Following a building boom in the noughties, the North Pennines have more than 1,000 kilometres of hill tracks. With more likely to follow, is the region at risk of being transformed for ever?
Many people can trace back their love affair with mountains and wild places to a Damascene conversion, a moment of revelation where a light switches on and the soul is forever hooked. For Alfred Wainwright it was climbing Orrest Head above Windermere at 23 and seeing “mountains in tumultuous array across glittering waters, our awakening to beauty”.
For Andy Leader, a Yorkshire-based landscape photographer, it was a childhood escape into the North Pennines. “I first walked from Birkdale to High Cup Nick when I was 11 with some older lads,” he recalls. “We'd got a bus via Middlesbrough and Darlington to Middleton in Teesdale and set off walking.
“I recall the sense of wildness and space which was almost overwhelming. I think we stayed in a tent near Maize Beck for about three nights. My parents had no idea where I was. I've been back many times since and it's a place which has never lost that wild feel.”
Never lost that wild feel – until now, it seems. This summer Andy walked along the Pennine Way again, but when he came to that stretch between Birkdale and High Cup Nick he was appalled by what he saw. Venting on his blog, he wrote: “What greeted me was a scene of crass destruction by a landowner aided and abetted by a weak bureaucracy which should be protecting this place at all costs.”
The offending development was a newly-built track. He wrote: “The beautifully crafted flagged path which had restored a long section of eroded path and had bedded in over many years had been buried under thousands of tons of large stone hardcore which was impossible to walk on. The new track slashes a scar through the peat only the clumsiest of surgeons could create.”
The hill track from Birkdale being built on the Pennine Way. Photo: Andy Leader
The track which had provoked Andy’s anger was not one of those built outside the planning system of the type the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the John Muir Trust and Ramblers Scotland have campaigned against through the Hill Tracks campaign north of the border. This one was given planning permission, and Andy was assured by planning officials that it was in the ‘ugly duckling’ early phase and would eventually blend in to the landscape.
But the track in question is not alone, and fits into a larger pattern of a growing number of tracks in the area. According to a recent survey carried out by the local Area of Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership, the North Pennines have more than 1,000 kilometres of hill tracks – quite a striking amount in an area only 2,000 square kilometres in size.
Though the description of the North Pennines as “England’s last wilderness” is tinged with hyperbole, it is true they represent one of England’s rare remote spaces. A high windswept world of waterlogged moors, booming waterfalls and great glacier-carved valleys, you could walk all day over its whalebacked hills without crossing a tarmacked road, and the sky at night is a the nearest England gets to an unpolluted canopy of stars. Botanical and geological wonders abound – the ‘Teesdale Assemblage’, for example, is a more or less intact relic from the end of the last ice age, a collection of arctic-alpine plants arranged in a way which is virtually unique in the world.
But as well as being an area of tremendous natural beauty, the North Pennine moors are a commercial landscape, worked and managed by landowners to feed a lucrative grouse shooting industry. The industry itself is nothing new, but the last ten or fifteen years has seen its impact on the landscape through the tracks it creates grow. According to Chris Woodley-Stewart, Director of the North Pennines AONB partnership, there has a been an upsurge in the number of tracks being built over the moors, the primary purpose of which is to allow easier access for grouse shooting parties.
“We have certainly felt an increase in the demand for moorland tracks in the last 10 years,” he says. “And the main purpose behind those tracks is to facilitate access to grouse butts.”
Having worked for the AONB partnership for 13 years, Chris’s experience of dealing with hill tracks goes back a long way. When he started, he recalls, many tracks were being built off the radar of the planning authorities.
He says: “Until the early to mid noughties tracks were often being made without planning permission, for two reasons – firstly authorities didn’t realise certain tracks needed it, secondly because some of them were being presented as being for agricultural use, but their primary use wasn’t agricultural.
“We had a seminar in 2008 where we brought together planners, estate managers and others to make clear what did and didn’t require planning permission and to look at sustainable means of track construction. It’s certainly helped in that planning authorities are much clearer now about what does and doesn’t need planning permission, and it’s raised the profile of conservation concerns. I also think track construction itself has improved a lot in recent years.”
Chris stresses that landowners have a right to drive 4x4s over the moors, and points out that building tracks can sometimes be better for conservation because they concentrate vehicles along one more sustainable route instead of spreading them out over a wide area. Nevertheless, he remains watchful.
