Natural & Cultural Heritage

Gathering in off the Consiton Fells

Wilderness was never a homogenous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end-product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.

Aldo Leopold, 1949

We’ve chosen, during our twelve months of walking and camping, to select twelve issues to think about. For our second ‘timely issue’ piece (to follow on from considering complexity), we’ve been thinking about natural and cultural heritage – two defining things about the Lake District, one affected by and affecting the other, and each reliant on the other. Both nature and culture have been celebrated over the centuries – and still are. But interpretations of just what constitutes ‘nature’ and what is valuable as ‘culture’ in this small part of the world, and whether they are intimately joined or fundamentally separate do vary; and the task of caring for both is a considerable challenge.

Bog beans on a small tarn near Seathwaite.
Bog beans on a small tarn near Seathwaite.

Like any other individuals, we can never know all there is to know about this single place, or any other place for that matter. Nevertheless, we keep following our curiosity and attempting to learn more (and typically, the more we find out, the more we realise there is still to learn!). But we do, like many others, feel a tension between what’s defined as ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ in our own local space, the Lake District. This tension exists in other places across the UK, and in other countries, but because of its relatively small size, and the historic twinning of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and the recent granting of World Heritage Site status, the Lake District is a pertinent example for other places, both in the challenges it holds, and the practical solutions that are used or being discussed. So we’re taking this opportunity to share some reflections on what’s happening here. It’s not simple, so this isn’t a short piece – grab a cuppa.

Herdwick Tup
Herdwick Tup

The Lake District as a National Park

The Cumbrian Lake District was recognised as a National Park in 1951 and in 2016 was enlarged with extensions to the east and south. It’s a relatively small area of land in the county of Cumbria, just over 2360 square kilometres in area, that has been compressed, folded and eroded over aeons into a post-glacial landscape of hills, valleys and lakes; it is home to England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and its deepest lake, Wastwater, and has a coastline bordering the Irish Sea. Its geology encompassing granites, volcanic and igneous rocks, slates and limestones, among other rock types, gives rise to different features and habitats, and underpins its unique and special physical characteristics. Add to this the weather, which typically involves a lot of rain, and you end up with a landscape that’s dominated by green, by trees, bogs and streams: from this foundation a diversity of flora and fauna arose over millennia.

With the coming of people who chose to pass through and then to settle, the landscape began to change. Archaeological remains reveal lives going back thousands of years. Stone circles (there are around 50 in Cumbria), hold forgotten stories of people who lived here more than three thousand years ago, and there are remnants such as the axe heads left lying around after the abandonment of the axe factory that was active in Neolithic times in the Langdale Valley.

The landscape that’s visible today, with small settlements and isolated farmhouses surrounded by fields and meadows, walled-in ‘intakes’ further up the hill, and open fells beyond the last fell wall, is the result of centuries of hill farming with practices and flocks, that have adapted to this landscape. Most of the high, un-walled fells are registered as common land and are used by a number of farmers who graze sheep that, over generations, have kept to ‘hefts’ or particular areas. The genetic lines of many of the flocks of sheep go back far longer than the genetic lines of the farmers who care for them.

Old mine workings at Wren Gill at the top end of Long Sleddale.
Old mine workings at Wren Gill at the top end of Long Sleddale.

Alongside the culture of farming, Cumbria has seen an industry of coppicing and charcoal making, of mining, mainly for slate and copper, of forestry, and tourism. But it’s the recognition of the importance of this hill farming heritage and the continuation of a living tradition of hill farming with its roots going back hundreds of years, and the genetically distinct Herdwick sheep, that in large part underpins the Lake District’s formal recognition as a World Heritage Site.

A bit more about the Lake District gaining World Heritage Site status

In 2017, following more than thirty years of conversations, and two declined applications for recognition by UNESCO, the English Lakes was granted WHS status as a Cultural Landscape. What does that mean?

 ‘The World Heritage Site Convention identifies the Outstanding Universal Value of a property as something of cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.’

In the Context of the Lake District there are three central themes that reflect UNESCO’s inscription of the area:

•    Identity: shaped by the combined influence of nature and man

a landscape of glacial origins shaped by persistent and distinctive agro-pastoral traditions which give it special character and exceptional beauty

Bringing in the ewes from the fell in Kentmere
Bringing in the ewes from the fell in Kentmere

•    Inspiration: inspirational

a landscape which has inspired artistic and literary movements and has generated new thinking and ideas about landscapes that have had global influence and have also left their physical mark on it (think William and Dorothy Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Harriet Martineau among others)

•    Conservation. the birthplace of conservation movements

a landscape which has been the catalyst for key developments in the national and international protection of landscapes (and is the birthplace of the National Trust)

These are the headline statements, and each could be explored in so much more depth, both as general subjects and in relation to specific areas of the National Park. If you’re curious, you can find loads more about it on the documents shared here:

In our quest to find out more about what’s happening now, we headed over to meet Mairi Locke, who is leading the Lake District World Heritage Site partnership. After we’d talked about the key issues, she was keen to stress that it’s not just this tangible heritage that’s important. ‘Everyone accepts Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter,’ she told us. ‘But we need to remember the intangible elements of this special cultural heritage, things like the recreation activities, the shepherds’ meets and the dialect that are less easy to grasp and could slip if we don’t pay attention to them. We need to make sure these are retained and passed down through generations. We need the resources and commitment to do that.’

