In a week when I was inspired to see the passion and energy coming out of the Re-imagine London Event as part of the campaign to make London a National City park, an age old argument is re-emerging in another existing national park close to my heart, the Lakes. It once again shows the difficulties of planning in a National Park, and some of the issues which would have to be addressed when we come to the practicalities above and beyond the philosophy of a National City Park.
The plans of United Utilities to erect a new 9.6km fence above Thirlmere in the Lake District has once again divided people. The underlying reason is a huge variety in people’s vision of what the National Park should be for and about. UU’s plans had once again re-vitalised the issue I looked at extensively during my Lake District project last year into perceptions of land use.
All parties would argue they love the Lake District and want to protect it, but their vision of what this means is in reality very different.
“We strongly object to this intrusion into this wild, unspoilt landscape of the Lake District National Park”. These are the words of the Open Spaces Society who are objecting to the plans on the grounds that it will be an eyesore and restrict free access for people to enjoy the fells. These are principles I agree with. I am passionate about the importance of access to the outdoors and as a walker and climber, access to the fells is something I feel strongly about. The Lakes are a stunning landscape and I would rather not see any man made impact on them at all. This, however, of course ignores the fact that the Lakes are already entirely man made. The landscape we see and many of us love is beautiful and inspiring, but is it really ‘wild’ or ‘unspoilt’? The landscape has been created by a range of human impacts, not least of which are the sheep which have a profound effect on the habitats of the Lakes.
Sheep in themselves divide opinion; to some they are a force of ecological evil, dominating the vegetation of the Lakes, and depriving us of a richer, more dramatic and arguably, a ‘wilder’ Lake District – more wooded, more diverse in terms of vegetation and richer in wildlife. Others would argue that sheep are instead at the heart of the Lake’s cultural heritage. The pastoral history of the Lakes is at the core of the way the Lakes is; its poetry, its history and its people. This is a rich and unique cultural history which also preserves a traditional landscape which generations have loved and enjoyed. I agree with these arguments, both of them; I love the landscape of the Lakes, and the part that traditional hill farming plays in this. Hill farmers are at the core of personality of the Lakes, and the livelihoods of the people who live and work in the park have to be an important element in any future plans. At the same time I would love to see a more varied, wildlife rich habitat in the Lakes and, whilst I think it is changing, the history of intensive sheep farming has had a definite impact on the biological richness of the park.
I am also a consumer of water, and I would like water companies to do what they can to treat our drinking water effectively and efficiently, keeping prices down whilst meeting the increasing rigours of EU water quality laws. This, United Utilities would argue, is the reason for the fencing; to keep sheep away from the edges of watercourses, reducing the erosion and, in turn, the upward trend in dissolved organic carbon (DOC) increasingly affecting our water quality. People are quick to dismiss this argument, labelling it profiteering by a big bad water company. However, whilst I fully accept that savings made by big corporations too often disappear into shareholders pockets, they are also essential to keep bills affordable. Furthermore, having spent some time with UU staff during my Lake District project I can honestly say that some of the strongest environmental advocacy for better habitats and wildlife, came from people at UU, passionately defending the opportunity created by a coincidence between action needed for clean water and richer habitats.
So where does that leave us? I agree that we should avoid man made blots on the landscape of the Lakes, I agree that the sheep farming history and culture of the Lakes is a vital part of its personality, I agree that we need innovative and progressive new approaches to protect our water, perhaps our most valuable resource, and I agree that this approach needs to extend to a new focus on improving and extending our habitats and wildlife. So where does it leave us? It leaves us with difficult, case by case decisions, in which sometimes a fence is good, and sometimes bad, in which the simple sheep is a complex agent in a more complex land use debate, and we need to work together to try to achieve all of these aims. I fear that those who say otherwise, and make out the issue to be black and white, right or wrong have erected fences themselves, framing the question about the future of our land use so firmly through their own lens that they fail to see the valid arguments on the other side.