Covid-19 and Reimagining the Lake District

The Lake District is Closed

Karen Lloyd and Charlie Gere with contributions from Simon Stainer and Ian Convery

When the announcement was made that the Lake District was closed ahead of the Easter weekend, some of us rejoiced. This was not because of the desperate situation that tourism businesses and the local economy faced, or the uncertainties they will continue to face over the coming years. Rather, this was because an area where the natural world is routinely placed under extreme pressure had this rare opportunity to get on with being itself: or spring to come in, unimpeded. The closure of the National Park also provided an opportunity to re-think, or to re-imagine, the long-term sustainable future of the Lake District. There is a long history of tensions between the needs of the natural world, farming, conservation and sustainability in the Lakes, but in this time of crashing biodiversity and climate chaos, we urgently need to re-define the ways in which our landscapes are viewed.

When the coming of the railways threatened to enter the heart of the Lake District, William Wordsworth was an active and vocal opponent. Wordsworth’s fears were predicated on his dread of tourism reaching unsustainable numbers; his letters of objection were published in the Morning Post along with a sonnet in which the poet asked, ‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/from rash assault?’ By 1865, fifteen years after Wordsworth’s death, 8,000 ‘summer excursionists’ arrived at Windermere station on a single public holiday. We might do well to ask what kind of rage he would have been thrown into, had he been aware of more recent statistics. In 2018, Cumbria and the Lake District received over 47 million visitors. Of these, 40.4 million were there for the day and 6.6 million stayed overnight. The majority of these visits were of course, to the Lake District National Park (LDNP) itself. We can safely assume on the whole they were not going to Workington or the rest of the post-industrial landscapes of Cumbria’s west coast. In 2017, the LDNP was granted World Heritage status and we know that on average in World Heritage Sites, tourist numbers increase by 15%. The Lake District is no exception. It is, therefore, more urgent than ever to consider the narrative structure behind the Lakes World Heritage designation. Not to do so is an act of abandonment in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

The World Heritage document justifying the Lake District’s new status highlights the ‘cultural’ significance of the agri-pastoral hill farming system, as well as the distinctive drystone walled landscape and grand lakeside houses. It also asserts that the Lake District property is in a good state of repair. However, much of the area’s uplands are, in fact, in poor condition. The World Heritage view of the Lake District landscape is therefore strictly limited to the parameters of designation, ignoring the wider context of failing biodiversity. The designation of the Lakes as a cultural landscape, citing Wordsworth and Romanticism, Beatrix Potter and the area’s ‘relatively independent’ sheep farmers amongst others, is extremely inappropriate; the climate events we are living through mean that we need a very different set of priorities. Preservation of landscape is not, cannot be, one of them. Indeed, given the gravity of the situation we face, it is simply unethical.

The Lake District National Park appears to seek ways to provide sustainable tourism, but one of the first questions we should ask is whether over 40 million visitors a year can ever be sustainable. Very few areas are kept off-limits to enable vulnerable species to thrive. Hence the delight mentioned earlier that, for once, spring could come in unimpeded by crowds and traffic. To date, there has never been an attempt to create a coordinated approach to transport, or to adopt the kinds of practice so well established elsewhere in Europe, e.g. in Hungary’s Hortobágy National Park, where access and numbers are controlled and the park’s shuttle buses are the only means of transport. In France, recent legislation now limits the number of tourists who can visit Mont Blanc. The current position of continuous expansion of visitors in the Lakes is simply unsustainable.

The irony is that tourism and farming, the two industries that make the Lake District look like a paradigmatically ‘natural’ space, are the ones that are doing the most ecological damage. They are contributing to the catastrophic loss of biodiversity, and the increasing and devastating risk of flooding, among other environmental ills, such as pollution. This is the problem we want to begin to address. The Lake District is often presented as an unspoilt, natural paradise; a presentation much abetted by the area’s historical connection with William Wordsworth, British Romanticism, John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter, all noted in the World Heritage document. Yet there is nothing natural about the Lake District in its current incarnation; it is a thoroughly human creation. The desire to preserve a particular vision of the area is not only harmful to the environment, but also inhibits the kinds of urgent responses required. Agents such as Natural England, United Utilities, farmers, RSPB and others are willing – funding allowed – to engage with the amelioration of climate change and failing biodiversity.