So is it all fixed in aspic?

One of the fears that we’ve heard many people voice is that WHS recognition requires that the area should stay as it is, a landscape characterised by the kind of landscape that has been and will continue to be shaped by a very specific method of farming. This is an understandable fear but if the intentions of the World Heritage Site partnership are honoured and put in to practice, this is not the case. The place is classified as an ‘evolving landscape’ and as such, will necessarily change.

‘The organic landscape of the Lake District can never be frozen at one point in time and will continue to change, reflecting the evolution of how communities interact with the landscape. Development in the past has left a cultural legacy; so too, development in the present and future will create new cultural values.’ 
(WHS Nomination Document)

New tree planting in Borrowdale, near Shap.
New tree planting in Borrowdale, near Shap.

How change may manifest as we move into the future is anyone’s guess; but it’s a serious matter and the next few years could be critical. How will farming practices change in response to climate change or out of concern for environmental sustainability, or in response to altered policies and government payments? Will tourism levels that are predicted to rise put increasing pressure on the land and the infrastructure in the national park, and how will this pressure be dealt with? What ‘new cultural values’ might emerge? And how will these fit in to the current definition of World Heritage Status?

We love this place – that’s no secret – for its landscape and for its living culture, and we were closely involved in the journey towards UNESCO recognition (Harriet even got to sit on the BBC Breakfast red sofa to talk about it). Here’s a blog post we wrote about the award back in July 2017 ( We are have also been recently involved in talking about opportunities and possibilities for the future of farming on upland commons (through Our Common Cause). Now, along with many others, we’re in the next phase of the journey: aspirations are the easy bit, but working out how to make the most of the opportunities the status affords, and the challenges it throws up, is not easy. We are not involved in the partnership, but we are keenly watching to find out how things move forward in a way that supports people to live in and with this environment in a positive way.

I began this article with an excerpt from Aldo Leopold’s book Sand Country Almanac. The writing continues with a reflection, as Leopold mourns the decline in nature and in diversity of cultural practices:

‘For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of culture through modern transport and industrialization. Neither can be prevented, and perhaps should not be, but the question arises whether, by some slight amelioration of the impending changes, certain values can be preserved that would otherwise be lost.’

Leopold wrote in 1949, but his words are just as true today; and our local issues have global relevance. While there may be specific areas where the diversity of plants and animals is thriving, in general there is decline in the Lake District as there is across the world (the local situation was recognised in the recent State of the Park Report, currently being updated).

The superficial ‘beauty’ of a much celebrated landscape may continue, and there are certainly small areas where habitats are improving and things are changing for the better, but in broader terms of environmental health, including soil quality, tree coverage and biodiversity of flora and fauna, the region is not doing well. And although the award of WHS celebrates the living culture of hill farming, the future of the unique system that has evolved in response to this landscape is also uncertain: there are fewer farms thriving today than a hundred years ago, there are threats arising from a shift in policies (and, of course, the Brexit situation), and a lack of succession and support for new farmers is an issue. On top of this even if people choose to stay in farming, will they choose to continue to farm in the way that’s recognised as special under World Heritage Site status, keeping Herdwick flocks on unfenced common land, in a system that is financially, and environmentally, sustainable?  If the farming system declines, does this also entail a loss of what is now a rare level of connection with nature: people who through their jobs continue a long tradition of very, very close observation, day in, day out, of the land, together with its rivers, trees, plants, animals and birds, and of seasons and shifting weather patterns, and who are able to practice gradual shifts to accommodate environmental change?

Langdale Valley

Every time we are out walking we clock the land around us: this includes old woodlands, areas where hundreds of trees have been planted, open fells with thick and spongy sphagnum moss, the light catching miles of stones walls on steep fells, sturdy field barns and derelict barns, the flush of meadows, the flow of rivers and, if we happen upon it, the gentle flow of people and dogs bringing in the flocks. Nature and culture go hand in hand here in the Lake District: each shapes the other in a mutual relationship of give and take, yet both are under threat. The paradox is that being a National Park and a World Heritage Site are both cause for celebration and an invitation for protecting what’s special; actually achieving adequate protection and improving both natural and cultural aspects is by far from easy.

