After 11 incredible years, I’ve made the difficult decision to hang up my site manager boots. Working for the RSPB at Haweswater has genuinely been the experience of a lifetime, and I’ve been agonising about what to do for the past few months.
My burning drive to help nature and the climate is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Being one small player in a growing environment movement is hugely invigorating, and as frightening as the prospects of the climate and biodiversity crises are, I remain hopeful that we can pull ourselves back from the brink. The work I’ve been involved with at Haweswater over the last decade is what keeps that hope topped up. I have helped deploy solutions that work, seen salmon return to re-meandered rivers, hay meadows return to flowery richness, grouse return to recovering heathlands and learned that a focus on nature can lead to sustainable, resilient farm businesses.
I’m very, very proud of everything that my brilliant team and our partners have achieved at Haweswater during my time as site manager, and have invested significant time and energy in sharing what we’ve learned in the hope that it might stimulate a wider shift towards more nature-friendly land management. I’ve shown thousands of interested visitors around, from neighbouring farmers to government ministers. Using social media, the written word, TV and radio, we’ve tirelessly tried to communicate that change is both possible and palatable.
The single thing that feels to have had the most impact though, was writing my book, Wild Fell. Although Wild Fell tells the story of our work at Haweswater, it wasn’t written as part of my job as site manager. Books, it seems, can really make a difference. Mine has now been read by thousands of people, and while I’m under no illusions that every single one of them has been educated or inspired to take action, some certainly have. We’ve received somewhere in the region of £200,000 of donations from people who read Wild Fell and were moved to support what we’re doing. That generosity has enabled us to extend our tree nursery, to create new jobs and to do more to help nature. I’ve lost count of the number of letters I’ve received from people saying that my book has changed the way that they see the world and how they perceive the nature (or the lack of it) around them. I’ve been bowled over by the way the book has been received. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine writing a book, let alone one that won an award and seems to have had a genuine positive impact on people. Having done so seems to have rewired my brain, and I find that I’m desperate to keep going and to write more.
To my great sadness, there is no real prospect of developing my writing ambitions alongside my role as site manager. I mostly wrote Wild Fell between the hours 5 and 7am, before my kids woke up. I’d help in the chaos of getting them ready for school, and then head off to work. As book deadlines approached, I had to use evenings and weekends too. I reduced my hours for the RSPB for a couple of months to get the book finished, but for the rest, I was working full-time. A sensible work/life balance this was not, which probably explains why just after the publication, I had a mini stroke, an indicator of how burned out I was. For the sake of my health and my family, that’s not something I want to repeat.
Where to next?
If there was a way that I could do my job and write without killing myself, then I’d do it, but there just isn’t. However, I’m not going far. In April, I’ll be starting a new role for the Lowther Estate, working for three days a week on a huge new Landscape Recovery project, which is aiming to create a vast swathe of land extending from Penrith to Kendal where nature can thrive. It’s a hugely exciting prospect, not least because Haweswater sits at the heart of it, so I’ll still be working in the area, seeing the projects I’ve helped set in motion come to maturity and staying in close contact with my brilliant colleagues. And, all being well, I’ll have the time and headspace to bring some of my ideas for new books to life.
The role of site manager at Haweswater is extraordinarily rewarding. Though not without challenges, the ability to make a real difference makes all the effort worthwhile. It involves working in a truly beautiful part of the world, one which is getting richer and wilder with every passing year, alongside the most incredible, dedicated team of people. Think it’s a job you could do? The vacancy will be advertised soon…
I’ve got a little more news too. Around the same time as starting my new job, I’m also going to be moving house, to the farm next door to the Haweswater base at Naddle. In Wild Fell I wrote this:
“I’d love to own land to nurture and tend. I only dream of a small patch, somewhere Becki, the kids, a scattering of livestock and I could sink into. We’d farm like people did a century ago, without chemicals or fuel-hungry machinery. We’d strive to make our land scruffier, woodier and wetter, in the hope of sharing it with as many flowers and wild creatures as possible. But without a change in land prices or some impossible windfall, a dream is all our farm is ever likely to be.”
The farm that we’re moving onto isn’t going to be owned by us; that windfall hasn’t happened, but by working with the owners, a good chunk of the rest of that dream does look to be coming true. Becoming a proper part of the community that I’ve been on the periphery of for the last 11 years is something we’re really looking forward to. I’m hoping that my Haweswater colleagues will drop in whenever they fancy.
So, I’m leaving, but not really. Haweswater has sunk its wild teeth deep into me. I doubt I’ll ever really break free.
Top: Lee in his natural habitat among the Bilberry and Heather at Haweswater by Jean Johnston
Middle: the cover of Wild Fell by Alex Green.
Bottom: Lee surveying the Melancholy Thistle in Swindale hay meadows by Martin Wright