Landowners, farmers and conservationists from the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales are joining forces in an ambitious partnership to create one of the UK’s largest nature-focused landscape programmes.
The bold and ambitious programme, called Cumbria Connect, has successfully secured £4.1 million funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme to help breathe new life into one of England’s most cherished landscapes. Some 33,000 hectares – an area larger than Birmingham and equivalent to 46,000 football pitches – will be enhanced and enriched through nature-friendly farming, the creation of new habitats and the restoration of existing ones while working in close collaboration with the local community.
The area includes some of the country’s rarest and most spectacular habitats and species within the Lake District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales National Park in Eastern Cumbria. Once home to England’s last golden eagle, the landscape consists of upland fells, ancient woodland, expanses of open moorland and peatland, tranquil lakes and rivers. It is also home to one of England’s rarest trees – the downy willow and England’s rarest alpine plant – the pyramidal bugle.
The Cumbria Connect project partners include the RSPB, Lowther Estate which is home to the impressive Lowther Castle, the Orton Fells Farm Cluster, North-West water company United Utilities and Natural England.
Pied Flycatcher, copyright Glyn Sellors, from the surfbirds galleries
Martin Varley is Programme Manager for Cumbria Connect. He said: “Areas most rich in nature are currently concentrated in managed, protected areas rather than being spread throughout the landscape as they could be. Our ambitious programme of landscape restoration will build bigger, better and more connected spaces for nature combining leading conservation techniques, guided by scientific research and harnessing the expertise and enthusiasm of local farmers and landowners.”
Cumbria Connect will create a tapestry of interconnected ecosystems which will support locally iconic species such as the red squirrel, ring ouzels and pied flycatchers. The project will also see the reintroduction of species once found in the area such as water voles.
“One of our first actions is working with Eden Rivers Trust to re-introduce water voles – currently one of our most threatened native species,” Mr Varley continued.
“Many people know water voles from Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. They were once abundant in Cumbrian rivers, but sadly they are now Britain’s fastest declining mammal. Over the last century we’ve gone from an estimated population of eight million to around 132,000. In that time, they have disappeared from 94% of sites where they once lived.
“We know water voles were historically present in the upper Eden and so a number of measures have been carried out at the site in recent years, such as re-wiggling Swindale Beck to create a more natural water course, along with necessary mink control, means that we are now in a place to be able to bring this charming rodent back to the landscape.”
Another cornerstone of the programme will be to assist farmers in the area to adopt new or existing nature-friendly business models to access grants from the UK government’s new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) which will replace EU farming policies, with the current payment scheme being phased out by 2027.
By integrating nature-friendly farming practices into Cumbria’s farming heritage, the programme seeks to ensure not only the sustainability and profitability of farming businesses but also secure a prosperous future for both farming and nature in the area.
David Morris, RSPB Area Manager for Cumbria, said: “Traditionally, the landscape has hosted a diverse agricultural economy with mixed farming practices, creating a rich rural landscape. However, post-war agricultural policies intensified land management and impacted vulnerable habitats, the wildlife that lives in them and how the landscape functions ecologically for those who live, work and visit here too. This programme will harness the collective knowledge and resources of the partnership to forge a path to redress some of that.”
Tim Winder, a farmer and member of the Orton Fells Farm Cluster, said: “Our work is about combining the best of modern farming and traditional practices to ensure we produce healthy, sustainable food alongside a rich biodiverse landscape. We envision a future where thriving ecosystems co-exist with thriving farms, ensuring a prosperous legacy for generations to come.”
Cumbria Connect will initially create ten new jobs across the area with roles in conservation advice for land managers, community engagement, volunteering and scientific research. It will also see opportunities for PhD students and will support a programme of apprentices working on farms across the partnership.
David Bliss, CEO of Lowther Estate, added: “Over the years, various organisations and farmers in the area have made valuable efforts towards conservation. Now, Cumbria Connect aims to join-up and co-ordinate these efforts on a landscape scale thereby creating a more cohesive and effective approach which will result in the landscape of Eastern Cumbria becoming of much greater value for both nature and people.”
John Gorst, Catchment Partnership Officer for United Utilities, said: “We’re pleased to be a partner of Cumbria Connect. The funding will enable a collaborative approach to support habitat interventions not only by the partners, but to neighbouring land managers and farmers throughout the project area.”
Helen Kirkby, Natural England Area Manager for Cumbria, said: “Natural England welcomes Cumbria Connect, which is a great project to help support the transition to new approaches to farming and conservation and will support both nature recovery and land-based businesses. It has great potential to help meet the country’s commitment to the new Global Biodiversity Framework, to manage at least 30 percent of our land to conserve and recover biodiversity.”