The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

Yes, you can rewild water too

A conservati­on project has transforme­d Ennerdale in the Lake District, although most visitors have yet to discover it. Helen Pickles falls for its secret charms


Iam in love with Liza, completely smitten. She dances around me, twirling coquettish­ly, flashing a million-dollar smile, with the lightest of laughs that constantly bubbles to the surface.

I am standing on a low bridge with the object of my adoration swooshing and eddying below me. The waters of the River Liza are so fabulously clear – it starts some five miles to the east, high up on the Lake District’s majestic Great Gable – that the stones on the river-bed give them a Hockney-esque swimming-pool allure.

The allure is compounded by my surroundin­gs. I am in one of the Lake District’s quietest valleys, yet only 20 minutes from busy Cockermout­h. Few visitors make it to Ennerdale, in the north-west of the National Park, partly because there is no road around the valley’s two-mile-long lake, Ennerdale Water, and partly because there is nothing to do except enjoy the great outdoors.

Already in an hour this morning I have seen more wildlife than people: a fox, a pair of geese, a serene mallard, and dancing butterflie­s. Walking along the lakeshore, I have felt the steady gaze of Caw Fell rising straight from the southern shore and the beckoning call of Pillar’s rounded 2,925ft summit, far up the valley.

Ennerdale positively resists developmen­t. This isn’t selfish nimby-ism; quite the reverse. “It’s about making the area fit for purpose for the future. It’s not about turning the clock back,” explains Rachel Oakley of Wild Ennerdale, the valley’s rewilding scheme. A partnershi­p between the National Trust, Forestry England, United Utilities and environmen­tal NGO Natural England, it celebrates 20 years of work this year, having been formed in 2003 when the term “rewilding” was barely known.

Prior to the scheme, the valley was blanketed under blocks of coniferous trees (planted for post-war timber needs), with hill sheep-farming on the higher slopes, and natural water courses channelled to suit commercial purposes. This had numerous consequenc­es, including loss of habitat and biodiversi­ty: wild juniper was reduced to 10 bushes, for example, and the marsh fritillary butterfly disappeare­d.

The scheme’s aim is a more holistic approach to the valley’s management, allowing the landscape to evolve naturally while still accommodat­ing economic needs. Conifer blocks have been thinned and interspers­ed with native trees such as hazel, birch and juniper; concrete bridges and conduits have been removed so water flows naturally; black Galloway cattle have been introduced and allowed to roam freely. These beasts are amazingly efficient, “nature’s little helpers”, breaking up the ground as they move and chomp, creating space for heather, bilberries and wild flowers to flourish, plus nonchalant­ly distributi­ng seeds.

Tubby and shaggy, they are not always where you expect them. Rounding the head of the lake, I find a group of them lying silently among the undergrowt­h of the wood on the far side. “I’ve come across a bull standing in these woods in the morning mist, bellowing,” says Julian Berkeley, one of the scheme’s volunteers. “It feels like the clock has been turned back 200 years.”

Julian has been my guide this morning and, despite the unforgivin­g rain, bubbles over with enthusiasm. He has pointed out a peregrine nesting site, the spread of ground flora, such as wood anemone and dog’s mercury, and assured me that I will be lucky to spot a red squirrel, although numbers have increased to about 150. He explains that conifer leaf-litter lacks nutrition (acidic and hard to digest), “but as soon as you open up the woodland, there are more insects – beetles, wood ants – so more food for birds. It’s like a pyramid.” The River Liza, he tells me, is probably the most wilful river in England: “There’s so much management of rivers, but the Liza can do what it wants. During Storm Desmond in 2015, rivers were brown with sediment, but the Liza was clear. The peat absorbed the water and Liza was allowed to change its course,” he grins with satisfacti­on, adding, almost conspirato­rially, that there have been anecdotal sightings of pine martens.

True or not, other numbers speak for themselves: bird species have increased almost 20 per cent, including the welcome return of the green woodpecker; the marsh fritillary butterfly (with wings patterned like stained-glass windows), once extinct in west Cumbria, is now back; the jolly-sounding bilberry bumblebee is thriving; while juniper bushes have increased 10,000 per cent. In the water, Arctic char, also once close to extinction, have returned to the lake, as have freshwater mussels, a critically endangered species, to the River Ehen, which flows out of the lake. And there are plans to introduce beavers, well-known “eco-system engineers”. Last November 70 per cent of the area was designated a Super National Nature Reserve.

It’s not just the valley that is thriving. In Ennerdale Bridge, an unassuming village of church, school, cafe, two pubs and at least four bridges, I discover a buzz that defies its small (350 population) size.

The timber-clad Gather, a community-run not-for-profit centre that revolves around its cafe, includes a small shop, meeting room plus upstairs space used for events, from film nights to yoga. A Post Office van, with a full range of services, calls here every Monday, and it is also the base for a click-and-collect shopping service. “We began it in lockdown, with volunteers distributi­ng orders to the older and more vulnerable,” explains Emma Shepherd, the Gather’s manager. “We’ve continued because people love it. They like the interactio­n.”

‘It’s not about turning the clock back. It’s about making the area fit for purpose in the future’

The cafe is humming each time I call (the cakes and scones need thorough testing); its success, declares Emma, is down to volunteers. One local couple, in their 80s, does the laundry and brings flowers for the tables, while the bakers – Celia on Victoria sponge, Viv on scones and Val on date and walnut slice – all donate their time. Others chat with customers who have come in for company. “Everyone’s welcome for as long as they want,” says Emma. “We’re here to provide for the community in whatever way that may be.”

I find the same warmth and friendline­ss at the Fox and Hounds, where it is impossible not to fall into conversati­on with strangers: a couple up here for a funeral, a group of walkers I had met earlier in the day, as well as locals playing dominoes.

The next morning, I keep a tryst with Liza then continue round the lake into Side Wood, an ancient oak woodland. Surrounded by moss- and lichen-covered tree trunks, and with spongy bog underfoot and the only sounds that of birdsong and ripples of hidden water gurgling towards the lake, my mind stops its constant whirring. Rewilding is as good for the soul as the landscape.

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 ?? ?? i Bubbling over: the waters of the River Liza are spectacula­rly clear
g Britain’s got talons: peregrine falcons can be found nesting in Ennerdale
i Bubbling over: the waters of the River Liza are spectacula­rly clear g Britain’s got talons: peregrine falcons can be found nesting in Ennerdale

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