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James Cullimore: Review of Wild Fell by Lee Schofield: The middle way for nature and farming?

James Cullimore (Senior Nature Programme Manager at CEN)

Out of the Second World War, two competing trends emerged which have shaped rural Britain for the past 70 years. On the one hand, a desire to protect and conserve our natural landscapes gave rise to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, a ground-breaking piece of legislation which gave us many of our landscape and habitat designations.

On the other hand, the privation of war gave birth to the ‘dig for Britain’ mentality, with a resolute focus on food security. Spurred by new agrichemicals and machinery, and incentivised by public subsidy, food production became ever more intensive over the proceeding decades. While this delivered a great leap forward in productivity and yields, it also drove biodiversity loss, soil depletion and climate change - the very things that now imperil food production over the medium to long term. This is the paradox of modern industrial farming.

For too long, nature conservation and food production have existed in these competing silos. This is not the fault of farmers or land managers, but of policy - in particular the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. It has left us as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with almost half of all species in long term decline and 15% facing extinction.

Combining farming and nature restoration is the focus of a new book by conservationist and fell farmer Lee Schofield. Wild Fell provides an honest account of his attempt on a remote Lake District farm to prove that food production and wildlife can thrive side by side.

The RSPB holds the tenancy on two traditional hill farms in the catchment of the Haweswater reservoir, which provides drinking water for over two million people. Their landlord, United Utilities, wants to reduce the amount of peat washing off the fells to cut their treatment costs, so have decided to support a change in land management.

Schofield and his team have rewetted peat bogs, planted trees, carried out river rewiggling and created exclosures to allow the natural regeneration of trees and alpine flowers. More controversially, they have reduced the number of sheep on the farm and have decided to graze just a small number of native cattle on one of the fells. Cattle have a less dramatic ecological impact, giving the mountain heath the chance to recover. The intention is for sheep to return to the wilder fell once it has the resilience to sustain them.

These interventions will store more water and carbon in the landscape and provide habitats for birds and small mammals to return to. Haweswater was home to England’s last resident Golden Eagle, and Schofield hopes it will be the site where they first return.

All the while, Haweswater remains a working farm, with the traditional model of extensive grazing alongside vibrant hay meadows which provide winter feed for the animals. It continues to produce high quality food as part of a diversified business model which includes a badger hide, wildlife excursions, a tree nursery and a holiday let.

The RSPB are not the only ones in the Lake District looking to combine nature recovery with conventional fell farming. With farm support changing post-Brexit, businesses reliant on public subsidy are looking at ways to access new payments for environmental improvements.

Schofield recounts the stories of other farmers in the region who are on a similar journey to him, each taking the steps that are right for their land holding. Schofield has worked hard to unite conservationists and farmers through dialogue and the exchange of ideas. It is a painstaking exercise, but one that is beginning to bear fruit as trust between the two groups grows.

The government’s new policy, Environmental Land Management, will pay farmers for delivering environmental public goods such as cleaner air and water, carbon storage and more abundant wildlife. Rather than treating the natural environment and food production as distinct, outside of the EU we are now integrating nature recovery into the farmed landscape. Wild Fell shows how this can be done in Britain's remote landscapes where food production will always be marginal but the opportunity to restore nature and lock up carbon is greatest.

After decades of siloed policymaking and polarised debate, Schofield offers a path toward integration and reconciliation. This should make Wild Fell required reading for all policymakers.


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