Healthy heather, healthy uplands

Heather in bloom on Iron Crag, Ennerdale

The blaze of purple heather across the fells is a classic view for August. But scratch beneath the surface, and this hardy moorland plant can tell you a lot about the health of the landscape. Like a litmus test, or the coal-mine canary, the health of our heather in the Lakes shows the health of our uplands.

Here’s just one place where changing the way we work with our tenant farmers is reaping benefits for the Lake District’s cultural and natural heritage – and heather is how we can see it happening.

A tale of two hillsides

Our ranger team have spent many days rebuilding the dry stone wall on Iron Crag. It’s a constant process of repair and maintenance along its 3.5km length. It’s a remote spot, a rarely-visited high up on the fells above Ennerdale, so why do we put so much time and effort into something that is mostly only seen by sheep and the occasional fell-runner?

The answer becomes sharply defined when the heather blooms.  Seen from a distance, the wall draws a stark boundary between different management systems. On one side, heather grows shin-deep. On the other, a few tufts dot the grassland.

The two sides of the wall on Iron Crag
Dry stone wall runs through heather on Iron Crag, Ennerdale
The two sides of the wall on Iron Crag

An arbitrary line

The thing about this hillside is that this boundary is man-made. The underlying geology and soil is the same on both sides of the wall – there’s no reason why the vegetation shouldn’t be the same.

The only difference is the way that the land is managed.

On the north side of the wall, the land is managed by a National Trust farm tenant as part of the Wild Ennerdale partnership. The vision is to find ways to enable farmers to make a sustainable income by working with natural processes, rather than against them. This farmer has exchanged sheep grazing for Galloway cattle grazing.

The Galloway 'gals', above Ennerdale
Black Galloway cattle in the Wild Ennerdale Valley
The Galloway 'gals', above Ennerdale

Cattle graze in a different way – while sheep nibble off vegetation within a few millimetres of the ground creating a dense compact sward which encourages a few grass species to dominate that can tolerate that kind of intense grazing; cattle take bigger mouthfuls from different pockets, allowing vegetation to grow longer, and allowing a greater biodiversity that includes flowering plants like heather.

Flowering plants form the base of the food chain for much of our wildlife – no flowers means no insects, and insects are the food source for many of our native wild bird and fish species; without flowering plants the whole ecosystem starts to suffer.

On the south side of the wall, the land is managed by the farmers in the commoners association with a more traditional farming approach of making the land as productive as possible, in terms of food.

Landscape management affects the whole ecosystem
Heather and water droplets at Ennerdale, Lake District
Landscape management affects the whole ecosystem

A question of balance

As ecologists have pointed out, maximising the productivity of marginal land comes at a cost to our natural heritage. In recent years we’ve been seeing that cost in the declining populations of farmland birds, and increased flooding as the short, dense vegetation speeds up the flow of water from the uplands into our rivers, washing the thin upland soils out to sea, creating landslides and floods that threaten communities living downstream.

The use of cattle in Ennerdale also enriches the cultural heritage of the Lakes, because we’ve been able to bring back into use a historic vaccary, or cattle enclosure, which shows that cattle were an integral part of Ennerdale’s past as well as its future.

Rangers repairing the wall on Iron Crag
Rangers repairing walls on Iron Crag, Lake District
Rangers repairing the wall on Iron Crag

Repairing walls, breaking down barriers

So the rangers spend day after day repairing this wall that no-one sees to maintain the health of the hillside for communities, for wildlife – managing the land in ways that creates public good.

Meanwhile we’re working alongside farmers in the commoners associations here and across the Lake District, working with them to find sustainable ways to make a living in ways that treat the cultural and natural heritage of the lakes as two sides of the same coin.