The Visual Nature of Lakeland

Sheep in Great Langdale valley with neolithic axe factory in background.

Sheep in Great Langdale valley with neolithic axe factory in background.

In George Monbiot’s recent article Black Box, he describes his frustrated difficulty in communicating with any of the key decision makers at UNESCO in relation to his thoughts on World Heritage Site designation for Cumbria’s Lake District as expressed in his previous article Fell Purpose. In that article, George raised some interesting and valid points but to my mind hasn’t actually established any sound grounds for a complaint against WHS designation for Lakeland, ecological or otherwise, see my previous post for my fuller analysis of the set of grievances voiced in his previous article on the subject. As I said before, there’s no reason why his desire for ecological restoration could not take place within a UNESCO WHS. His grievances strike me as genuinely innocent, underpinned by errors of comprehension and appreciation and fueled by a desire to see ecological restoration take place. UNESCO have already made their decision, correctly in my opinion, to designate the British Lake District as a World Heritage Site. To recap, the key points in favour of designation as I see it, are:

  1. Lakeland as we know and love it is a unique and discreet cultural landscape, not a purely natural one. Human interaction with the landscape for many thousands of years has created what we see today — a visually appealing patchwork of landscape features shaped by glaciation, traditional sheep grazing, forestry and tourism in the form of hiking, riding, boating and simply gazing. There are many scenes in Lakeland that are Tolkeinesque. Their charm is principally visual and clear views are important to their appreciation. The rich heritage of prehistoric monuments are embedded within the landscape, they were erected with regard to features within their landscape, aligned to geophysical points including other sites, as well as cardinal points. Their siting and orientation was deliberate. I am not alone in thinking that many natural features of Lakeland were probably revered as sacred, Saddleback being a good example; it is indeed possible that the whole mountainous area was considered holy.
  2. Our modern appreciation of landscape was greatly shaped by the poetic appreciation of illustrious visitors. The landscape influenced them and they, it. There are a lot of historically and culturally important sites within the designated area that are vulnerable to deterioration without proper maintenance and there is much scope for interpretation to make sense of landscape features, there’s much scope for making areas more accessible physically and in terms of interpretation. This is UNESCO’s area of expertise.
  3. Sheep aren’t responsible for Lakeland’s screes, these are from glacial erosion and it is as much due to glaciers and climatic conditions that we have the exposures of bare rock immortalized in water colour paintings and black and white photographs. Sheep grazing is an integral part of landscape management, few other creatures are hardy enough to graze the higher Fells and I don’t think George is advocating that our mountain views be maintained by lawn mowers, rather he’s thinking that they should be forested, but this would essentially change the cultural landscape which now and previously has always been visually oriented. People also enjoy seeing these sheep within the landscape, even if they’re being herded by farmers on ATVs. It’s the sheepdogs that help make it all manageable now as in previous centuries.  There’s also a very long tradition of industrial exploitation, the neolithic axe factories in Great Langdale are famous, but how many of us know that iron ore was mined by the Romans above Ulswater and transported from there by river for example?

Sheep are hardy managers of Lakeland landscape.

I agree with George’s assertions that there’s a lot of scope for ecological restoration and I think that there’s no reason why this would conflict with UNESCO’s mission, rather it can and should go hand in hand with sensitive planning!  For this to work well, there will obviously need to be open channels of communication between cultural and environmental conservation bodies and landowners and the visiting public. There are great opportunities here for sure. There are Arctic Char in some of the lakes, relict populations of the glacial melt at the end of the Pleistocene. Wouldn’t it be great to sensitively rewild some areas and restore some water meadows and other habitat for hardy traditional British megafauna, some made extinct here by man, but still living elsewhere in northern Europe? Eagles, beavers, elks, boars, wolves, bears?