I’ve just seen a blackcap fly out of the tree, wander around the grass by the trunk, then fly onto a rock in the beck. White belly, dust brown back and wings, and a black cap to top off its white face. A dipper flew by earlier and now a pair of ducks – mallards – has settled on the water. The sun is warm and the breeze occasional, gentle gusts bringing a chill from the north.
We have walked to the tree today with John Pring of the National Trust, who oversees National Trust owned land across the east and central Lake District, an area of 25,000 acres. He has worked here for over 25 years and knows the Troutbeck Valley well, so it is an eye-opener for us to stroll with him. He has just shown me a budding marsh valerian in the long sward (a mixture of rushes and grass) that covers the boggy land, and we’ve been comparing notes on the flowers and plants we’ve seen here in the last few years: ragged robins, scabious, orchids, bird’s eye primroses and many others.
John tells us that he has seen significant changes in the five years since sheep numbers were reduced in this area of the land farmed from Troutbeck Park Farm, with the number of flowers on the rise, and the wetland improving. The change is gradual and the plan is to let nature take its course, with trees regenerating naturally.
As we walk along the path John points out formations of stones that remain from pit-steads where charcoal was once made. Stones and boulders were moved to create flat areas for the slow burning of wood – oak, hazel and others. Charcoal was in high demand until the nineteenth century, using wood gathered mainly from a process of coppicing, which allows trees to grow back. The location of the burning platforms suggests that denser woodland, like the oak woods further downstream, would once have spread much further up the valley.
Today this open land is what’s called wood pasture – scattered trees and patches of grass and sward. There are pollarded ash further down the valley but here, where they have never been cut, most are ‘maiden’. There are a lot of hawthorns, greening up with this year’s leaves, and hollies, and an army-like gathering of alders marching along the river bank and clustered together in the wettest areas. A recent survey in Troutbeck Valley recorded 250 veteran trees. With the land continuing to improve as it is doing, John hopes, natural regeneration will allow for the establishment of new trees that will be veterans of the future.
We trace the curve of the beck and walk to the Trout Beck Alder. It is one of the last along the river, with the open valley beyond it, and John already knows it well. He says it makes him tingle to think that this tree will have had at least a dozen different people managing the land around it since it was a sapling – in the grand scheme of things, we humans are just a small blip.
He talks about this context, where time among trees and in a landscape extends far beyond each human lifetime, and what it’s like to project long term plans into the future. The National Trust owns ninety farms and around a quarter of the land in the Lake District, much of which is termed ‘inalienable’, or held in perpetuity. “We look after the land for ever, so when we take a long view, it can be a very, very long view. We can review it; we can be patient. We try not to be too prescriptive. Nature, if it takes its course, doesn’t always do the things you want it to do, and that’s fine. The trouble with some existing environmental schemes is that they’re for ten years. Ten years really isn’t long enough. Twenty years probably isn’t long enough. Thirty, fifty a hundred years maybe are the time frames to look at. Hopefully we can set a direction.”
While the National Trust may be able to take a very long view, like every other land owner and land management organisation, and every farmer, their plans are affected by environmental planning and policy made at government level and with Brexit looming, the future of policies is very uncertain. If policies or practices change drastically and the level of environmental care and monitoring that’s currently going on has to reduce, some of the improvements in habitat that have occurred in the last twenty years may be undone in just one year. But there is cause to be optimistic and John expects that the National Trust will adapt, and has a strong commitment to finding a way to enhance biodiversity and increase the health of natural habitats amid a culture of farming. “We want a cultural landscape and we want to maintain farming. We need to find a way that people can work this land in a sustainable way that is good for wildlife, and still make a living.”
“If the flowers aren’t there, if you’re not hearing birds, if you’re not seeing nature, it’s a lesser place. These are indicators – if we’re losing species, it’s not a good sign, the land isn’t healthy. The key is getting the landscape right and nature will come back in. We want nature to be given opportunities to flourish and we want to consider the bigger landscape – rather than just this bit of land being good, the idea is that all you can see is good. It’s connectivity that we’re after rather than little nature reserves.”
There’s so much news about loss and destruction in the media at the moment, and I’m curious about whether John has any good news stories. He tells me that he does feel that things have been improving in the Lake District over the last twenty years. Meadows are richer, there’s a lot more scrub land, and tree regeneration is beginning in many areas. He mentioned that he saw an otter, killed by a car, on the Kirkstone Road recently. Not in itself a good thing but nevertheless a good sign – they at least are on the increase. Trout Beck is clean and offering a good habitat for fish and, certainly down river, for crayfish. “It’s early days,” he says, “but it feels to me as if things are changing. It takes time but I can see more sustainable land management happening across the Lakes and I think that can only bode well for the future.”
When John leaves us he runs off towards the head of the valley, clearly at ease and very familiar with this landscape. We spend a little more time with the tree and Rob stands in the river to make an image on the giant Titan pinhole camera he has on loan from Ilford. It’s exciting when you don’t know quite what the result will be – seven seconds of exposure through a hole 0.2mm in diameter, without any lens at all. So far the images are coming out clear but beautifully soft.
Down river on the way out of the valley, where Trout Beck falls white and noisy, the steep rocky banks are vibrant with spring growth. Bilberry is bulging out, and there are carpets of wood anemones, delicate white flowers against bright fresh green. Yellow primroses have opened in clusters among the rocks, mosses offer a wide spectrum of greens and ferns are unravelling their fronds in tight curls. There’s heather and hawksbeard, and a riotous growth of slender ash, rowan and birch trees, all wound with honeysuckle. A dipper flies past us once, twice and then a third time, and wagtails chide from the trees, wondering probably what we are doing here. We walked past and couldn’t resist the urge to leave the path and take a closer look. It’s a rich and hidden part of a valley that has fascinated us and reveals something new every time we come here.
Our interview with John Pring will be shared as one of the conversations in The Long View book, available from June 21st.
More info on the National Trust plan to restore nature across the country