The Lake District is not just a product of human labour, but also of the human imagination. As such, it can be re-imagined and re-created in a form more suitable for our changing circumstances. We believe such a creative re-imagining is imperative in the context of climate change. What then, should the Lake District be and do in the next few decades, and whose responsibility is it to control the narratives and representations of our environment: government, landowners, farmers, or communities? Above all, the question is ‘can and should these narratives and representations be changed, and, if so, how?’

When we’ve spoken to individual conservationists who work in the Lake District, they are overwhelmingly critical of World Heritage, even though they may not be able to articulate those concerns in public. Indeed, those same conservationists see World Heritage as a major hindrance. It has become an obstacle to what might otherwise be more a more fully functioning set of criteria for the environmental sustainability of Cumbria. The practice of hill farming has long been a dominating influence in the area, and arguments are already well-rehearsed about the impact of grazing regimes on wider biodiversity. Our farmers are deeply connected to the land and the systems they manage. It is abundantly clear that as yet, nothing has been established by the government to replace the European CAP subsidies that currently provide hill farmers with the means of economic survival. Those same farming subsidies end in 2027. It seems, therefore, that now is absolutely the right time to mediate between the various complex layers of stakeholders. It is also absolutely the right time to provide those same farmers and land managers ­– whose lives and families have been and still form an integral part of the ‘ecosystem’ of the Lakes – with the right kinds of funding to plan and implement the widescale restoration of landscape and its biodiversity.

The 2019 State of Nature report demonstrates that the abundance and distribution of the UK’s species has, on average, declined since 1970 by 60%. The report suggests that this decline has continued through the most recent decade. ‘There has been no let-up in the net loss of nature in the UK.’  Furthermore, the report also suggests that a quarter of UK mammals and nearly half of the birds assessed are at risk of extinction. In many places though, just as in the Lakes, boosting biodiversity is utterly achievable. For wildlife to thrive in the Lake District, again, as in many other key areas of largescale habitat degradation, such as the Scottish uplands, the key element is the loss of flowers. This gross loss of pollen and nectar has driven invertebrate numbers down nationally; the Lakes is no different. This loss has occurred as the result of a number of drivers; the loss of meadows, the loss of most areas of unimproved grassland that are able to flower and seed,) the loss of flowering ledge vegetation and colossal losses of flowering scrub on the moorland edge. This is due to decades of loss of relatively short-lived species such as rowan, birch, cherry, bird cherry, crab apple, blackthorn, aspen and willow species that support thousands of invertebrates. Hawthorn is often the only remnant of this rich cohort due to its longevity – a species that can live for around 400 years. When such lone individuals are encountered in the upland landscape, what they represent therefore is habitat loss on an immense scale.

The second essential element for wildlife to thrive is connectivity. Without connective corridors in which to travel – and for this we can safely say continuous areas of woodland, and of equal or even more importance, scrub – species are unable to thrive and expand. The valleys of the Lake District have been described by conservationists as biodiversity dead-ends; there are very few connective corridors through which species can expand their ranges from valley to valley or from hillside to hillside. This is why, on most walks in the hills, the numbers and variety of species encountered are few and limited. Therefore without a change in mindset about how the land is managed, biodiversity is inevitably consigned to fail; things will only get worse.

