Wild Fell: a wild life Warden's Experiences

by frankbeswick

A fascinating and stimulating encounter with the natural world though the eyes and mind of a bird warden..

Non-fiction books are often illuminating, challenging at times, but this book, Wild Fell, is one that Isabella Tree, a well-known writer and expert on rewilding, has described as a thrilling journey.it does not give the same thrill as an adventure novel, but it is written by an expert who communicates his excitement throughout the book. Set mainly in a quiet, somewhat neglected corner of the Lake District, the author sets out to show that any attempts to restore bird life require that we firstly attend to the restoration of a bird friendly environment. Thus he pays much attention to the land and its interaction with humankind.

Image of a chough, courtesy of photoblend

First Steps

"This book is set in a simmering, but non-violent dispute between a conservationist and a group of hill farmers whom he approaches with suggestion that ecological change is necessary. The struggle is for the conservationist to learn to relate to the farmers. Alongside this process is their learning to absorb changes to traditional ways of doing things, which are not in every instance so traditional as they thought. Clearly the farmers and the bird man are not friends, but can they find an accommodation?

The story begins with a policy decision by the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to purchase farms and land rights in a national park , the lovely Lake District, whose farming community were deeply set in their ways and very conservative by inclination, as well as mistrustful of bureaucracy and the establishment. Lee Schofield, the bird man, the warden who took responsibility for the land and who began to farm it, soon came to be stereotyped as the man who wants to get rid of sheep, the area's staple economic product, for flowers. There followed a series of not very productive meetings which left Lee feeling deflated and wounded. The book is about his finally coming to achieve respect from the farmers, but also about his learning to broaden his perspective and see from the farmers' standpoint.

The background to the situation is that the Second World War forced on the UK a period of maximised agricultural productivity, which led to farms increasing livestock levels to numbers in excess of traditional limits for the land. Subsidies from the government induced farmers to continue with an ecologically damaged system. The floods of recent years  and The loss of wildlife, especially insects, has rung ecological warning bells and established programs of change.

Lee established a network of conservationists and like-minded people throughout the region of Cumbria to provide professional and social support, and this network thrived. Eventually barriers slowly broke down.  

But don't think of the book as being only about the quarrel, for the bulk of the text is an exciting account of the author's exploits in conservation in England and his visits to Scotland and Norway to gain stimulation and information for his conservation practice. The text is a rich store of agricultural and botanical information.. and ornithological wisdom and historical information about past botanical and agricultural practices in the Cumbrian region. The narrative is spurred on by accounts of the floods that in recent years have be filled Cumbria. The author also introduces readers to some impressive characters in his conservation circle.


The Life of the Fells

A fell is a northern English dialect term for a hill derived from the Norse fjell. Hence the book deals with wildlife of the fells   adjoining the large reservoir of Haweswater.  The author takes his readers through a range of habitats in a hilly district that includes Montane heath, a landscape found atop mountains and the rarer Atlantic heath, composed of sphagnum moss overlying rock, which is found in small parts of the northern Lake District and is virtually impossible to walk on because of its softness. 

He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora of his northern abode and can recognise and discuss many plants, which makes this a book for readers keen on knowledge. He also has the physical capacity to raise across miles of countryside with his eyes open. This results in his finding rare specimens like Alpine flycatch, a rare insectivorous plant. But he was frustrated when he went across miles of fell to check on a rare species of pyramidal orchid only to find that it had been expertly dug up and stolen.The thief was no amateur plants man! As a bird warden he has a similar knowledge of wild birds, and the book details his efforts to create habitat for a variety of species now locally rare but once at home on the fells.

If there is any bird that he yearns to restore to the Haweswater area it is the golden eagle. These birds were once thriving, but widespread persecution led to their demise. Eventually in the early years of the twentieth century there were but two, a young male and a sadly elder female beyond egg laying age.so the eagle became locally extinct. So far, while they are doing better in Britain now they have not returned and they still have enemies who accuse them of killing lambs, though lamb taking is rare at worst and  probably legendary. 

Lee writes informatively and eloquently when he speaks of trips that he has undertaken as part of his job. One trip was a few weeks in South West Norway, which geologically resembles the geology of the Lake District though its land management seems more sophisticated than Britain's,,  This gave him ideas for land, management in the UK. What also inspired him in Norway was how well the country compared with Britain in terms of its wild flower stock. He sake that the intensive production orientated land management in Britain is ecologically harmful and he decided to work for change.

