Cat Bells' position as one of the most popular fells in the Lake District is certainly justified. At just 451 metres, its summit is low enough to be shared by wiry fell runners, families and Japanese tourists. All clamber up the short but steep track to drink in a magnificent Lake District vista: below lies Derwentwater, gracefully still, while Bassenthwaite Lake, one of Europe's premier wildlife sites, stretches away to the north.
Millions of visitors are drawn to the Lakes every year by its beautifully crafted landscape, dotted with livestock and set about with dry-stone walls, farm cottages and what Wordsworth called 'little lines of wood run wild'. Yet, as the saying goes, still waters run deep. And beneath the surface of this picture-postcard view, the Lake District is facing some difficult challenges.
At the start of this century, the Still Waters Partnership (SWP), a coalition of organisations, including the National Trust, English Nature (now Natural England), the Environment Agency and the Lake District National Park Authority, discovered that the majority of the lakes were in poor condition. Since then, these agencies have started to identify the principal causes of the lakes' ill health, and their findings make for some rather uncomfortable reading.
First, there is an underlying geological problem, whereby sediment and rock from the surrounding hills and mountains is slowly filling in the lakes. Although this is a natural process that dates back tens of thousands of years, it's being exacerbated by humans and, increasingly, climate change.
Then there's pollution--in the form of human waste and farming pesticides--along with invasive species such as rhodendron, swamp stonecrop, Japanese knotweed and Indian Balsam, as well as the toxic alga Oscillatoria agardhii. Together, these threats are strangling the life out of the Lakes.
BASSENTHWAITE IN CRISIS
The latest report from the SWP, published last year, highlights continuing problems of chronic pollution and singled out Bassenthwaite Lake as being in need of the most immediate attention. However, it also highlighted Windermere, Derwentwater, UIIswater, Brotherswater, Crummock Water, and Ennerdale, describing them as being in an 'unfavourable' condition.
The source of the problem that the lakes are facing today lies high above the lakeshore, among the fell farms. These holdings are under increasingly severe economic pressure. The average age of the fell farmer has increased from 50 to 60 in the past ten years, a reflection of the lack of new blood. Meanwhile, according to the National Farmers' Union (NFU), the average hill farm income in the Lake District is just 15,000 [pound], although many earn much less.
Financial pressures are increasing as the Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes that encourage good stewardship are phased out, replaced by grants that the NFU feels are less generous. It's finely balanced,' says Will Cockbain, the NFU's national uplands spokesman. 'I think there will be further reductions in the numbers of hill farmers. We are at, or very near, the point at which farms start tipping over the edge:
The paradox is that these neat and pretty fell farms, so beloved by visitors, have historically contributed to the recent problems. Open fell-grazing on steep, high slopes is the major land use on 54 per cent of the Bassenthwaite catchment area. And in too many cases, stocking rates on these slopes are too high, causing erosion that leads to sediment being deposited in the lakes.
However, in recent years the emphasis of many farms has changed from pure livestock production to environmental stewardship; stock reduction has been introduced, restoring natural species and habitat, increasing the height of vegetation and helping to stabilise the soils. The largest change has been in sheep numbers, with 54,000 removed between 2000 and 2005. …