The previous flagged path on the Pennine Way being taken out. Photo: Andy Leader
“Over the years there has been a better, more strategic approach from some estates, but there is rarely a time when we don’t have a new track on our books to consider. This wasn’t the case several years ago. Partly that’s because track building now seems to be going through the proper processes and there’s more care taken over construction, so in some ways it’s a good thing.
“But several parts of the North Pennines have reached the point where we don’t think there should be any more tracks, in order to conserve the sense of relative wildness and remoteness that is one of the area’s special qualities.”
Why the increase?
So what lies behind the increase of tracks in recent years? Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, which represents owners and managers of grouse moor, believes it comes from a combination of factors. She is also keen to defend the management practices associated with grouse shooting from critics who say it is detrimental to the environment.
She said: “These are working landscapes. The fact that they still look 'wild' is a testament to the 200 year old management for red grouse without which they may have been overgrazed to resemble a bowling green, afforested with non-native evergreens in unnatural blocks or populated with wind turbines.
By way of explanation for the increase, she said: “There has been a sharp decrease in farm workers, particularly hill shepherds, in the last 30 years and farmers, who are generally not getting any younger, need vehicles to get to their stock. Increased vehicular access to upland areas for both sporting and agricultural purposes is needed for 4wd and all-terrain vehicles.
“Modern ATVs, with low pressure tyres, can also access the wetter areas of deep peat without causing damage.”
Amanda also said that in recent years there has been an increased investment by landowners in grouse moors, who now put £52 million per year into moorland management. She said: “With greater investment in moorland management, there has been an increase in the number of harvestable grouse on a more consistent basis. More shoot days can be planned, which requires more regular access.”
However, she argued that well-designed tracks need not be detrimental to the environment, and pointed out that the Moorland Association had a joint project with Natural England and the North Pennines AONB Partnership to develop “floating tracks” which allow vegetation to grow through them and lessen the visual impact.
She said: “Rather than putting fragile vegetation at risk, well designed tracks are favoured to protect sensitive habitats, hydrology and the beauty of the landscape. It is a fine balance and as 70% of England's grouse moors are SSSI designated, consent and planning permission is required for new routes.
“Tracks do need to be sensitive to habitat, hydrology and visual impact. However, because they are used to help maintain and conserve the rare and iconic landscape we think, on balance and with the right planning, they are on the whole beneficial.
Asked if she envisaged more tracks in the future, Amanda said: “Where access is needed for agriculture, land management, or fire mitigation, and a sensitive route can be found without damage to habitats, hydrology and visual impact, then yes more hill tracks have their place. It is a balance and no one wants to ruin what we all cherish.”
Another shot of the track in construction. Photo: Andy Leader
The picture is clearly a complex one, not easily reducible to a simplistic image of “tracks = bad.” But the increase highlights a need for people who value the natural characteristics of the North Pennines to speak up. The voice of recreational users is as valid as that of landowners, and is an important check to the claims of the landowning body.
For example, it is revealing that applications for new tracks often cite a ‘better surface for walkers’ in support of their cause, when in reality many walkers would be unlikely to opt for a bulldozed track over a flagged path. Particularly one of the type Andy encountered: “The surface was one of stone aggregate bigger than my size 9 boots and very difficult to walk on,” he recalls. If walkers made their real views known, these sorts of claims on their behalf could be challenged.
Last year, the BMC launched its Landscape Charter, which sets out our responsibility to campaign to protect those qualities of landscapes which we value as recreational users. This kind of issue is exactly the sort of thing that falls within its scope. But in order to be aware of such issues and effectively engage with them, we need walkers to attend BMC Area Meetings, feed us information and volunteer to be our ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground.
Andy, for one, is keen to raise awareness of the issue. “I'm 51 now and the rich habitat and wild places I recall when growing up are long gone,” he says. “My tolerance of its continued destruction in other places is non-existent. I've been back up there and could quite easily have got my car to the end of it! That means I can drive from Holmfirth to within a mile of High Cup Nick. Mind-boggling.
“I accept there's a legitimate planning permission but that isn't my point. I'm looking at this from a perspective based on valuing our "wild" land and wanting to ensure there's something left.”
Agree with him? Let us know on Twitter at @BMC_Walk or @Team_BMC, or email us.
This article was amended on 24 October to include comment from the Moorland Association.