This land is our land, this land is your land

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My eight-page special report “Who owns the Lake District?” made the cover of this month’s Cumbria Life magazine. It explores the special responsibilities that comes with land ownership in an area of great natural beauty, where public access and commoners rights must be protected by law.

It was prompted by the media outcry over the Earl of Lonsdale’s decision to sell Blencathra, the saddleback mountain, earlier this summer for £1.75m – sparking a local campaign to bring the beloved landmark under community ownership.

British national parks vary from the American system in that the national park authority does not own the land it oversees, rather acting as a planning authority. Around 60% of the Lake District national park is under private ownership.

Full text and PDF clippings are available after the fold.


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By Cal Flyn
Published in Cumbria Life, September 2014

It started with an advert. “For sale by private treaty: One of the grandest objects in Lakeland and one of the best known: an iconic mountain massif; a jewel in Lakeland’s crown; a unique investment opportunity.”

Blencathra, the saddleback mountain described by Alfred Wainwright as “one of the grandest objects in Lakeland”, was to be sold off to the highest bidder. The Earl of Lonsdale had to find £9m to cover an inheritance bill, fast, and Blencathra – a 1,083 hectare (ha) portion of the 12,000 ha Lonsdale Estate that dominates the Lowther and Eden valleys – was next in line in the flogging of the family silver.
The ensuing media clamour kickstarted efforts to secure the mountain’s ownership for the local community. Friends of Blencathra, a new charity set up to receive donations towards this end, announced in July that it had made “an offer so attractive that it is likely to result in acceptance”, prompting jubilation among its army of supporters.
But the sale of Blencathra has also raised questions over the nature of ownership in the LakeDistrict. What does it mean to ‘own a mountain’, some wondered aloud, and, does it make any difference who does? The famous landmarks that we drive past, walk upon or climb up have changed hands so rarely that it is easy to forget that more often than not they are held in private hands. When the advert appeared, it prompted many of us to look around and wonder: who owns the rest of it?
Inside the national park, the answer is not always obvious. The British national park system differs from that of the United States, in that the land is not owned by the state. Instead the Lake DistrictNational Park Authority largely takes the role of a planning authority, with a remit to limit building and other development in the region. It owns only around 3.8% of the park area (8737 ha). The rest of the 885 square miles (229,200 ha) that comprise the national park is a patchwork of different owners and estates.
“The key difference is that the parks in the UK are real, living, working communities,” explained Richard Leafe, chief executive of the authority, “whereas American national parks are wilderness areas where there are no people – sometimes the residents were even excluded when the parks were first set up. Ours is a model based on principles of private ownership of land: 60% of the land in the Lake District national park is in private hands.
“So what we’re pursuing is a balance between the interests of the nation – the general public – and the local owners. Our task is to reduce the conflict between these interests, protecting the land from overdevelopment and ensuring access while recognising the economic interests of landowners.”
Each proprietor will have different motivations for owning land and may care to greater or lesser extent about maintaining its beauty and public access. Some landowners, like the park authority and the Forestry Commission (which owns around 5% of the park, 11,500 ha, including Whinlatter and Grizedale forests), are public bodies. Cumbria County Council controls the 225 ha Holehird estate near Windermere town, while South Lakeland District Council owns the bed of the lake itself and a large portion of its shore.
Some are commercial ventures; United Utilities, the UK’s largest listed water company, owns 8% (15,400 ha) of the park, largely comprising the catchment area for its two biggest reservoirs – Haweswater and Thirlmere. Others still are family-owned estates: Lord and Lady Cavendish, of Holker Hall near Cartmel, own around 6800 ha of land, around 10% of which falls within the park; while Robert and Jane Hasell-McCosh’s Dalemain estate occupies 1200 ha of the Eamont valley.
But the largest single estate is that of the National Trust, whose Lake District estate spans 46,000 ha (21% of the park area), taking in historic buildings, parkland, forestry and farmland, including William Wordsworth’s childhood home and 14 farms donated by Beatrix Potter.
The Trust’s values align closely with those of the park authority’s in that access, conservation and preservation of the region’s cultural heritage are prioritised: they provide car parks and toilet facilities for visitors, use traditional methods like drystone walling, coppicing and stone-pitching paths on all their properties, and keep a herd of 20,000 native Herdwick sheep which are cared for by their agricultural tenants.
A spokesman for the National Trust said: “The vast majority of the land in the Lake District is deemed to be ‘inalienable’ which, in its simplest terms, means that we expect to be custodians for future generations to come and we cannot, under any circumstances, sell it.  Our first principle is that we care for the landscape ‘for ever, for everyone’.”
