Obstinate Questionings

The Lake District’s bid for World Heritage status shows just what a mess conservation is in.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd September 2013

But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,

William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality.

It’s the most celebrated landscape in Britain. It’s the spiritual home of the Romantic movement. It’s the birthplace of Western conservation. So who could possibly be boorish enough to oppose a campaign to turn the Lake District into a World Heritage site? I could.

Next month, a coalition a powerful bodies, including the National Trust, Natural England and English Heritage(1), will begin their fourth attempt to have the region recognised (alongside the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos islands, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Serengeti) by the United Nations(2).

They argue that the Lake District, more than anywhere else, “has influenced the way that the modern world views, values and conserves landscape.”(3) They also maintain that it is “one of the world’s most beautiful areas”(4), and here I take issue. I see it as one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe. It competes with the chemical deserts of East Anglia for the title of Britain’s worst-kept countryside.

The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheepwrecked: the forests which once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green. By eating the young trees that would otherwise have replaced their parents, the sheep wiped the hills clean. They keep them naked, mowing down every edible plant that raises its head, depriving animals of their habitats. You’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham. Their sharp hooves compact the soil, ensuring that rain flashes off, causing floods downstream. This is the state which the bid would help preserve in perpetuity, preventing the ecological restoration of England’s biggest national park.

So far, though this may change as the bid develops, in the hundreds of pages of public material promoting it, there is not a word of recognition that two of its aims – supporting sheep farmers and defending the ecosystem – are in conflict. Far from it: one document asserts that the Lake District demonstrates “a harmonious development of interactions between people and their environment”(5), and that the farming there protects wildlife, water and soils(6). In all three cases, it is the major cause of loss.

I am not claiming this conflict is easy to resolve, but there should at least be some acknowledgement that two cherished assets – hill farming with hefted flocks and a thriving ecosystem – are at odds. Instead we are told that changes to the mutilated landscape of the fells would “compromise the special qualities that are used to define the World Heritage Site”(7).

This failure to recognise inherent contradictions besets the British conservation movement, and it goes back to the beginning: a beginning often traced to a little house in Grasmere. I revere William Wordsworth. His assertion that the Lake District represented “a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest”(8) is widely seen as the establishing creed of the Western conservation movement, which he and other lovers of the Lakes – Coleridge, Ruskin, the founders of the National Trust, Beatrix Potter – did so much to foster and promote.

But I also hold him partly responsible for a strange bifurcation in our minds, which sees industrialism as malign and destructive and agriculture as benign and harmonious. Farming has done more extensive damage to wildlife and habitats than all the factories ever built. Few kinds of farming have done more harm in proportion to their output than the keeping of sheep in the hills. Productivity is tiny: the farm the bid cites as an example of good practice keeps just one sheep per hectare(9). Yet this sparse economy reduces the natural world to something resembling the aftermath of a nuclear winter across vast tracts of the uplands.

This is only part of the problem. Lobbying by supporters of the Lake District bid has persuaded the UN’s world heritage body (Unesco) to create a new category for judging applications: “cultural landscape”. There is nothing inherently wrong with this: it’s an important recognition of people’s engagement with the natural world. But unless it’s unpacked the concept can hide a host of issues. In this case, cultural landscape looks like an expression of cultural hegemony.

Even in Wordsworth’s day, his notion that the Lakes were inhabited by a “a perfect Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturalists”, who “exhibited a perfect equality”(10),
was fanciful. Their society was already highly stratified. Today, after two centuries of consolidation and enclosure, there are only 1,200 farms in the Lake District(11), and Britain as a whole has one of the world’s highest concentrations of land ownership(12). This raises some serious problems if you believe that “They who are dwellers in this holy place / Must needs themselves be hallowed”(13), and that the culture of the entire national park should revolve around the farmers.

Hill farming is sustained only with extravagant public subsidies. It continues to bleed employment, and the average age of the farmers rises every year(14). Yet the world heritage bid seeks somehow to preserve this system for ever, to maintain an ersatz version of the 18th-Century farming system it fetishises. It’s in danger of creating a 230,000-hectare recapitulation of the Hameau de la Reine: Marie Antoinette’s model farm at Versailles.

Admirable as they were, why should Wordsworth and Ruskin govern our tastes beyond the grave? Why should the culture they mythologised be treated as if it were the only current and possible culture? Why is the inherent clash between ranching and wildlife being resolved only in favour of ranching? Why, in the cradle of the conservation movement, are these obvious questions not even being asked?



1. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/

2. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

3. Lake District World Heritage Project, no date given. Draft Nomination Document, Public Version 1, page 5. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/documents/LakeDistrictWHS_NomDom_Public.pdf

4. Lake District World Heritage Project, 19th August 2008. The Lake District: Statement of Outstanding Universal Value. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/documents/LakeDistrictStatementofOutstandingUniversalValue190808.pdf

5. Lake District World Heritage Project, no date given. Draft Nomination Document, Public Version 1, page 12. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/documents/LakeDistrictWHS_NomDom_Public.pdf

6. The nomination document claims that “Sustainable farming (that is, farming in line with current Natural England and Environment Agency guidance and policy) has a key role to play now and in the future in shaping the Lake District’s cultural landscape. It will deliver environmental goods and services that are needed by all; spectacular landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage, protection of air, water and soils, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change and reliable, high quality water resources and flood protection.” This is a near-perfect inversion of reality.

7. Lake District World Heritage Project, no date given. Draft Nomination Document, Public Version 1, page 194. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/documents/LakeDistrictWHS_NomDom_Public.pdf

8. William Wordsworth, 1810. Guide to the Lakes.

9. Lake District World Heritage Project, no date given. Draft Nomination Document, Public Version 1, page 39. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/documents/LakeDistrictWHS_NomDom_Public.pdf

10. William Wordsworth, 1810. Guide to the Lakes.

11. Lake District World Heritage Project, no date given. Draft Nomination Document, Public Version 1, page 191. http://www.lakeswhs.co.uk/documents/LakeDistrictWHS_NomDom_Public.pdf

12. Kevin Cahill, 2002. Who Owns Britain. Canongate.

13. William Wordsworth, 1814. Home at Grasmere.

14. House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 16th February 2011. Farming in the Uplands. Third Report of Session 2010–11. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenvfru/556/556.pdf