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  1. The Environment Interview
2 March 2022updated 03 Mar 2022 10:06am

Lee Schofield on how farming needs to re-wiggle its approach to nature

In the face of accusations of a “sheep-wrecked” countryside, a Lake District rewilding project is bringing conservation and farming together.

By India Bourke

“I smell snow,” Lee Schofield says as we leave the car and step into the UK Lake District’s magnificent and numbingly cold Swindale Valley. When I point out that he’s quoting a famous line from the Gilmore Girls, a TV show set in fictional small town America, he smiles with (understandable) bewilderment at the reference. He is not a natural people-person he later confesses, being drawn to the region for its quiet expanses. Yet much like the landscape itself, this self-effacing, reflective ecologist also finds himself in a position where responding to human narratives and emotion has become a defining part of his world.

At RSPB Haweswater, Schofield is site-manager of two upland farms that the NGO is restoring to ecological health while continuing to operate as a viable agricultural business. As such he is attempting to bridge one of Britain’s most tense and wide-reaching rural divides. On the one side sits farming interests eager to protect their heritage and precarious livelihoods; on the other is the modern conservation movement, racing to pull nature back from the brink. Similar to many civil or internecine conflicts, it is all the more intense for the parties’ closely linked passions. And mediation efforts can often feel similarly bleak.

The cause of tension in this case is the RSPB’s attempt to rebalance hill farming and ecology. Renting their land from United Utilities, a water supply company, Schofield’s small team have “re-wiggled” rivers to help with flood prevention, repaired damaged wetlands, and experimented with new breeds of livestock. As well as continuing to farm the region’s sheep, albeit at reduced numbers, they have introduced Belted Galloway cows which are native to the UK and graze in a way that makes it possible for a wider range of plant species to also thrive (cattle being less selective than sheep in their munching).

Local insects and wildlife have flourished as a result, along with improvements in water quality and carbon storage – all while maintaining the unique and Unesco-protected cultural heritage of the region. As Schofield jokes: “who doesn’t love a cow that looks like a Licorice Allsort?”

The ultimate hope is to breathe enough life into the area that it can once again sustain golden eagles, the last of whom vanished from the UK in 2015 after spending more than a decade living alone in the nearby Eagle Crag. The eagles’ loss was a “potent symbol of wildness bleeding out of the landscape,” Lee writes in his book Wild Fell, and is still a source of both national and personal shame, having occurred on his watch.

The RSPB’s mission is therefore timely: more than 70 per cent of the UK is used for agriculture and much of Britain’s biodiversity is on life support. But pursuing such a nature-focused farming project is not always easy. In some instances opposition is direct, Schofield writes: shepherds demanding excessive pay, open-day visitors dismissing staff as “idiots”, or the Unesco group committee describing the initiative as a “wart” on the face of the then-potential World Heritage Site. Other criticisms are more insidious still, with rumours, misrepresentations and gossip slipping across the landscape as regularly as escaping ewes.

One particularly disheartening encounter occurred with the former local MP Rory Stewart, said Schofield. While quick to praise the “fiercely intelligent” and “approachable” author and academic, Schofield writes that he was bruised by what he describes as the about-turn Stewart made in his response to the project; first praising it in a blog on his website, then later posting a more critical summary of his site-visit, Schofield writes.

Stewart told the New Statesman that be believes that “the sheep farming traditions of the Lake District are important to our national identity, our cultural heritage and particularly to those rural communities. I would much rather see rewilding in lowland England where the biodiversity benefits are greater and the loss to cultural heritage and small farms less.”

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Farmers’ fear of reform is often rooted in the recent history of misguided government subsidies, Schofield notes sympathetically. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy prioritised livestock headcounts and pushed farmers into using evermore intensive methods and precarious profits, so the prospect of further change is daunting, Schofield suggests. He urges greater understanding of the plight of small farmers, even as he makes the case for shifting the system to benefit nature too.

“It feels like we’re approaching a huge tipping point,” he told me as we walked past the site of a tree where a goosander duck used to nest before it was found shot through the neck. “Sheep have done a lot of damage over the years, not through farmers’ fault, but through [government] demand. We need to find a way for farming to fit back into the land’s carrying capacity again. There are lots and lots of different solutions – it’s not one thing or the other.”

The empathetic attitude contrasts with the toxic polarisation that social media often elicits. And it will hopefully help counter the farmer-bashing sparked by terms such as “sheep-wrecked”, which the journalist George Monbiot has used to describe Lake District farms. But such a calm, diplomatic approach has also not been easy for Schofield to reach. After being beaten down by criticism of the Haweswater project, he sought help through professional talking therapy, started to run long-distance, and drew strength from the ever-growing conservation network that stretches from the Woodland Trust supporters to officials from the Environment Agency. 

Now that tenacity is paying off, with more new farmers entering the profession and existing ones opening themselves up to trying new methods. A former lawyer has recently been in touch with Schofield for advice about starting a nearby farm along nature-friendly lines, Schofield notes hopefully. And it is a shift the world urgently needs – for as the latest IPPC climate report reminds, agroecology can store 20-33 per cent more soil carbon than conventional agriculture, reduce wildfire risk, improve biodiversity, and boost productivity and profits.

Like the rivers it has re-bent, the Haweswater project is re-wiggling farming into a more sustainable alignment with nature. And by similarly refusing to operate in siloed straight lines, Schofield’s own journey towards greater collaboration may have lessons to teach both of the UK’s rural tribes.

Wild Fell: Fighting for nature on a Lake District hill farm by Lee Schofield is now published by Doubleday.

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