We can and should tell ourselves stories about the land; after all, stories are the foundations upon which the world is built. We can tell ourselves about pollen samples from the Lake District’s upland tarns that hold the record—indeed, the evidence--of the broadleaf and scrub species that existed across the valleys and uplands until it had been cleared - first to create small farms, then as domestic fuel for the building of warships and to fuel industries. We can talk about the invention of ‘the picturesque’ and those early pioneers of tourism. Thomas West’s first guidebook to the Lakes was published in 1778. It was West who first articulated the idea of a cultural landscape; a landscape that was best viewed and interpreted from specific places. West called these places ‘viewing stations,’ like the one above Windermere at Claife Heights, or the engineered paths and iron work pergolas designed to lead early tourists towards sublime views of Stock Ghyll Force in Ambleside. We can tell ourselves stories about how the grand lakeshore houses – part of World Heritage cultural landscape designation – were built in order to provide their owners and owner’s guests with impressive views of the lakes. But we should never forget that those same properties were for the most part built on the back of the slave trade, or on those of Manchester’s mill workers who were housed in stinking streets and for whom the regular provision of clean water was as yet unimaginable. But with the looming uncertainty of our future, to only tell stories about the past is not good enough.

In 2015, when Storm Desmond wreaked havoc across the county, 7,000 homes across Cumbria were inundated with flood water to unprecedented levels. Unquestionably some of this flooding was made worse because of the poor state of the upland landscapes. When the treeless fellside collapsed onto the A591, the major road through the middle of the Lakes separating the towns of Grasmere and Keswick, for those who lived and worked or were schooled on either side of the divide a daily commute of 170-miles was necessary – for the next 9 months. We only need to ask the people of Pooley Bridge to tell us stories about what it was like not to have a road bridge for four and a half years to understand the devastating consequences of the floods. We could also ask why £72 million is to be spent by the EA on canalising the River Kent behind concrete flood walls in Kendal, where 2,500 people were made homeless in the most devastating floods on record, to make way for the 2m high concrete walls. The EA have already stated that the walls will not withhold another event like Storm Desmond – and 2.5 miles of mature riparian trees and scrub will be removed, destroying the public amenity and wildlife habitat of the river corridor. All of this despite studies from hydrologists at Newcastle and Durham universities showing that the Kent catchment is suitable for alternative, far less costly and more environmentally supportive schemes, where farmers, land-managers and landowners have already met and are well prepared to implement the necessary work of slowing and storing water and thus reducing the need for those concrete walls, should funding be made available. There is a choice here; bring in multi-national construction companies who disappear with the profit, or keep most of the funding in the local community and thereby support our farmers.

At the same time as supporting World Heritage, the LDNP’s own 2018 State of the Park Report shows how even the monitoring of sites is limited to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and that this in itself is a major absence. Although high fell habitats have improved, the report clearly states that generally they remain in poor condition particularly in those SSSIs, It shows that work is needed to restore peat bog hydrology, to recreate woodland and scrub habitats, which it notes are highly fragmented, thus inhibiting the movement of wildlife and the boosting of biodiversity. Only 6% of dwarf shrub heath and 26% of blanket bogs have been shown to be in favourable condition. Outside of protected sites, key habitats on large areas of the fells have been lost entirely and the condition of remaining habitat is thought to be declining. Significantly, the report shows that this is due to grazing regimes from both the past or the present. The report goes on to say that where the fells are in poor condition and the vegetation lacks physical structure, the absorption of CO2 is slow and runoff from rainwater increases the risk of soil loss. It also states that continued attention to and adjustments of grazing regimes is essential if successful habitat recovery is to be secured.

In her book The Dawn of Green; Manchester, Thirlmere and Modern Environmentalism, historian Harriet Ritvo shows how the Lake District in general and Thirlmere specifically, was the birthplace of the modern environmental movement. Manchester’s demand for clean, reliable supplies of water to serve the city’s industries and to provide clean drinking water led to different ways of seeing the landscape. But opposition in the Lakes was great. Some landowners opposed the sale of the lake and the land around it, whilst others capitalised on the need for all adjacent properties to be sold, profiteering as land prices rose by the week. Inevitably, after considerable protest and opposing ways of seeing the land, the land itself became instrumentalised. These days, we take the reservoir for granted. But don’t those environmental credentials provide us with a more useful way of viewing the landscape in 2020? Perhaps we should imagine a set of virtual viewing stations from which to consider what the land and the communities around it most need. And it is urgent that we also begin to speak for the species upon whose existence we all depend, but that are unable to speak for themselves.

