and about I fully expect Tim Farron to be our next PM.

  3. TomJ says:

    I had the great pleasure of hunting for otters in the Oswestry area 10 days ts ago. I shot plenty of signs but no otters, with my camera.

    But all around me were sheep.

    Except, as far as I could see, in one area near a lake in which otters hunted, rather gruesomely, for toads. They skinned the legs off the toads to avoid making themselves ill.

    In that enclosure, the vegetation was waist high, included saplings and was distinctly more colourful than the close cut, barren sward outside the enclosure.

    I wished then, as I do now having read your piece, that hill sheep farming was completely unsupported with any form of subsidy.

    If they can make a living rearing sheep-wreckers, then good on them.
    Otherwise, burn the lot.

  4. Old pictures of Ambleside, from the early twentieth century, show not only cattle, but arable crops growing. I don’t buy the “it’s traditional” argument either. The breeds may be, but tractors and quad bikes most definitely are not. They make possible the large flocks of course; so cheap oil may be part of the problem here.

    There is of course a further issue: that the collapse of upland farming will make more land available for development, especially around Keswick, Ambleside, and other settlements. So, the choice might turn out to be sheep or shopping. Cumbria is over-reliant on tourism; addressing that adds further to the complexity of all this.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Chris. I mentioned in passing that cereal crops would have been an important element of the upland farming system but havent seen the photos you mention. Could you post a link to them?

      Some have suggested that if hill farming did collapse the alternative would be commercial (ie conifer) forestry. That would have its own set of pros and cons, but the landscape would certainly change dramatically.

    • Hi Chris
      Having seen your photo’s of the Rydal area it might be worth your reading a old book entitled Rydal by Mary L Armitt from 1916 it gives a insight into the agriculture and industry in the area in the past and land use .It also gives a insight in a local family the Knotts who were very much involved in the early Iron making industry in the Furness and other uk areas. It also gives a insight into cattle rearing and leather making in the area and the use of oak bark in the curing of the leather
      I,ve also seen a photograph of a horse in a arable field near the Lowood Hotel but this time the field has been wrecked by tourist parking for the iconic adventure capital of the lakes !!!
      Cheers Fellsman

  5. Miles King says:

    This comment came in via twitter this morning from @Fellsman60:

    1. Decline of dairy industry around the outside of the Lake District in Eden Valley and Solway Plain etc where most of sheep numbers increased after 1980’s
    2. Big increases in sheep numbers outside Lake District 1980 onwards. Decline in cattle and dairy in Eden valley and Solway plain areas.
    3. Lake District Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) led to a decline in sheep numbers after 1990, when many farmers cut back numbers to aid heather regeneration etc.
    4. I tend to think heather beetle was more of a factor with heather loss than grazing.

  6. Miles King says:

    responding to @fellsman60: The Lake District World Heritage Site nomination document adds some more up to date figures: page 530.

    “breeding sheep numbers across the Lake District increased from 310,000 in 2009 to 340,000 in 2013.” “the changes can lead to issues such as overgrazing.. requiring proposals to enclose areas of the high fells temporarily to allow biodiversity to recover.”

    • what about cattle numbers in that period most marginal dairy farms on edge of Lake District have given over milk production less beef breeding cattle in the valleys are the 30000 extra sheep not crossbreds kept on the better enclosed land. most of the high fells are stinted common land so numbers cannot of increased significantly also around 80% lake district farms were under ESA agreements which had stocking density levels,

      It would be worth reading the EBLEX Breeding structure of British Sheep Industry 2003 to 2012

      In the above are reductions of major and minor hill breeds in period 2003 to 2012 it states there were 326,000 less pure Swaledale ewes by 2012 and the numbers of Rough Fell ewes had reduced from 32,000 to 17000 in 2012 and there were 43000 pure Herdwick Ewes in 2012 similar to the 2003 figure given that tenanted Lake District farms have a stock of Hefted sheep that belong to a farm and the same number has to be handed over at the end of a tenancy the similar number is to be expected.

      Also many farms used to carry a number of Herdwick wether shearlings and twinters that used to be sold as mutton which also used to run on the fells but this practice became scarce after 1980’s

      Cheers Fellsman

      • I also meant saying that across the UK pure hill breed ewes had reduced from 3.83 million in 2003 to 2.6 million by 2012 I in the EBLEX report given that pure hill breeds are almost entirely what the Hefted flocks on the fells comprise of.

  7. Ewan Allinson says:

    Upland biodiversity in the fells is, in places, the product of thousands of years of sustained grazing. Aurochs, arctic hare, deer etc were the precursors to Herdwicks and Swaledales What needs to be understood, apropos of all your fair points, is the numbers of sheep that, in effect, enable continuity of ancient grazed habitats.

    A case in point is the nearby Teesdale Assemblage of Flowering Plants, an upland botanical national treasure for which eons of post-glacial grazing are responsible.This habitat in the North Pennines which enables these tiny plants to prosper has been studied by the botanist Margaret Bradshaw who identifies two main threats to the assemblage’s sustainability. The plant’s depend upon exposure to the sun and if the moor is left ungrazed, that habitat is quickly lost. The other threat is rabbits, who unlike sheep which only nibble down to about an inch of ground level, nibble right to the root and kill the plants.

    The problem with the inflammatory language of “sheep-wrecking” is that – like an upland McCarthyism – it pre-determines the problem and shuts out the local nuances that are actually the key to doing right by the land on all levels. It’s subtle stuff and farmers are more alive to these subtleties than they are given credit for. Most farmers I know would find your analysis really interesting – there’s conversations to be had.

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  13. I have long had an affinity for the Lake District, as half of my family are Cumbrian. Until I started to travel outside of UK upland areas venturing into the mountains of Eastern Europe and the Dolomites I too believed it to be an idyllic landscape, and I still do believe it possesses great charm. However, when you see the incredibly rich wildflower and grass mosaics it really hammers it home how destructive sheep are and the potential for the landscape.
    I notice now that even around my home footpaths on the Cornish coast, the areas where sheep have been allowed onto the paths in winter have far less variation in flora than the untouched hedgerows along the lanes do.
    Whilst I understand that this is deeply emotive subject, people really do need to look objectively at the mountain landscapes of Europe and beyond to really understand that the Lake District is in far from an ideal state. It does feel like, us conservationists and ecologists really have our work cut out to convince people though!

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Jess. It’s an interesting comparison. Part of what makes places like the Alps so special is the continued very low intensity, part-time farming, which maintains mountain hay meadows and Alpine pastures full of flowers. I think if we lost all farming from the uplands we would lose something very special, but I agree that an overemphasis on sheep and too many of them in some places, has led us to already lose much that was special.

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