Farming with nature

Farming with Nature #1 – RSPB Haweswater

It perhaps won’t come as a surprise that I’m going to kick this series off at Haweswater. As senior site manager, I’ve been overseeing the RSPB’s work here for the past eight years. Haweswater isn’t a typical farm, and it’s not a typical nature reserve either. It is, however, a case study that highlights some of the many challenges, controversies and innovations that are happening on many Cumbrian farms.

Restored tarn on Mardale Common above Haweswater (Lee Schofield)

We work in close partnership with United Utilities, who own the whole of the Haweswater catchment. It’s a spectacular place, with towering fells looming over the 4-mile-long crescent of the reservoir, the most important source of drinking water in Northwest England. It’s an area that’s every bit as important for wildlife as it is for its water. Nestled in amongst the folds of the landscape are ancient mossy oakwoods, tumbling streams, hay meadows and squelchy bogs. Ring ouzels nest on flower rich crags and mountain ringlet butterflies glide over high pastures.

Most people know Haweswater’s history, the building of the dam and the flooding of the valley along with its farms and hamlets, church and pub. It’s a history that sets the place apart, rendering it wilder and lonelier than many other Lake District valleys. But I’m less concerned with the place’s past as I am with its future.   

In 2012, the RSPB took over the tenancies of Naddle and Swindale farms. At the time, United Utilities were making big changes to how they thought about their land. For decades, they’d been content to let their tenant farmers carry on more as less as they pleased. In more recent years, they started to realise that a different approach to the management of the land around the reservoir might yield big benefits.

Although one of the cleanest sources of drinking water in the country, the quality of Haweswater’s water had been declining. Water colour, which comes from dissolved peat soil, was on the increase, and so were the costs associated with dealing with it. The Sustainable Catchment Management Programme, or SCaMP for short, was all about trying to shift how the reservoir catchment was managed, reducing the intensity of farming to allow thicker vegetation to establish which would stabilise soil and, over time, improve the quality of the water running off the land. Through SCaMP, United Utilities invested in the farms on the Haweswater Estate, helping farmers to adopt new farming practices, and to gain access to stewardship schemes which provided an income stream to reward them for doing so.

The RSPB has been involved in the Haweswater area for a long time. When golden eagles returned to the Lake District to breed in 1969, it was Haweswater that they chose, and my predecessors spent tireless decades protecting them, keeping the valley quiet to give them the best chance of raising their young. As the years rolled by, the RSPB’s relationship with United Utilities developed. It took on wardening duties across the estate, started a tree nursery, and carried out planting around the reservoir edge. When the tenancies of Naddle and Swindale came up, they jumped at the chance to take on a more significant management role.

I started with the RSPB a year after the tenancies began. Naddle and Swindale Farms together comprise 750 hectares of enclosed land, but they have grazing rights over a further 2,000 hectares or so of common land. This gives us an influence over about a third of the Haweswater catchment.

We didn’t take over the farms simply to create a new nature reserve, our aim was much more ambitious. By keeping the farm going, we’ve been able to learn a massive amount about the opportunities and challenges for enhancing wildlife, water quality, and other public goods within a hill farming system.

It has been eight years of hard graft. Together with United Utilities, and many other partners, we’ve planted tens of thousands of trees, put the meanders back in watercourses and reconnected them to their floodplains, blocked artificial drains to restore bogs and mires, and enlivened swathes of species rich hay meadow. Although we’ve reduced the size of our flock, we’ve regularly achieved top prices at the mart for our Cheviot ewes, showing that farming and nature can go happily hand in hand.

What we’ve done hasn’t been universally popular though. In one ear, we get told we’re not going far enough, that we shouldn’t have any farming and should rewild our land as fast as possible. In the other, we’re told that our very presence at Haweswater is an affront to the Lake District’s cultural heritage. Although some of our work at Haweswater could be described as rewilding, it’s not a term that we use. Granted, we’ve removed livestock grazing from some of our land in order to promote woodland, scrub and bog recovery, but in other places, including our hay meadows, grazing is essential.

Swindale’s hay meadows (David Morris)

One of the things that worries many people about changes to current farming practices is rural depopulation. Some fear that reducing agricultural production will lead to the crumbling of communities, the closure of pubs and schools and dwindling employment opportunities for young people. Our experiences at Haweswater are a clear demonstration that this doesn’t have to be case.

Before we took over the tenancies, there were two farming families supported by the land, one at Naddle Farm and the other in Swindale. They employed casual labour to help at lambing time, clipping and gathering. With our reduced numbers of sheep, there’s slightly less farm work to do, but through our farm contractor, we still keep roughly the same number of people in work. In addition, there are nine full time members of staff employed by the RSPB, including me. Sure, we’re not farmers in the typical mould, but we’re all earning our living from the land, even if it is a more roundabout way. We all live in the area, send our kids to the schools, spend money in the local shops, just like any other member of a community.

Like anywhere, it is the people that make a place tick. Spike and Bill, our two wardens, have been working here for a couple of decades each, initially lured in by the eagles and unable to break free. They’re deeply entwined in the place and know its wildlife better than anyone. Others, like Heather, are newer to the area. Heather’s role is all about sharing Haweswater’s wonderful wildlife with people. She runs our badger and squirrel hides and works with third party ecotourism providers that help us generate income to invest in doing more conservation work. This is in line with national trends – 65% of farms in England now have some form of diversification. Matty and Murray keep the livestock fit and well and ensure that the grazing works for wildlife. Our four newest roles start with us later this month, thanks to a recent grant from Defra. They’ll be establishing a new tree nursery and carrying out scientific research. Haweswater is hive of activity these days.

There’s lots more I could say about Haweswater, in fact, I’ve written a book about it. Not everyone approves of what we’re doing, but then nowhere is perfect. Our way is just one way among many, and is certainly not set in stone. We’ll continue to adapt to the changing demands of society, just as every farmer must. As long as what we do supports wildlife as well as people, it’ll be well worth sustaining.   

Fell ponies grazing in Swindale (Lee Schofield)

This is the first in a series of articles on Farming with Nature in Cumbria. It was first published in the March 2021 edition of Cumbria Life Magazine