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Lee Schofield on the Lake District's Ecological Ghosts

Posted on 16th February 2022 by Anna Orhanen

In Wild Fell, ecologist Lee Schofield offers a passionate, honest and clear-sighted perspective on the competing needs of agriculture and conservation, as he recounts his inspiring mission to restore the landscape and wildlife of two Lake District hill farms. In this exclusive piece, Schofield talks about his personal connection to Haweswater and the haunting historic traces our actions leave in the environment. 

A Landscape of Ghosts

While I was writing Wild Fell, I kept stumbling across ghosts. Employed by the deeply rational and evidence-driven RSPB, I worried about how many of them I should include in the book. Science and spirits tend not to make comfortable bedfellows, and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to discredit the ecological story I was telling due to a surfeit of mysticism.

But Haweswater has always felt haunted to me. I must have been about 15 the first time I set eyes on the place, as a quick detour en route to Scotland for a family holiday. Turning off at the road-straggled village of Shap, we wound our way along narrowing lanes between open farmland until eventually, as we emerged from the leafy tunnel of Naddle Forest, the lake and its sentinel mountains revealed themselves. I was awestruck. 

One of the reasons I persuaded my folks to make the diversion was the knowledge that Haweswater was home to the only breeding pair of golden eagles in England. Time was short. The drive along the lakeshore and a walk at the valley head meant there was little real chance of seeing these sky giants, and sure enough, we didn’t. Eagles don’t give themselves away so readily. A visitor to Haweswater today won’t be able to spot them either. Twenty years after my first visit, having lost his mate a decade earlier, England’s last lonely eagle passed away, leaving the Lake District, and England as a whole, a little less wild. 

I can still remember my first impressions of the landscape I would later become so connected to - magnificent, yet also intimidating. The greyness of the day and the looming crags seemed to amplify the ripples of the valley’s historical tumults. Below the surface of the crescent of dark water that dominates the scene, are the remains of hamlets and farms. They were flooded by the creation of a dam which turned Haweswater into the region’s most important reservoir. The people were moved out first, of course, but the ghosts of how they once lived are still down there, tilling flooded fields, droving cattle down tracks buried in silt, gazing up through the waves at the ghosts of eagles flying above.  

Haweswater has always been a bit of backwater, less written about than Arthur Ransome’s Coniston, Beatrix Potter’s Windermere, or Ullswater and its fields of daffodils that made such an impression on Wordsworth. But it does have its devotees. Sarah Hall’s debut novel Haweswater captures the lonely, spooky character of the area beautifully. Having grown up with Haweswater on her doorstep, Sarah’s rendering of the story of the dam’s creation is so rich in detail that that for a while I had it tangled with the true history in my head. Haweswater also provided the perfect backwater escape for Withnail and I. My drive to work takes me past the phone box where Withnail was let down by his unfortunate agent, and from time to time I pass Uncle Monty’s place on a quad bike.

There are ecological ghosts here too. Near the western shore of the reservoir, the map marks an Eagle Crag, at the mouth of the valley where the eagles once reigned. Across the water is the ruined cottage of Low Loup, a name which sounds a lot like ‘lupine’, which may have once given shelter to shepherds guarding their flocks from our erstwhile top predator. Nearby there is a Woof Crag, an obvious corruption of ‘wolf’, adding weight to this theory. Further east, Glede Howe is Old Norse for Red Kite Hill. There are black grouse, wild cat, wild boar and pine marten places too. All named for species that have become extinct at our hands over the course of recent centuries. Stands of bracken on fellsides are the gravestones of ancient woodlands that once clothed the fells. Shallow, snaking depressions in valley bottoms are imprints of where rivers once ran, before we straightjacketed them to get their water away from farmland. In Wild Fell, I wanted to show how these historic clues can pave the way to restoration and recovery. Almost every action we take in the landscape leaves a trace that can be read, a ghost telling us what once was. The actions we take now will determine whether the ghosts of the future will tell more tales of loss, or of how we turned things around. 

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