Tucked away at the eastern edge of the Lake District National Park, Haweswater Reservoir sits encircled by looming fells. The glacially-carved landscape is studded with mossy woodlands, rocky crags, bogs, tarns and rushing streams. The whole area is owned by water company United Utilities, and the reservoir supplies 2 million of their customers with their daily drinking water.
In 2011, The RSPB began managing Naddle and Swindale Farms, which together with their associated common land extend to around 30 square kilometres – roughly a third of the Haweswater drinking water catchment.
Working together with landowner United Utilities, we are demonstrating how ecological restoration can work alongside sustainable upland farming, benefitting water, wildlife and people.
This is how the landscape looked in 2011. From this perspective, Naddle (central) and Swindale (to the left), and their associated areas of common land are undoubtedly beautiful, full of Lake District grandeur. However, on closer inspection, major ecological issues stand out.
The rich ancient woodland clothing the slopes around Naddle Farm, and the recovering heathland above were limited in extent, separated from surrounding land by the fences which protected them
Intensive grazing by both sheep and deer meant that the open common land and enclosed farmland were not in good shape, dominated by species-poor acid grassland and bracken.
As a result of damaging post-war financial incentives, large areas of peat bog had been drained to try to improve them for farming. This reduced the bog’s vital water and carbon storage capacity, creating a whole host of problems for people and for nature. The drainage scars in the bog were visible from miles away.
Although England’s only resident golden eagle was still present in 2011, he’d been on his own for around 5 years, a clear sign of the landscape’s poor condition. Elsewhere on the fells, the bird life was very limited. Upland surveys would often record meadow pipits and skylarks and very little else.
In Swindale, the beck ran straight as a canal, having been engineered to drain surrounding farmland at least two hundred years earlier, with the unintended consequence of increasing flood risk for people downstream and robbing it of its value to wildlife. The valley’s precious hay meadows were in poor shape due to overgrazing and fertiliser use.
Supported by Natural England and many other partners, the RSPB and United Utilities, are working towards addressing all of these issues, and doing so in a way that brings benefits for the local community and economy.
Ecological restoration is a slow process in the uplands, but here’s what we might expect the landscape to look like by 2050.
As a result of both planting and natural regeneration, trees will have spread onto higher ground, particularly in areas dominated by bracken, which indicates where woodland probably grew historically. Many fences will have been removed and the boundaries between woods, heaths, bog and grassland will have become blurry, creating a much more diverse set of conditions for wildlife.
There will be more trees in the enclosed land too, with livestock benefitting from the shade and shelter that in-field trees provide. More hedges will provide vital habitat and help with livestock management.
While still recognisably a farmed landscape, the animals doing the grazing will be different. Sheep will still be present, but in lower numbers, and only grazing on the enclosed land within the farm boundaries. Up on the commons, a scattering of hardy cattle and fell ponies, grazing alongside a low density of wild deer will mimic a natural, wild grazing regime that occurred here thousands of years ago. These heavy-footed animals will help to distribute the seeds of trees and flowers and create gaps for them to grow, keeping the landscape diverse.
The landscape’s cast of breeding birds will have grown. As reintroduced populations expand, it’s likely that white tailed eagles and red kites will be back in Haweswater’s skies, alongside golden eagles, spreading out from Scotland. Species like cuckoo, curlew and whinchat will be thriving thanks to the healthy mosaic of habitats.
Looking at a landscape from this lofty perspective can only show so much. We must look more closely to appreciate the finer details.
By blocking drains, and revegetating areas of bare peat, the bogs will be wet and wild again. Without the drains, the flow of water through the landscape will be slower, encouraging the growth of healthy carpets of sphagnum moss, locking in carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Carnivorous sundews, fluffy cotton grass and bright yellow bog asphodel will thrive in the damp conditions, as will dragonflies, snipe and curlew and many other wetland specialists. Black grouse will be back, making use of the bog and the scrub on the drier ground.
Having had its bends put back, the Swindale Beck will meander through colourful hay meadows, which will still be managed in the traditional way to provide flowery hay to the livestock during the winter months. Freed from man-made constraints, the beck will spill out into the flood plain more frequently, and periodically change its course, as natural rivers do. The beck’s gravelly bed will be a spawning ground for salmon, and banks will be home to water voles, otters and kingfishers.
Down in the mossy woodlands, pied flycatchers, woodcock and red squirrels will have been joined by pine martens, helping to keep the grey squirrels under control. Through the careful management of deer, there will be a healthy mixture of young and old trees. These woodlands are our native rainforests, and by enabling them to spread, we’ll ensure that species like tree lungwort lichen and pied flycatchers will have a secure long-term future.
Other new species will have arrived. Whether through reintroduction, or by natural spread, beavers will be working their magic in wetland areas such as in Naddle Valley. By holding back water with their leaky, filtering dams, they’ll not only help to reduce flooding downstream, but they’ll also keep water in the landscape for longer during dry spells, contributing to a sustainable clean supply into Haweswater reservoir. The wetlands they’ll have created will be teeming with amphibians, water voles, fish, birds and insects, providing a wonderful wildlife spectacle for visitors.
By 2050, we’ll have shown that our approach is as good for people as it is for nature. A sustainable farming operation, the tree nursery, wildlife hides, accommodation, education, scientific research and a range of other activities will provide an array of diverse employment and volunteering opportunities, helping to support the local community.
Over the course of centuries, Naddle and Swindale, like all farms in the Lake District, have responded to the changing demands of society. By focusing on improving water quality, reducing flood risk, improving wildlife habitats and locking up carbon in trees and soils, alongside sustainable food production, the RSPB and United Utilities are continuing in that proud tradition here at Wild Haweswater.