Recently the suburb of Curridabat in Costa Rica’s capital city (Costa Rica is already one of the most biodiverse countries in the world) granted citizenship to species other than human – to the bees, the butterflies and birds.  The suburb made a simple and achievable plan; to turn the streets into biodiversity corridors along which species can travel and build their own capacity to thrive. Reported in The Guardian, Edgar Mora – the former mayor of Curridabat – introduced the idea that every bee, bat, hummingbird and butterfly should be recognised as a citizen, citing that ‘pollinators were the key’. Mora said ‘Pollinators are the consultants of the natural world, supreme reproducers and they don’t charge for it. The plan to convert every street into a biocorridor and every neighbourhood into an ecosystem required a relationship with them.’

We argue that in the Lake District, where we live and work, there should be an urgent and comprehensive re-imagining, or a re-commoning of the landscape in order to contribute towards what academic Carol Rose called ‘unlimited public good’. Greater public good, in other words, should become the legal standard by which our national landscapes are judged. It is encouraging to note that change is taking place, albeit in limited fashion. For example, at Gowbarrow Hall Farm on Ullswater, third generation farmers Sam and Claire Beaumont have begun to focus on improving soil structures and increase wildlife by reducing sheep and ‘mob grazing’ cattle and ponies. NE have a number of tree planting schemes in place, and a partnership between the RSPB and United Utilities in the Haweswater has seen the re-meandering of Swindale Beck and flood meadows returned, impacting positively on carbon capture and biodiversity.

The means of realising such a re-imagining could take the form of what philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour calls a ‘parliament of things’. This offers an ‘object-oriented democracy’, in which all the actors assembled in the Lake District can speak or be spoken for. Following Bruno Latour we suggest that those of us enduring the catastrophe of the Anthropocene, need to be ready to ‘include in their politics a whole new ecology loaded with things’. Latour’s notion of a ‘parliament of things’ is oddly appropriate for the Lake District, given its Viking heritage. He points out that the word ‘thing’ originally meant ‘a certain kind of archaic assembly’, found in the Saxon and Nordic nations. The Icelandic Althing is the oldest continuous parliament in the world. Historian R. G. Collingwood liked to imagine that the Vikings in the Lake District held Althings and that some place names are evidence of this. Latour suggests that ‘political questions have also become questions of nature’. He asks whether it is the time to bring the res back to the res publica?’.

Such a parliament of things would allow those nonhuman inhabitants of the Lake District to be given a voice, and to have their needs spoken for. This is vital, for example, in relation to biodiversity loss and flooding. We can think of no single greater public good than biodiversity restoration. Covid-19 has provided us with a rare opportunity to understand the connection between biodiversity loss and the likelihood of future pandemics, and it is no co-incidence that the gap between the human and non-human worlds is greater – our relationships more dissolved – than ever before (although our proximity is greater as well!). Even, or should that be, especially, at local level, as in Curridabat, we need to think and act specifically, (as well as nationally) to address our dangerously failing levels of biodiversity and habitat loss. What the closure of the Lake District through Covid-19 provided, was a chance to say, thus far, and no further. The closure allowed us to think and behave differently. The particular lens through which we view the land and our place within it, has been shown to contain the possibility of change.

We therefore argue for a radical and urgent re-imagining of the Lake District; one that supports its communities, its industries, including truly sustainable tourism, as well as one that helps farming to transition through schemes for environmental common goods. It should be possible to imagine and build a common landscape in which the natural world, is granted equal status.

