Wild Fell joins a growing list of books that describe the theory and practice of ‘rewilding’ or, if you prefer, managing the land in a way that is sustainable, wildlife-friendly and allows nature a freer hand. The focus here is on the uplands of the Lake District, in particular the land around Haweswater, managed by the RSPB (with Lee as site manager) on behalf of the regional water company.
The book is divided into three parts. The first sets the scene and outlines the many problems inherent in managing this huge upland site; then comes a tour of other places, including the Norwegian mountains, from which lessons can be learnt and inspiration drawn. Finally, we are walked through the work being done at Haweswater – the many challenges involved and the benefits that are slowly but surely beginning to accrue. Lee’s passion is for plants and they get a lot of the attention; but, as he points out, get things right for the plants and they will provide what is needed for creatures higher up the food chain.
It is an engaging and honest book throughout. There is no shying away from the difficulties encountered, including the ever-present tensions between those who see sheep as integral to the landscape, and others for whom wildlife recovery is a legitimate goal. These issues are especially challenging in the Lake District, where World Heritage Status has focused attention on the ‘traditional’ management of the landscape. Quite where the baseline should be set – how far back we should look to find the right traditions – is a recurring theme, explored with sensitivity and common sense. For now, though, if you want to plant a tree, less paperwork will be required if you are outside the boundary of the National Park.
The book ends on a note of cautious optimism. We are treated to an imagined picture of what the landscape might look like by the time Lee finally hangs up his boots. The Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos featured on the book’s cover is back, and there are plenty of other surprises. Keen birdwatchers will be flocking here if it all comes to fruition and those interested in regenerative farming will want to come and have a look too. The ambitions are on a grand scale, but they are set out with clarity and purpose.
Will it actually happen? Well, attitudes are gradually changing as more and more of us understand the diverse benefits that flow from managing land sustainably: benefits for wildlife, flood protection, water quality, carbon storage and for the local rural economy. Help will be needed, not least from the government, but I wouldn’t back against Lee and others like him. Whether you remain sceptical or are already a fan of this approach to conservation, this book is highly recommended.