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Our work at Ennerdale

Mist at Ennerdale, Cumbria
Mist at Ennerdale, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Find out more about our past and ongoing conservation work at Ennerdale, from rebuilding and repairing a long stretch of dry stone wall (and why it’s so important) to introducing Black Galloway cattle to the valley and protecting the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.

Healthy heather, healthy uplands

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 indicates 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.

Heather and water droplets at Ennerdale, Cumbria.
Heather and water droplets at Ennerdale | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Repairing walls and breaking down barriers

The ranger team have rebuilt the dry stone wall on Iron Crag, which is a constant process of repair and maintenance along its 3.5km length.

It’s a remote and rarely-visited spot 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 clear 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.

An arbitrary line

The thing about this hillside is that this boundary is man-made. The underlying geology and soil are 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.

The farmer on this side has exchanged sheep grazing for Galloway cattle grazing.

Sheep vs cattle

These creatures graze in different ways, 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 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. They use a more traditional farming approach yet still manage to make the land as abundant as possible for food production.

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 seen that cost in the declining populations of farmland birds and increased flooding. 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.

So the rangers spend day after day repairing this wall that no one sees, to maintain the health of the hillside for communities as well as for wildlife.

A male Marsh Fritillary butterfly with wing markings of orange, white and black
A marsh fritillary butterfly | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

Ennerdale's marsh fritillaries

Ennerdale is home to a number of species of butterfly including red admiral, small pearl bordered fritillary, green hairstreak, green veined white and marsh fritillary, to name a few.

Apart from their intrinsic beauty, butterflies are an important part of the ecosystem for pollinating flowers and provide a food source for birds.

However the marsh fritillary, one of most highly protected species of butterfly in Europe, was last recorded on a single site in Ennerdale in the 1970s, becoming extinct in the valley primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

A few cows will do the trick

More recently, and with thanks to a local farmer, some changes in land management – including the introduction of light cattle grazing – kickstarted some much-needed habitat restoration.

Longmoor Common was identified by Natural England to be a suitable site for a re-introduction of this beleaguered butterfly.

Marsh fritillary larvae from a captive-bred population were brought in to Longmoor and other suitable sites in Cumbria in 2007 via partnership with the charity Butterfly Conservation and Natural England, along with local farmers and volunteers.

Keeping track of the new numbers

The butterfly population is monitored by counting the number of larval webs present on a site.

These webs are highly visible to a trained eye and reflect the number of butterflies present and the breeding success of the colony.

Increase in butterflies

Over the last decade, the monitoring results have shown a vast increase in the population size in Ennerdale. 

This positive trend has been due to a phased approach of release across a number of sites and the provision of a mosaic of suitable habitat in which the butterflies can thrive.

The future's bright

Viewed in the long-term, it's great to see that the one successful site at Longmoor has had a ripple effect in allowing new colonies to become established, both through intervention and natural process.

The River Liza corridor and surrounding adjacent fields provides plenty of Devils-bit scabious, which is popular with butterflies.

The three herds of Galloway cattle are also doing their bit by disturbing the ground for new vegetation growth.

Which all means the future is looking particularly rosy for the marsh fritillary in Ennerdale.

Two Black Galloway cattle stand on the fellside with Ennerdale water behind them.
Black Galloway cattle in the Ennerdale Valley | © Cath Tyrrell

Wild Ennerdale and the Black Galloway cattle

Wild Ennerdale is an agreement between the valley’s landowners (principally the National Trust, Forestry Commission and United Utilities, along with Natural England as an advisor) to manage the landscape as a whole and not just as its constituent parts, allowing for bigger-picture thinking and trialling new approaches to land management.

The name ‘Wild Ennerdale’ came about through asking people who actually visit the valley how they felt about the place.

Turns out they love its remoteness and peace, that there are no loos or cafés or any real intrusion from the outside world. So the prefix ‘wild’ was perfect for the partnership and this was back before ‘re-wilding’ became a trendy buzzword.

The cattle trial

In 2006, nine black Galloway cattle were introduced as a trial to roam free in 145 hectares (almost 360 acres) of land in this section of the valley bottom. Within their specific boundaries they are free to roam which means they can respond to weather, grazing and their own instincts, creating a habitat mosaic which is much more natural.

Ten years later

The trial has gone well as there are now three herds with 34 cattle in total that range over 1,000 hectares of land, from the forest slopes to the valley bottom.

The churning of the ground by cattle hooves is the key to facilitating a change in vegetation. The ground is able to ‘scrub up’ and new, often endangered species, can move back in.

Since the cattle have been introduced in Ennerdale there has been a return of native populations of the marsh fritillary butterfly and the Devil’s-bit scabious: tangible evidence of the benefits this approach has brought about.

Sunlight is casting rays between the trunks of densely planted trees in dark woodland in Ennerdale, Cumbria

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