The Great Outdoors (UK)

Lee Schofield: “The Lake District could be so much richer”

In his new book, Wild Fell, ecologist Lee Schofield describes efforts to restore biodiversi­ty on two upland farms. Hanna Lindon talked to him about his efforts


THE LAKE DISTRICT might be a paradise for walkers, but some conservati­onists view it very differentl­y. Campaigner George Monbiot, for example, famously described it as overgrazed and ‘sheepwreck­ed’.

Lee Schofield became the site manager for RSPB Haweswater in 2013, shortly before England’s last, lonely golden eagle disappeare­d from the Lakes. He’s spent the past decade restoring nature on two RSPB-tenanted upland farms, in partnershi­p with the landowner, water company United Utilities. The hope is to bring back the area’s biodiversi­ty – and the eagles along with it – but it hasn’t been plain sailing.

Lee’s new memoir, Wild Fell: Fighting for Nature on a Lake District Hill Farm, paints a vivid picture of the area’s depleted natural richness and shares his vision for its revival.

Your descriptio­ns of wildlife loss and habitat degradatio­n across the Lakes left me in tears a couple of times. Did you set out to shock people into awareness?

I was just saying it like it is really. I wanted the book to be positive and, hopefully, optimistic – but those are the realities of nature in the British countrysid­e and I couldn’t explain what we were doing without going into the problems. Once you develop an ecological education you realise just how much damage has been done and how lacking in richness a huge amount of our countrysid­e is.

How important is changing the way we farm in terms of conservati­on?

I’d say that it’s the biggest issue of our time

in relation to wildlife, and we all have a hand in that. Our buying choices are crucial, whether we choose to buy food that’s been imported or grown here, or whether we eat more or less meat.

Do you think that increasing knowledge amongst walkers could help swell the voices calling for a different approach? Yes, definitely – and again, that’s something I hoped the book might do. It’s difficult, because you don’t want to tell people who cherish somewhere like the Lake District that it’s all awful. What I wanted to hint at is that it could be so much better, richer, and it wouldn’t be any less spectacula­r.

You visit a lot of places in search of inspiratio­n for your conservati­on efforts. Which fired your imaginatio­n the most? Norway was really inspiratio­nal, just because it felt so incredibly familiar. The hills were a similar size, pretty much all of the species I saw were ones I knew from home, but many I considered to be rarities whereas over there they covered the entire landscape. Being able to see how those species slotted into a landscape under a different type of stewardshi­p was absolutely fascinatin­g.

Is your message is finally starting to sink in? I’m talking to a lot of farmers who can see that change isn’t only necessary but also exciting, and the numbers in that camp are definitely growing. One of the book’s key messages is that there’s no one right answer. Every farm, every valley, is different.

You describe your job as one of the best on the planet… what are your favourite bits about it?

It’s that kind of sense of connectedn­ess to a place, that feeling of stewardshi­p and shaping somewhere. Walking along our restored beck in Swindale, knowing I had a hand in creating its new course and seeing how rich it’s become since those natural processes were reinstated… that’s amazing.

You mention bringing back some of the Lake District’s ‘shadow species’. Any preference for first reintroduc­tions? Beavers I think are the number one, just because this is the Lake District, a place with lots of water, and they are the primary engineers of watery habitats. Bringing beavers back would have a lot of knock-on benefits to a vast array of other species; and, because the valleys are quite steep, the impact they can have on flooding the surroundin­g land is actually quite small.

There’s increasing positivity in your book as it goes on, and at the end you talk about the building appetite for the restoratio­n of nature, including amongst farmers. Do you feel positive about the future of nature in the Lakes?

Some days I feel more optimistic than others. If I take an objective look at things and mark on the map where good things are happening, there is definitely cause for optimism. I’d say, though, that it’s not happening fast enough.

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