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Restoring Wild Haweswater: an interview with Lee Schofield

March 9, 2022
Wild Haweswater in the English Lake District. Image: Wild Haweswater

Ecological restoration is a key part of modern environmental management: often seeking not only to bring degraded ecosystems back to life, but also to help create landscapes that are resilient to future climatic changes. As a result, restoration projects are being implemented all over the world, and the United Nations have designated this the ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’.

Restoration is rarely a straightforward process: its ecological trajectories can be slow and uncertain, and often require the collaboration of numerous different people and organisations across a landscape. As a result, there is real value in finding out about how successful restoration projects have been planned and carried out.

Wild Haweswater is one such project. Located in the Lake District National Park in north-west England, the restoration of the Haweswater valley has been carried out alongside traditional hill farming, as a means of benefiting biodiversity, water and local communities. We spoke to Lee Schofield, RSPB Site Manager at Haweswater, to find out more.


The Freshwater Blog: What is the overall aim of the Wild Haweswater project? Why is it important to undertake restoration work here, and how would you like the landscape to take shape in the future?

Lee Schofield: At Haweswater, the RSPB work in partnership with landowner United Utilities to manage about a third Haweswater Reservoir’s 10,000ha catchment, in order to benefit water, wildlife and people. The RSPB are tenants of two hill farms, Naddle and Swindale, on the eastern side of the reservoir, which extend to around 750ha. Associated with the farms are common grazing rights across a further 2,000ha. This land is a mosaic of woodlands, scrub, bogs, heaths, grassland, crags, meadows, tarns and rivers. Our focus is on restoring these habitats, many of which have been negatively impacted by grazing, drainage and other human activity over the course of centuries.

Although some of what we are doing could be described as rewilding, we also have a farming operation, involving sheep and cattle. Our aim is to try to demonstrate that sustainable farming, in keeping with the Lake District’s farming traditions, can be integrated with landscape scale ecological restoration. We have developed a vision for what we hope the land we are looking after will look like in the future, which is described in this short film.

Tell us about the ‘rewiggling’ of Swindale Beck: how important is this work to the overall Wild Haweswater project, and what benefits do you hope it will bring?

When we took on the farm tenancies in 2012 the beck as it flowed through Swindale stood out as a feature of the landscape that was badly in need of repair. Straightened at least 200 years ago in order to protect the valley’s hay meadows, its straightened, leveed course through which water flowed rapidly had stripped the bed of gravels suitable for spawning salmon. There were no trees along the beck’s banks. The levees, which were the result of generations of dredging, prevented water flowing back into the channel after flooding, resulting in stagnant pools sitting on the floodplain, impacting on both the botanical and agricultural value of the meadows.

In 2016, working in partnership with United Utilities, The Environment Agency and Natural England, a more natural course for the beck was returned. A meandering route, designed by geomorphologists based on a digital terrain model was excavated, exposing river gravels buried below. As soon as water was diverted into this new course, gravel bars, riffles, deep pools and fast running shallows began to form, all features which were missing from the straightened channel. Some sections were fenced out and trees planted alongside to provide shade. Other sections, which flow through a SSSI hay meadow, have had willow stakes pushed into the banks.

Within three months of the work being completed, salmon were observed spawning in the beck again, thanks to the improved quality of the substrate. The restored beck is 180m longer than the straightened course thanks to its meanders. It is better connected to the floodplain thanks to the removal of the levees, so contributes to reducing flood risk for people living downstream. This short film summaries the work done to the beck and in the wider valley.

How does your river restoration work interact with the wider landscape? How does the restoration affect other users of the valley?

The restoration is one element of wider restoration, including extensive blanket bog restoration in the upper catchment, tree planting and hay meadow restoration. We are the farmers in the valley, so it doesn’t have any impact on others. Although the restoration could be described as rewilding, much of it flows through traditionally managed hay meadows, which we crop to feed our livestock through the winter. It is powerful demonstration of how ecological restoration can be integrated with sustainable farming.

What balances do you strike in your work between guiding the restoration of habitat and ecosystem processes, and ‘letting the ecosystem go’ along new trajectories?

Most upland ecosystems in the UK have suffered so greatly over time that they are missing vital cogs that enable them to function. There is often limited seed source, so planting is often required in order to get a seed source re-established. In the longer run, if the grazing management is right, then this should allow subsequent natural regeneration.

Even when domestic livestock numbers and reduced to more naturalistic levels, deer can often have a major impact, preventing habitat restoration, woodland and scrub in particular. Our focus at Haweswater all about trying to re-establish the natural processes that will allow habitats to recover with less intervention in the longer term, but there’s a lot of work involved before we’ll get to that point.

What other restoration projects have inspired you at Wild Haweswater? And what key lessons would you pass on to other restoration practitioners seeking to carry out similar work?

Wild Ennerdale is a big inspiration, particularly their focus on natural processes and their use of extensive cattle grazing as a management tool. Carrifran Wildwood is fantastic too. They have completely transformed a valley from an open, heavily grazed state to a wonderful mosaic of woodland and flower rich upland grassland. Both of these projects have resulted from the meeting of minds of visionary people with shared energy and enthusiasm. They demonstrate how much good can be done for nature when we collaborate.


Lee Schofield has recently published a book reflecting on the restoration work at Wild Haweswater. “Wild Fell: Fighting for nature on a Lake District hill farm” is out now.

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