At the edge of Cumbria’s Lake District National Park lies Ennerdale Valley, a site of vast ecological restoration and astonishing beauty. The plan is “to allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology” (Wild Ennerdale, 2016).
Wild Ennerdale is an on-going partnership between the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and United Utilities. There are several objectives for the site, including changes to farming, forestry, transport and water extraction. Our guide for the morning, Gareth Browning, works for the Forestry Commission, and took us on a whistle-stop tour of part of the valley. We walked for almost seven hours and barely scratched the surface.
“It’s more about us stepping back,” Gareth explained, “It’s about working alongside natural processes. Sometimes they speak louder than we can act.” It was inspiring to see an individual so keen on working for a brighter future, with nature in mind. All too often profit is the main concern. With Ennerdale, wildlife is the priority. As I walked around I realised I had visited very few wildlife locations I would consider completely wild with next to no human intervention. Most nature reserves have trodden down paths, numerous hides and bustling visitor centres. Out in the Valley, I felt like I’d disconnected from day-to-day existence. It was invigorating.
Initially the creation of Wild Ennerdale had some problems. Parts of the farming community have and continue to struggle to follow the concepts. “Some believe that high density sheep grazing is part of the Lake District culture,” Gareth told us. True, when I think of the Lakes sheep spring to mind, especially the innocent faces of the Herdies. However, it is without a doubt that sheep are a hindrance to wildlife, not a help. They act as living, breathing lawnmowers, gobbling away at the countryside and leaving a barren wasteland in their wake.
In response to the problem, Wild Ennerdale have decided to move from intensive sheep grazing to extensive cattle grazing in the valley instead. It is thought that they bring a positive impact to local habitats, as a result of their eating habits. Unlike sheep, cows are not selective when choosing what to eat, and their bulk has benefits too. By walking through bracken, cows can break up dead material and form paths through the vegetation. In addition, their size prevents them from accessing difficult steeper terrain, allowing parts of the land to continue growing ungrazed. This results in a patchwork effect, instead of the total disruption that sheep produce.
This change in livestock management seems to be taking effect. After conducting a ten-year-long survey from 2006 to this year, there has been a 50% increase in the abundance of bird species in the valley bottom, where sheep previously grazed. No doubt this is as a result of increased diversity of vegetation, allowing a greater insect population and attracting more birds to the area. It’s great to see that the work Wild Ennerdale is conducting is bringing about positive change.
Aside from the few human interventions, such as the introduction of cattle, Ennerdale remains fairly wild. But what exactly does wild mean? It seems everyone has a unique definition. To Gareth, “wildness is a human perception, not what nature feels.” He explained that most people compare natural surroundings to their urban life, so essentially all green spaces are wild in comparison to tarmac, metal and plastic. A red squirrel, Gareth pointed out, doesn’t consider its home wild; it’s what it has always been used to. The majority of us are just too accustomed to living in concrete jungles instead of real ones, so any change of environment seems like we’re in the wilderness, when in fact man has still made its mark in many different ways.
- Wild Ennerdale (2016) Our Vision. Available at: http://www.wildennerdale.co.uk/about/our-vision/ (Accessed: 13 March 2016)