Farming with nature

Farming with Nature #3 – Wild Ennerdale

There is an incredible diversity of approaches to farming in Cumbria. Ennerdale, in the far western fells, is perhaps where its definition is stretched almost to its limit, but livestock and farming play a more important role in the valley than perhaps many people realise.

Home to one of England’s largest and longest running rewilding projects, Ennerdale is looked after by a partnership of the valley’s main landowners, the National Trust, Forestry England and United Utilities, working together with Natural England.

Ennerdale Water, the valley’s centrepiece, is one of the Lakes District’s most pristine waterbodies. The wild and unruly River Liza drains into the lake at its eastern end. Unlike many other rivers in the UK, the Liza has never been straightened, dredged or embanked, meaning that it continues to live up to the meaning of its name given by the Vikings – the shining river. As the Liza braids and wanders, ever-changing in its form and its offer to wildlife, its waters drop any sediment that it might be carrying, keeping both lake and river crystal clear.

The wild River Liza

The Liza is a vision of what many of our upland rivers used to be before we started meddling with them, but the valley it flows through isn’t quite as pristine. As part of nationwide efforts to increase timber production following the First World War, the Forestry Commission planted 1,200 hectares of forestry plantation in Ennerdale in the 1920s. In recent years forest policy has broadened to deliver positive outcomes for people and nature, as well as timber production. With its steep, difficult to access slopes and slow narrow roads, timber production in Ennerdale is only marginally economic. This, and a measure of luck that the right people were in the right jobs, prompted the partners at Ennerdale to start thinking differently about the valley’s future.

The forest is managed very differently now, with more trees being allowed to collapse and rot away as they would in nature, and in some places to fall into the river. The interaction between big chunks of fallen wood and the river is a fascinating one. In most places, our compulsion for tidiness means that trees are quickly whisked out if they fall into water. Not so in Ennerdale. The Liza now has lots to chew on. Woody blockages force the water to forge new channels across the floodplain. Although you could say that these particular trees aren’t natural, having been planted here as a commercial crop, the process that they stimulate most certainly is, and the river is more alive as a result.

A natural approach

Unlike more typical nature conservation projects, the Wild Ennerdale partnership isn’t concerned with creating or restoring habitats directly. Instead, their gentle stewardship is focused on kick-starting the underlying natural processes that will lead to self-willed recovery, giving nature the freedom to do the restoration work herself.

Black Galloway in Ennerdale (Image: Richard Maxwell)

A few years ago, John, United Utilities’ man on the ground in Ennerdale, and I had a surprising introduction to one of these natural processes. While exploring the Liza and its chaotic floodplain, we’d sat for a bit of lunch on a fallen spruce log, half in the water, half stranded on a gravel bar. Chatting about the river, lamenting that it was the only one of its kind in the Lakes, we were interrupted by the sound of something big coming our way through the undergrowth. The crashing and snapping of branches grew louder, gorse and willow shaking as whatever it was grew nearer. Surrounded by conifers, a broad braiding river at our feet, there was something distinctly Canadian about the scene, and I began to wish I’d packed my bear spray.

The beast that emerged from the scrub wasn’t a bear, though it was nearly as hairy. A thickset, woolly-eared black Galloway cow crashed into the gravelly clearing. It stooped for a drink from the Liza, waded across, and without a glance in our direction vanished into the undergrowth on the other side. It may only have been a cow, but there was something thrillingly wild about the encounter.

Wild farming

The cow John and I saw was one of a small herd of Galloways that roam through Ennerdale’s tracts of forest and fell. Their owner, Richard Maxwell, is a vital member of the Ennerdale team. Dark-haired and broad-shouldered, a bit like his cattle, his connection to Ennerdale is deep and strong, built up over a lifetime of farming in and around the valley. As a younger man, his interests were in cross-bred sheep and continental cattle, but since taking on the tenancy covering part of Ennerdale, he’s shifted to nature-friendly farming with Herdwick sheep and Galloway cows.

Forest cattle

During the early years of its development, the Wild Ennerdale partnership had grown increasingly convinced that grazing by free-roaming large herbivores was a natural process that was missing from the valley. In the early 2000s, they approached Richard and other local farmers to see if they might be interested in putting cattle into a block of recently felled forest. This was a pretty outlandish concept; forests aren’t usually grazed in the UK, especially not conifer plantations. Perhaps the offer of a slice of a government stewardship grant helped to persuade him at first, and Richard decided to give it a shot, investing in a small number of hardy black Galloways for the purpose. More land has been added over time and today, the cattle roam freely over 1,000 hectares of what must be some of the most unlikely looking livestock pasture in the country.

Richard has never looked back. When you hear him talking about how he tends to his cattle in such a massive wooded landscape, the passion for his cattle and this type of farming are obvious. Embracing change in the way that Richard has done takes real courage. Many of his neighbours were sceptical at first, concerned that the cattle would die and convinced that such an extensive system couldn’t possibly work. Richard’s Galloways grow more slowly than cattle in more commercial setups, but meat is only one of their functions now, so this doesn’t matter as much as it might on a more typical farm. These cattle’s other important role is to stand in for the missing wild herbivores that the rest of the valley’s wildlife evolved alongside.

Blurring the boundaries

As Richard’s cattle wander around the valley, crashing through patches of scrub, woodland, bog and meadow, they are starting to blur the boundaries between habitats. Where the conifers have been chopped, broadleaf trees are appearing, and they’re also spreading up the valley sides, diversifying the heather and grass clad slopes. The whole valley feels flowery and rich, and we have the cattle to thank for their part in it.         

Marsh fritillary butterfly (RSPB Images)

Cattle can be real drivers of positive habitat change, and many species rely on the way in which they graze. The seeds of many trees and wildflowers hitch a ride on the cattle’s coats, or in their bellies. The cowslip, one of our cheeriest spring flowers, is named because our forebears noticed that it regularly grew where cow pats had been, in the places where the cows had ‘slupped’.

Heavy hoofprints and the disturbed ground where cattle congregate expose the soil, creating gaps in which seeds can grow into new plants, preventing any one species from taking over. Where the flowers bloom, the insects follow. Marsh fritillary butterflies, a rare species in Cumbria, are booming in Ennerdale thanks the abundance of their food plant, devil’s-bit scabious, which the cattle are helping to thrive in the wild, damp pastures.

Richard still keeps sheep, but he has a lot less than he used to. The conversion to extensive, nature-focused farming that now makes up the bulk of his day-to-day working life is much more manageable than when he had hundreds of sheep to keep alive. He now has more time for his family, and even takes holidays, something he never did before. Two of his neighbours, both of whom thought he was mad at first, now also help to graze cattle in the valley. Richard is living proof that farming with nature can be good, on all sorts of levels.

Find out more about Wild Ennerdale by visiting their website, or follow them on twitter: @wildennerdale