Another journey was to the western Lake District to the wild Ennerdale project, where what is renowned as England's wildest Dale, reputedly, has become the nub of a great forest building project, as a redundant pinewood forest that was not economically viable to fell and sell was turned over to a native woodland in which cattle roamed semi wild. This showed him the scale of forest building that was achievable. A similar visit to Carrifran Forest in South West Scotland, which converted a tree less valley into a forest showed him the awesome capacity of committed volunteers for productive labour



Haweswater Reservoir

Northern Punkie

Community Action

Yet the story must include Lee's environmental restoration work, for the climate crisis is striking Cumbria hard. At least one massive storm has devastated the place. He had been working on the restoration of the natural course of a waterway, a small river, when storm Desmond struck. There was nothing to do but wait impatiently to inspect the damage to the almost completed water course. But inspection proved that the river now running as it had done naturally had absorbed and distributed the floodwater and had redistributed the gravel riffles that Lee and his colleagues were trying to build. Lesson learned: nature knows best! The river restoration went with  the planting of trees on steeply sloping ground that had been left bare and so provided an unimpeded pathway for floodwater to rush down hill and flood local communities. The establishment of beavers with their magnificent Dam  building capacity was a significant element in this enterprise.

Part of river restoration involves restoring peat bogs, for these store carbon even more efficiently than trees do, and they hold water uphill,preventing floods. 

A major criterion for success will be the return of wildlife to the fells. This is an on going endeavour as bird stocks need to rise before full scale restoration occurs. But already after a decade and a half some species seem to be growing in numbers. Badgers have returned and are breeding.

Lee concludes his account with a futuristic dream of life at the Haweswater site in 2050. In which he is about to retire with his life's work concluded successfully. Let us hope that he is successful.

   This is a book that is intellectually exciting, informative and a pleasure to read. I commend it to readers.


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Updated: 08/07/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 08/16/2023

You Americans have impressive regulations. We have nothing like them. We could take a leaf out of America's book.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/15/2023

Hobby farms on this, western-pond side must be under 50 acres (20.23 hectares) and show profits never or no more often than one or two out of every five years. Their owners operate them as holiday and weekend homes for garden-, horse-, livestock-, poultry-loving extended- and nuclear-family members. Any products, such as farmers-marketable animals and crops solve no local, regional, national near-starvation and starvation.

Would that more or less describe hobby farming on your, eastern-pond side?

frankbeswick on 08/15/2023

True, but some land is wasted. Take the example of hobby farms. Some farms are kept as rich people's playgrounds, when the country's need for food should necessitate their cultivation.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/15/2023

This isn't an excuse but is one of the reasons for intensive agriculture in the British Isles the limited amount of land available for cultivation?

frankbeswick on 08/15/2023

The Norwegian fells are higher than the Lake District fells and they are richer florally than the British fells because intensive agriculture has not been practised there.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/14/2023

The first paragraph to your second subheading, The life of the Fells, links the English word fell with the Norse word fjell.

That subheading's fourth paragraph mentions a trip to southwest Norway because of the latter's geological resemblances to Lake District geology. That trip noted management practices and wildflower populations as nevertheless different from their counterparts in the British Isles.

Would there likewise be differences in how a fjell in Norway and a fell in the United Kingdom appear and function?

frankbeswick on 08/14/2023

Very true.

Tolovaj on 08/13/2023

Non-fiction books often surprise readers by their power. If well written by devoted explorers/travelers, they can provide immense inspiration. I also occasionally write an article about nature in one of our magazines.

frankbeswick on 08/12/2023

At the battle of Hastings Saxons made every effort to kill William. Nobility were in danger on the battlefield. Killing an enemy nobleman was an achievement.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/12/2023

Feuding noblemen make me think of something I read about the Wars of the Roses.

Some sources on this, western-pond side mention that war as the first on your, eastern-pond side to orient battle strategy against as many enemy leaders, instead of as many enemy underlings, as possible. They note Warwick the Kingmaker (Richard Neville, 16th Earl, Nov. 22, 1428-April 14, 1471) as its noteworthiest implementer and practitioner.

And yet the subsequent William I oriented himself and his men against Harold the Fair as the number 1 target to be casualtized at the Battle of Hastings.

Were nobles and royals always vulnerable on battlefields or were they so only once Warwick the Kingmaker set it into motion or only when he was on the battlefield?

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