To discuss the way forward, the National Park Partnership is made up of 25 organisations; there is a separate WHS Steering Group, and there is a WHS technical advisory group. The status of National Park has been around for almost 70 years, but it’s early days in terms of WHS status. In a positive sense, recognition as a World Heritage Site – which involved representatives from over 180 countries agreeing that the Lake District warranted a place among 845 Cultural Heritage sites worldwide – is an opportunity for people to sit up and work together to protect what’s special, for communities to be empowered to do what they know is necessary at a local level, and for visitors to be well managed. Theory though, is tough to translate into practice. ‘It’s an education,’ says Mairi, when we ask how things are going, with so many people and agendas around a single table. ‘We’re all still trying to find our feet.’ Everyone came together to appeal for recognition, but now that WHS is real, it’s becoming obvious that sometimes this has an impact on what people want to achieve.  For instance, says Mairi, ‘we need to not just consider whether or not the restoration of a particular area of peat is good for the peat bogs, but also whether it’s going to have an impact on the landscape in terms of farming. It is a learning curve and the challenge is trying to guide and assist: there’s no reason why we can’t improve nature and in fact it is essential as nature and culture are two sides of the same coin. We’re a World Heritage Site, so culture is important, but we’re also a National Park, so nature is important. I think there’s a little bit of knee jerk reaction that: Oh, cultural heritage, that’s going to be at the expense of nature, but it isn’t like that. They need to work together.’

We ask Mairi to talk more about the partnership’s view on the balance between the farming culture and the natural environment ‘They’re equal,’ she says. ‘One doesn’t take precedence over the other. The management plan is for the National Park and the World Heritage Site, and the policies are to preserve both aspects. The national park has statutory requirements, in terms of the planning system; UNESCO is a very important badge for global recognition. The National Park acknowledges thirteen special qualities that warrant protection and those are all embedded in some form or another in the World Heritage Site’s Outstanding Universal Values. There will be a slight change in the emphasis and you’ll have culture coming more forward perhaps in the discussion than it did before World Heritage Site Status, but we do realise that the Lake District is not in a good condition at the present time, and that needs to be addressed.’

Meeting James Rebanks to talk about culture and environment...amonst many other things.
Meeting James Rebanks to talk about culture and environment…amongst many other things.

There are no answers at this stage, just the reality that the National Park, and the groups of organisations that are working individually and in collaboration, are on a journey. The more people we talk to, the more we find out about small but significant changes not yet at the level of policy, but on the ground. Our curiosity led us back to the kitchen table of James Rebanks, who we’ve previously interviewed about World Heritage Site status. James was closely involved in the early days of putting together the bid for recognition, and we are curious to know what he thinks now that it’s official: what benefit does being a World Heritage Site bring to the Lake District? ‘I think it’s important in its own right, even if nothing else ever happened, that people recognise what this landscape is, culturally. I think it shapes conversations about this landscape and sets parameters for what you can and can’t do here. And I would have been happy with it if that was all that it did. My old life was focused on what you did after that, to make it sing, make money, give communities a future – but I don’t see that stuff happening. There are some good people around but I think the organisations that manage this landscape so under resourced that they can’t really do any of the things that I think they should be doing.’

Below the radar of social media and national recognition, a number of farms and individual land owners have been working for years on their own and with people from organisations like Natural England, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Rivers Trusts, to increase the numbers of trees on their land, allow river systems to re-naturalise, to create or regenerate meadow land and woodland pastures – without eroding a deep-rooted culture of farming and the connection with place that comes with this. As the year’s clock ticks by, we’ll be learning more about how change is manifesting on a local and a landscape scale, and we will be taking a closer look at hill farming in the uplands as one of our twelve topics.

In May, the intergovernmental body charged with assessing biodiversity and ecosytems released a global assessment, showing alarming statistics about the severe decline and continuing threat to biodiversity across the world. The assessment also delivered suggestions for measures that may help us reverse this. It states that, ‘The Sustainable Development Goals and the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity cannot be achieved without transformative change, the conditions for which can be put in place now’. In the Lake District, can the twinning of  nature and culture through its special status feed into positive change, and can this national park offer a shining example? Only time will tell.

sundew at Wasdale

References and further reading

Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac, p. 188 (Oxford University Press, 1949)

Guide to the nomination, special qualities of the Lake District, and Outstanding Universal Values of the World Heritage Site:

World Heritage Site in the English Lakes: a blog with updates, plus a really useful FAQ section

IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, is an independent intergovernmental body, with 130 member states and a large number of stakeholders. The objective of IPBES is to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development. For more, and to read the latest assessment, published May 6, 2019, visit

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