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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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144.  Fencing The Clouds

These Saunterings transport a reader to the sunny idyll that is North-West England. In over 500 photos so far there is scarcely a rain-cloud or a puddle to be seen. There is a reason for this: I don’t go walking if there’s a prospect of a rain-cloud or a puddle. I am not like those walkers who commit to travel for a walk in, say, the Lake District next Sunday and then feel bound by that commitment, come monsoon or blizzard. I am content to wait for blue skies.

On this occasion the forecast of heavy rain, at least in the morning, left little hope for a worthwhile walk on a visit to the Kirkby Stephen region. However, in the afternoon the sun shone intermittently, so we paused for a short walk on The Clouds (or in their full nomenclatural glory, Stennerskleugh Clouds and Fell End Clouds). This is a small area of limestone outcrop to the west of Wild Boar Fell. The Clouds are a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and are therefore protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, and they were also a Special Area of Conservation, which provided a higher level of protection under EU law.
harter fell

Harter Fell from The Clouds

In 2013 Natural England, the body responsible for the welfare of SSSIs, assessed the site to be in poor (or, in its words, ‘unfavourable’) condition, mainly because sheep were eating the esteemed flora. It therefore proposed that the sheep be replaced by cattle, which would require a fence around The Clouds. This apparently simple, innocuous proposal stimulated a number of questions, such as:
   •  How will the fencing affect commoners’ ability to exercise their rights on common land?
   •  What is to happen to the hefted sheep, that is, the sheep reared to regard this land as their home?
   •  What about the sheep farmers – are they to sheep-farm elsewhere or take up cattle farming?
   •  Does the proposal breach farmers’ tenancy agreements?
   •  Would sheep’s diet suffer from losing access to the sweeter grasses and plants growing near to limestone?
   •  Would the presence of cattle affect the water supply to local properties?
   •  What evidence is there that replacing sheep with cattle will yield the desired ecological benefits?
   •  How does the proposal affect the island of non-open access land in the middle of The Clouds?
   •  Is fencing appropriate for a landscape with traditional stone walls as boundaries?
   •  Who would be responsible for maintenance of the fences and access points?
   •  Would water have to be brought in for the cattle, as there are few natural sources of water in the area?
   •  Would the cattle affect archaeological remains and other features of historical interest, such as mine workings?
   •  What about the ponies that rely upon the minerals and calcium found in the area?
   •  Would the presence of cattle deter walkers in the area?
harter fell2

Harter Fell from near the same spot - on a different occasion, obviously (I like the photo and thought you might too)

The planning inspector duly wilted in the face of so many questions, most of which Natural England could not answer satisfactorily, and declined to give consent to the proposal (a rare example of one part of the government machinery saying ‘no’ to another part). According to the report, the inspector had visited the site for two days – one day to walk alone and the second day with interested parties. While the inspector was no doubt competent to assess the proposal on its merits, I rather doubt that two days is enough to appreciate fully the subtle, special character of this region. Natural England officials probably only visit the site once every few years to assess its condition.

A more fundamental and broader question arises: What is the ‘natural’ state of The Clouds?  Sheep have been farmed here for centuries, helping to create the present landscape, much valued by local farmers and visitors, like me. But, of course, it is now ‘unnaturally’ barren, with hardly a tree or a shrub or even a wildflower to be seen. Who is to decide what is natural?  As I understand it, anyone wishing to carry out work affecting an SSSI must get approval from Natural England (for example, if a farmer wanted to install fencing) but I don’t know if Natural England has the powers to impose changes on an SSSI (presumably not, without the agreement of an inspector). In the case of The Clouds, Natural England did not seem to have an adequate appreciation of all the factors that should be considered before making their proposal.

Anyway, the proposal was rejected and has, I think, been shelved. On our walk we saw sheep and one pony but no cattle and no fences. The sun shone on surrounding hills and in the Eden valley to the north but less so on The Clouds themselves. They stayed rather grey, lacking the bright nebulosity for which they known.

The Clouds and some clouds

    Date: October 30th 2021
    Start: NY734006, by the road  (Map: OL19)
    Route: E – Stennerskeugh Clouds – S a bit - NW - road
    Distance: 2 miles;   Ascent: 100 metres

The two following items:
     146.   A November Day around Grasmere and Rydal Water
     145.   Naturalising the Long Preston Deeps
The two preceding items:
     143.   Two Days as a Lake District Tourist
     142.   Eskmeals: Dunes, Estuary and Firing Range
Two nearby items:
       25.   Mysterious Harkerside Moor
       31.   Pink Stones on the Orton Fells
A list of all items so far:

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-


Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell