Rory Stewart MP: rewilding leaves no place for people in the Lake District

  • Contributor information: CNP

6 July 2018

Rewilding is a hot topic and our #summerofbeauty looks at all sides of the issues. Ahead of a debate on the issue, Conservative MP Rory Stewart argues rewilding is the wrong approach for restoring nature in our National Parks.

Rewilding seems to be fast becoming as much a fashion amongst landowners as Lancelot “Capability” Brown parks were in the eighteenth century. It is spreading from Yellowstone National Park to the Cumberland plain. In Scotland Anders Povlsen, Denmark’s richest man, is turning 220,000 acres of land – about a third the size of Penrith and The Border constituency (itself England’s largest) – into a rewilding project.

This might simply be a diverting chapter in the history of the British landscape, if increasing numbers of people were not now calling for the entire uplands of England – and in particular the Lake District – to be rewilded, attracting increasing interest from politicians, lobby groups, landowners and government agencies. In the Lake District in particular the idea is often introduced as though it were simply a sensible and moderate way of addressing some of the problems caused by over-stocking of sheep in the 1980s – most especially over-grazing, methane and water pollution. And it is disguised in vague statements about addressing biodiversity, climate change, ‘natural flood prevention’ and restoring natural woodland, and shrouded in disingenuous statements about ‘respect for farmers’. But how many are aware quite how radical and extreme this vision seeks to be?

The ultimate objective of rewilding is to remove all human impact from the landscape. Unlike a conventional environmental scheme which relies on carefully scientifically-tested human interventions (tree planting, river management, seasonal grazing and the rest), this aims to allow animals and plants to restore the landscape by themselves, through entirely natural processes, by reinserting extinct animals which humans removed from the landscape, centuries or even millennia ago: predators such as lynx and wolves, or high impact species such as beavers and bison, which can control the landscape ‘top-down.’

Could we see beavers return to National Parks?Might we see beavers in our National Parks?

Rewilding is not done because it is the most reliable and cost-effective way of restoring biodiversity. In fact, it comes with environmental risks. This can include species loss, which can already be seen in the abandonment of meadows, oak trees and hedgerow to bogland on the Cumberland plain; or in the replacement of the rich biodiversity that exists on woodland edges (from hedgehogs on), to the less rich species that emerge in the centre of dense forest. Or the alien parasites which were iPhoto credit: Natural England nadvertently introduced into Denmark when Polish bison were reintroduced; and the loss of alpine meadows and ultimately of water reservoirs that followed the abandoning of land in the Pyrenees. But this risk is taken because there is a fundamental emotional commitment to a ‘pre-human’, carnivore-dominated, wilderness – out of a sense of guilt at the impact humans have had since, and out of a desire to escape what is felt as a tame, safe, modern environment.

Many of the apparent environmental benefits of rewilding come simply from imposing environmental costs on someone else. Clearing sheep from a Lake District valley doesn’t mean humans stop eating lamb; they just begin to eat lamb which is grazed somewhere else.

But the most fundamental problem is that rewilding was originally intended for places like the Yellowstone National Park – a vast, unfarmed, uninhabited American wilderness. But when applied to our much more densely populated and small island, which has been farmed for thousands of years, the consequences are quite different. It is not simply turning the clock back a few decades to the time before modern farming techniques, but turning it back millennia.  


The distinctive features of the Lake District are ancient says Rory. Photo credit: Natural England.

There have been farms on the fellside, with pasture, grazed by livestock, for at least six thousand years.The Eden Valley had been cleared of its primeval forest well before the Romans arrived, and the Cumberland gap was ploughed before Hadrian’s Wall was laid.

All the distinctive features of the Lake District landscape – the wilder common land, the pollarded ash trees and the contrast between the more tightly cropped pasture, below the head-dyke of the dry stone walls – were in place at the time of the Vikings. This farmed landscape is the landscape of Wordsworth and Turner. And unlike the Highlands of Scotland, where the farms were removed in the Clearances, or the barley farms of East Anglia, here the small family farms have survived providing one of the only fragile surviving connections to our historic landscape: a foundation for our tourist industry, the bedrock of our communities, and for the children in our village schools.

Rewilding is not gentle return to a natural past. This is not simply because it is sometimes naïve about food production, careless of the impact on other countries, blind to the texture and history of our landscape, and its links to our literature and identity. It is because it leaves no place for humans in the landscape.

By Rory Stewart MP Penrith and The Border

Do you agree? ‘THE BATTLE FOR THE COUNTRYSIDE: BRITAIN SHOULD REWILD ITS UPLANDS’ is being debated by Rory, George Monbiot and others on 10 July. Click here for more details. 

Check out Campaign for National Parks’ position on nature conservation in the National Parks.