The question is ‘what is to be done?’ On the one hand to try to limit visitor numbers to the area could be economically disastrous and arguably undemocratic. On the other hand this kind of tourism is clearly ecologically damaging and cannot continue in its current form. One solution is to try to change people’s perceptions of what the Lake District is: not as ‘Nature,’ somehow unspoilt, ‘out there’, but as an ecology. This ecology is one in which lakes, hills, trees, residents, visitors, houses, roads, power systems and transport are all part, but with biodiversity and habitat forming the crux of the pyramid and from which everything else flows. This is not a question of returning to any fixed state of the environment from the past, but rather imagining a more resilient future for the Lake District – and all its communities.

Perhaps this can only be imagined, and not realised. It may be that the practical obstacles are too great to overcome. But even the exercise of reimagining what an environment is, how it is used and how it might be made more sustainable, is valuable. We need to release the iron grip of heritage and romantic sentiment in relation to the rural environment and to begin to imagine how it might look in the future. Perhaps we need to rediscover that most unfashionable of ways of thinking about the future, that of utopianism. William Morris invokes the literal meaning of utopia, ‘no place’, in his classic work of socialist science fiction, News from Nowhere. However, among the mostly tragic and catastrophic consequences of the Covid 19 virus there is a glimpse of a more utopian vision of the Lake District, one in which the complex environment is given the chance to thrive. This is news from now, here.

In the aftermath of Covid-19, as in the aftermath of any disaster like Storm Desmond, we might decide to muddle along and do the best we can. We might more usefully though repurpose the World Heritage designation into a set of ideas that are more relevant, more reasonable and fit for purpose. Because of climate chaos and biodiversity loss and specifically because of COVID-19, we have seen the way that spaces have opened up in ways that we did not believe possible. We would therefore like to establish new sets of viewing stations – virtual viewing stations – in which some wild places might be off limits to allow nature to recover in biodiversity dead end valleys and hills. This might involve learning to look at and appreciating landscape at scales other than the human; to becoming aware of the intricate microworlds of pollinating insects in addition to the dramatic, romantic vistas of hills and lakes. It might involve initiatives in schools and in communities. It might involve the ways in which tourists are enabled to interpret the landscapes they have come to enjoy. It might involve funding opportunities such as ELMS (Environmental Land Management schemes) to help upland farmers adapt and change and be paid for instating environmental benefits for the greater public good. It might involve community-led discussions about what kinds of future those same communities would like to see put in place to help them sustain themselves – in terms of employment, housing, biodiversity and climate amelioration.

When the lockdown rules were eased recently there was a surge of visitors to the Lakes, and a shocking amount of litter left at various sites. Is this what Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Canon Rawnsley, and all those who helped preserve the Lake District, wanted? There is no way of knowing of course. At the same time as protesting against the coming of the railways, Wordsworth bought shares in the railway company that inevitably brought the visitors he objected to. In a similar way, all of us are complicit in some way in climate disaster and in habitat loss. But it is well past time to begin investing properly in the landscape for the sake of our children’s and our children’s children’s futures. After all, we only borrow the future and the future of the natural world from them.

Karen Lloyd is Lancaster University’s ‘Literature, Landscape and Environment Scholar’ in the Department of English and Creative Writing. She is the award-winning author of The Gathering Tide (Saraband 2016) and The Blackbird Diaries, (Saraband 2017.) Selected Observers Writers’ Books of the Year 2106. Her forthcoming book is To Receive the Wolf.

Charlie Gere, Professor of Media Theory and History Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts Lancaster University. His latest publications are Unnatural Theology: Religion, Art and Media after the Death of God (Bloomsbury, 2019) I Hate the Lake District (Goldsmiths Press, 2020.)

Simon Stainer, Lead Conservation Adviser, Cumbria, Natural England.

Ian Convery is Professor of Environment & Society at the University of Cumbria and co-chair of the IUCN Rewilding Thematic Group. He has written widely on Landscape change and conservation issues.