The recent awarding of world heritage site status to the Lake District has reignited debates about how England’s most prized mountain landscape should best be cared for. What do hill walkers, climbers and BMC volunteers think?
After UNESCO announced they were awarding the Lake District its prized world heritage status to the Lake District last week, the reaction was nothing if not diverse.
Sheep farming author James 'Herdy Shepherd' Rebanks, whose consulting company provided the economic evaluation for the bid, described it as an “Amazing day for everyone who loves this cultural landscape”.
But journalist George Monbiot, who has been stridently critical of the impact of sheep grazing on the Lake District, said it was “bad news for wildlife and ecosystems, bad news for honesty and candour. Bad news, paradoxically, for farmers” and wrote a column for the Guardian which proclaimed: “The Lake District’s world heritage site status is a betrayal of the living world.”
And so it went on – bird campaigner Mark Avery tweeted (no pun intended) his support for Monbiot, describing the Lake District as a “wrecked” landscape. Broadcaster Eric Robson hit back, warning of “extremists like [George Monbiot] who would destroy the Lake District and its cultural landscape.”
So is the Lake District the marmite of mountain areas – either a treasured cultural landscape or ‘sheepwrecked’ disaster zone, depending on your point of view? Or is this simply the polarising world of Twitter reducing a debate to its starkest extremes?
Some also expressed concerns about the impact the new status might have on crowds in a region already experiencing high visitor numbers. Friends of the Lake District, for example, of an “increase in car journeys and a greater threat of inappropriate developments."
To help shed light on the debate from another angle – that of the recreational users who come in their millions to the Lake District every year – we canvassed a selection of hill walkers and climbers, as well as BMC volunteers who are involved with our work around landscapes, for their views.
Alan Hinkes OBE: “Puts the Lakes in great company”
It’s got to be a win. It’s a positive result which recognises the beautiful, unique and often dramatic Lake District National Park. It puts the Lakes is in great company – for example, The Dolomites have world heritage status.
We all now need to work together to protect the landscape, environment and culture. The Lakes is cherished by many and now the world will be even more aware of this special place in Cumbria.
From a hillwalking, climbing and outdoor pursuits perspective I hope it will not lead to access restrictions, or permits to wander the fells as in some other countries.
Alan Hinkes is a mountaineer and professional Yorkshireman who is renowned for being the first Brit to climb the world’s 8,000 metre peaks
Dave Musgrove: “Endorses the status quo”
As a climber and hill walker in the Lakes for over 50 years my initial understanding is that our continued access to the crags and hills is unlikely to change in any dramatic way.
Traffic and overall usage of the area, and in particular in the valleys and honeypot towns may well increase and that will need careful planning and management.
From an environmental point of view, however, the new status seems to signal a continuance of the status quo for the overgrazing of the fells and consequently the continued acceptance of a relatively species-poor diversity for plant, bird and animal life.
Dave Musgrove is a climber, birdwatcher, and the BMC’s Access Management Group chair
Mary-Ann Ochota: “Adversarial approach doesn’t do any favours”
To be honest, the strength of feeling expressed following the announcement was a surprise. I don’t see how it’ll change much. The environmental challenges remain – to balance farming, community, tourism and ecological needs that are conflicting and far from clear-cut. Tourists will still flock. Hill Farmers will struggle their way between earning a living and relying on subsidies. And the regular arguments about what the Lake District should ‘really’ look like will continue.
Certainly, we could have some areas of the fells encouraged back to native woodland. It would help with erosion and habitat development. But don’t be fooled – the denuding of the hillsides began in the late Stone Age, it’s not a recent phenomenon. I personally see the way people have shaped the landscape – from dry stone walls to hefted flocks of Herdwicks, as part of the rich tapestry that makes the Lake District such a special place. An adversarial approach doesn’t do any favours.
As walkers and climbers, maybe what we should do is to make more of an effort to explore the less popular fells and crags, ensure our visits positively support the local communities, and support the charities working to manage the Lakes’ for generations to come.
Mary-Ann Ochota is a globe-trotting adventurer, archaeologist, anthropologist, author and BMC hill walking ambassador.
Ken Taylor: “Will infrastructure be stretched?”
The new status may serve to increase tourism numbers slightly, as the National Park’s profile is raised in the short term and tourism-based businesses start to mention it in their promotional literature.
If more visitors do end up heading for the hills, we could find the infrastructure coming under more strain, at a time when it’s already stretched. For example, we know that the path network is suffering, hence initiatives like Mend our Mountains and Fix the Fells. Mountain Rescue have just recorded another increase in callouts, the fourth year in succession – apparently there were only 14 days last year when they were not called out to something. And parking is under pressure and this is leading to pressure on local communities like Seathwaite and Wasdale.
Some people think world heritage status is bad news because it preserves the current farming methods, which they think are wrecking the upland environment. But I don’t think it will affect farming practices much – a post-Brexit reformed subsidy package is likely to have a much greater effect.
Kendal-based Ken Taylor is a walker, climber, and member of BMC Access Management Group
James McHaffie: “Support local business”
I don’t think the Lake District becoming a UNESCO world heritage site will make too much difference to anything that goes on there. They say they predict that a 1% increase in tourism would bring in an extra £20 million in business but I’d be very surprised if they got that level of uptake.
The Lakes is a fantastic place landscape-wise and it’s used to taking a hammering in terms of visitors to the hotspot areas. If there is extra money going in there, I’d like to see it go towards more local shops and cafes like the Little Chamonix café in Keswick rather than new Costas.
Cumbrian James 'Caff' McHaffie is the “dark lord of British climbing” and the BMC’s youth development officer
Chris Townsend: “Don’t leave it to the officials!”
A mixed blessing. Potentially world heritage status could be very positive if it means more support for enhancing the biodiversity – which means more trees and less grazing – and maintaining the infrastructure (especially footpaths).
Where though will the money for this come from? The Park is stretched financially already. However WHS status will certainly bring more visitors, which means careful management will be needed to prevent further degradation of the environment – and whilst I wouldn’t go as far as some, much of the land is in poor condition. The Lake District is already in danger of being ‘loved to death’ in some areas. Again this will require money.
Much will depend on the management plan that now has to be produced. Gaining the status is just the beginning. How this plan addresses the issues of landscape and habitat conservation and restoration and visitor numbers and how well it is carried out will determine whether WHS status is beneficial or not. At present my view is let’s wait and see. And make our opinions known as the process develops. Don’t leave it to the officials!
Chris Townsend is a long-distance walker and backpacker, Equipment Editor for The Great Outdoors magazine, and BMC ambassador
We want to say a big thanks to every BMC member who continues to support us through the Coronavirus crisis.
From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t do it without you.
Did you know that we've just launched a new U27 membership offer for just £1.50 / month? And with full membership from £2.50 / month, it's never been easier to join and support our work: