This review has been rather long in gestation. Lee originally sent me a copy in early February. I started reading it in March, then had to stop half way through. My Migraines (which I wrote about here) were returning as I started to reduce the medication I’ve been on. After a few weeks I was able to return to it and finished off the book quite quickly. So apologies if this review is a bit disjointed! I think I am now realising that the medication, while helpful, has also affected my capacity to write. Whereas before the creative juices would flow freely, now it feels much more like an effort. More apologies needed.
I enjoyed reading Lee’s book. He brings to life the work he and his colleagues have been doing in the Haweswater valley, in the Lake District. This is the upland equivalent of Hope Farm – the farm RSPB bought to illustrate (and experiment with) how a lowland farm can be run in a way that both produces food and also benefits nature. The difference is that the RSPB did not buy Haweswater but rather leased it from United Utilities, the water company serving the north-west of England.
The book is split into three sections – basically the first section illustrates the problems that wildlife faces in the uplands of Britain, using the Lake District as a specific example. Then Lee explores his own personal experiences of searching for and finding inspiration for how the Lake District fells and valleys could become, under different circumstances – and with a particular focus on one circumstance – the enormous numbers of sheep which occupy the Lake District. Finally Lee looks at a variety of examples of how the RSPB is making changes to the way they are managing the 1000 odd hectares of enclosed land in the valley, plus a stake in three much larger unenclosed Commons covering 3000ha.
Achieving any sort of change on these Commons is immensely difficult because of the commoners associations and their tendency towards inertia – and indeed believing that what has been the case for the past 70 years (loads of sheep all year round) is what has always been there. However, it is extraordinary to read about the achievements on Mardale Common, where there has been a real success, reducing Sheep numbers, while increasing Cattle and Pony numbers, to reflect how these Commons actually were managed for thousands of years up until 1946 (when the Hill Farming Act was made law).
Some readers will recall I wrote about the impact of sheep on the Lake District back in 2017 and these issues have been well rehearsed over the years. Almost everyone (dare I say even James Rebanks?) now accepts that there are too many sheep in the Lake District, and that has been the case for many decades. So it’s very inspiring to read about a large scale project where reducing the sheep numbers (and also changing the times they are out on the commons) is actually happening – and how quickly the land and its nature is responding..
One big surprise – and a very pleasant one – for me was that so much of Lee’s book is about the flowers (and even the “lower” plants) of the Lake District and the wider Uplands. I suppose I had a preconception that the main focus would be on birds, as it’s an RSPB project and Lee works for the RSPB. I was delighted to have those preconceptions shattered, joining Lee on his expeditions to Norway to discover proper Montane Scrub; and to the Alps, their magical meadows and bejewelled mountain tops. I was lucky enough to go along on a couple of Mike Scott’s mountain flowers courses about 20 years ago and it was sufficient to spark an interest which I have occasionally followed up on family holidays in the mountains. When you see how flowery uplands can be, and then look at how flowerless most of our own uplands are, it’s a terrible shock. We join Lee in the company of local botanists searching the most remote crags of Haweswater in search of these Arctic/Alpine plants, and find them hanging on by their fingertips in the most inaccessible spots where sheep cannot safely graze.
Naturally a fair amount of the book focusses on Birds and the story is the same. Particularly poignant is the story of the Golden Eagles that hung on in Haweswater long after agrochemicals and persecution had driven them from the rest of England, but finally lost the struggle in 2015. But this was the way that RSPB got a toe-hold in Haweswater and led to the creation of this inspirational project, so some good has come from this desperately sad story.
Lee has a great skill in storytelling. He has a gentle writing style which draws the reader in, and is unafraid of using his own personal experiences (including some comic ones) to bring excitement and a sense of wonder and joy, to what could otherwise be a depressing litany of declines and extinctions. When he encounters some (I would like to believe atypical) anti-conservation upland farmers who express their views in blunt and sometimes very unpleasant ways, the contrast with his own evidently gentle, friendly and non-combative nature is stark, even shocking.
There is also a great deal of information in the book, which is interweaved between his personal story, the projects he’s involved with, and his adventures exploring what might still be hanging on in Haweswater, and what Haweswater, the Lakes and indeed the British Uplands could become, if we change the way they are managed. If I had one suggestion it would be to include references for that information. It’s a lot of extra work, but it does neutralise the critics who will say “that’s not right” or “I’ve never seen that happen” because it doesn’t fit with their own experience or world view.
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the natural history of the Lake District, the challenges of nature conservation (and the overlap with rewilding) and also anyone who perhaps, like me, is a little jaded and wondering what conservation has achieved over the past 40 years. Lee’s book is showing us that things really are changing, that it’s hard work and can take a long time, but to believe that there will be a future where wildlife thrives alongside farming.