Until the last male golden eagle died in 2015, Haweswater, on the rugged north-eastern fringe of the Lake District, was England’s final refuge for the bird of prey. “Even now, whenever I go up Riggindale, it feels like something is missing,” says Spike Webb, a long-serving RSPB warden at its Haweswater site.
Although the eagles are no more, Haweswater’s wildlife is nowadays being given the chance to make a full-throated comeback, thanks to interventions made by the RSPB, in collaboration with its landlords, the water company United Utilities.
The project partners have reduced sheep numbers by 90%, from more than 3,000 two decades ago to about 300 today. They have also planted more than 100,000 trees, restored 400 hectares (988 acres) of peatbog, and “rewiggled” a valley bottom stream so it can reoccupy its natural flood plain.
Webb resists the idea that Haweswater is a “rewilding” project, however. “It’s still a working farm,” says Webb of the site’s two farmsteads in the valleys of Naddle and Swindale. “We’re just doing it less intensively.”
The senior site manager and author Lee Schofield is also reluctant to use the “R- word”. “Rewilding is hugely exciting to a lot of people,” he says, “But up here, it can be an alienating concept, [especially] to farmers.”
A big reason for that is the pervasive idea that rewilding or, as Schofield prefers to call it, “ecological restoration”, is synonymous with “land abandonment”; that it necessarily involves getting rid of people. The former local MP Rory Stewart voiced this concern when he wrote that rewilding “leaves no place for humans in the landscape”.
But recent developments at Haweswater show that this isn’t necessarily the case. A decade ago, when the RSPB first took on Haweswater’s hill farms, they employed just four staff, the same number who worked there previously. By mid-2023, the team working at and around Haweswater will have increased to 22 full-time equivalents, along with a rotating cast of dozens of volunteers, contractors and casual labourers.
“Knowing that the work we’re doing is providing employment for people – really rewarding employment – is brilliant,” says Schofield. While most of today’s staff may, as Schofield puts it, “be cut from different cloth” from the farming families who worked these valleys and hills in the past, he emphasises his colleagues’ deep commitment to the landscape and all its occupants, human and non-human.
At Naddle farm, an ex-sheep barn is now a tree nursery, filled with raised beds, each packed with thousands of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers, most destined for on-site habitat regeneration work. The staff running the nursery say there is a “yawning demand” for every plant they can grow.
The livestock managers David and Faith Garvey live with their family in one of Haweswater’s farmhouses. Alongside the modestly sized flock of sheep, they run a herd of about 35 Belted Galloway and Highland breed cattle and four fell ponies. David acknowledges the challenge of establishing new, low intensity, “regenerative” and “conservation” grazing regimes: “It’s a lot to get your head around – balancing farming and nature … But you can see that’s the way hill farming is gonna go,” he says.
Bea Normington left her previous career in healthcare administration to join the Haweswater team in 2021. One of her first acts was to change her job title, from “memorial” to “celebration” woodland officer. This rebranding is, she says, encouraging a broader diversity of people to sponsor tree planting and start to forge their own lasting connections to the landscape. Haweswater’s celebration wood, echoing with the “yaffling” calls of green woodpeckers, appears to be establishing itself quickly, both ecologically and economically.
A further source of income is from eco-tourism. Aware of the area’s sensitive habitats and limited transport infrastructure, the team’s focus is on “low footfall, high experience” activities. Rather than hastening the depopulation of the uplands, the project at Haweswater is striving to kickstart a “nature-based economy” of the kind championed in a 2021 report from the charity Rewilding Britain. The hope is that the new jobs and income streams at Haweswater will ripple out into the local area, providing a boost to the rural economy.
The current local MP Neil Hudson, in an apparent departure from his predecessor Stewart, recently wrote that “to level up rural areas, we must rewild them”.
Many Lake District farms are, like Haweswater, successfully blending farm business diversification with an ecologically informed “nature first” approach in order to face the challenges presented by the climate and ecological crises.
But it isn’t an option for everyone. Richard Carruthers farms 150 hectares (371 acres) of tenanted land close to Haweswater, where he practises regenerative grazing and has eliminated the use of artificial fertiliser. He suspects the current regime of environmentally focused public payments may be an effective way of making large landholdings economically viable – the Haweswater project covers a core area of more than 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres). “But,” he says, “it doesn’t really transfer to smaller family farms of maybe one or two hundred acres down the valley.” If it did, Carruthers adds, “people would be doing it.”
The UK government’s recent update to its post-Brexit environmental land management schemes (Elms) for farmers do not appear to have improved matters. Speaking to BBC Radio 4 this week, the local farmer and author James Rebanks described it as, “The greatest catastrophe for farming and nature in my lifetime.” According to the latest Defra projections, income for upland farms will drop by an average of 63% in 2022-23, to £16,000.
Despite the broad consensus that adding more animals, and the rising input costs that follow, does not pay back in the uplands, Rebanks suspects many farmers will resolve to increase stocking rates. “It’s the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said.
According to Will Rawling, chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, “We [sheep farmers] would very much like to be part of the solution to climate change. And we can be.”
But he’s adamant that the voices of his fellow hill farmers must be heard: “Whilst we are being tolerated, rather than celebrated by NGOs and conservation organisations, the chance of genuine collaboration is remote.”
In his book Wild Fell, Schofield recounts his ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable, efforts to bridge the perceived divide between the upland farming and conservation communities. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, he concludes: “We don’t want homogeneity of anything. If we had homogeneous rewilding we’d be missing out on a whole range of different habitat conditions. So having a mix of sustainable, nature-friendly farming, rewilding and, in the places that can sustain it, having more productive farms. That’s what we need to look at.”
Yet, as the RSPB’s warden Webb points out, “golden eagles need big landscapes, full of wild food.” So if anyone wants to see them once again turning in Lake District skies, he implies, large expanses of thriving, biodiverse habitat must be part of the mix.
And as the Haweswater venture is demonstrating, that need not mean land that is “abandoned” or “de-peopled”. It can mean land that is managed sensitively, by people, for the benefit of people and of the ecosystems that ultimately sustain us all.