As a result of decades of gradual acquisition, the Trust owns many of the iconic features of theLake District landscape, including Englands highest mountain, Scafell Pike, which was gifted to the Trust by Lord Leconfield in 1919. It also owns Great Gable, the seventh highest mountain, which was purchased by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club in 1924 in memory of its members who died in the Great War and donated ‘for the use of the nation’ in a move analogous to the community campaign to purchase Blencathra today.
However, these donations came in the days before the advent of both the national park and legislation securing the public’s right of access – the most extensive of which, the Countryside Rights of Way Act, 2000, (CRoW) came into effect in 2005. Now 55% of Lake District is open access land under CRoW, shown on Ordnance Survey maps as the areas shaded a yellowish-beige, where the public may freely wander off the path while walking, running, bird watching or climbing (swimming, riding, sailing and driving still require permission).
Given these new rights of access, one might be forgiven for wondering why gaining ownership of land in the area – such as Blencathra, which is entirely open access – is so urgent. No matter the identity of the successful bidder, be he a Russian oligarch or Saudi sheikh, there is no chance that this access could be curtailed. As the Earl himself admitted in an interview with the Telegraph: “We can still walk on it, and fly over it, and do what the hell we like with it. It’s not going to go anywhere… I can think of better things to spend my money on.”
In effect, the sale of the mountain will magic up a considerable sum of money for the Earl (the winning bid is understood to be “well over” the asking price of £1.75m, perhaps by as much as seven-figures) with little tangible loss from his estate or gain to the community; despite the many thousands who tramp across its face each year, the only income currently gained from the mountain is £1,000 a month from a small hydro-electric scheme at its foot, a sum unlikely even to cover the costs of maintaining its crisscross of footpaths. Its status as both national park land and a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) places severe restrictions on future commercial development.
For Debbie Cosgrove, chair of Friends of Blencathra, it is about shared responsibility. “I think of it this way: if you came to my house and noticed that the windowsills needed painting you wouldn’t do it because it is my house, not yours. But if it was our shared house, you’d be more likely to get it done. It’s our house.
“This is the same idea. Some people who walk up mountains leave litter, we all erode the paths, but we don’t do anything about it because its ‘not our responsibility’. We plan to demonstrate how a whole community can look after a mountain for the good of everyone.”
And despite the regulations and limitations, the landowner does still retain some powers – mostly in terms of choosing the balance between ecological and agricultural management. “Landowners play a huge role in keeping the Lake District accessible and the landscape beautiful,” said Jan Darrall, policy officer at Friends of the Lake District. “Planning rules only cover development and there is a lot a landowner can do or indeed not do outwith development that can impact on the quality of the land and landscape for good or bad.”
A bad owner, she added, would be “someone who does not invest in their land, seeks to prevent or hinder access, does not consider the long term future of the land, or someone who has conflictual relationships with neighbours, the public, and/or those who have rights over the land, such walkers and commoners” [see box: Common Land].
Disagreements between landowners and land users can cause an enormous amount of friction in rural communities. Commoners in Grasmere were recently at loggerheads with Jim Lowther, brother to the Earl of Lonsdale and head of the (separate) 18,200 ha Lowther Estates, after Lowther refused to sign commoners’ funding applications as part of a drive to reduce sheep numbers in the area.
“My objection is to the subsidy system that puts sheep before wildlife,” he was reported as saying in May this year. “We need long-term reforms to bring life back to the fells.” Some of his commoners said they expected to lose as much as £15,000 a year in subsidies as a result – a huge sum, compared with the typical hill farmer’s annual income of around £20,000. Andrew Fox, Lowther’s estate surveyor, told Cumbria Life that the dispute is currently “in the process of being sorted out”.
Such conflicts – between landowners’ bucolic visions and their tenants’ financial realities – are not new, said Hal Bagot, owner of the 3,500 ha Levens estate in South Lakeland. “Landowners have always had a responsibility to look after the countryside, especially areas within the National Park. The celebrated beauty of the Lake District is largely down to efforts of landowners to maintain the balance between nature and farming.” What is new, however, is the “increased pressure to satisfy everyone – be they walkers, cyclists, farmers, politicians from Europe or the UK, and the [government] agencies that now control much of what we do, such as the Environment Agency or Natural England.”
Myles Sandys, who runs a 2,000 ha estate with wife Camilla from Graythwaite Hall near Hawkshead, agrees. “Being in the national park has its pros and cons,” he said. “My forebears would be aghast at the level of interference in every aspect of one’s life. There is little one is allowed to do without several permissions, and of course you have to be patient with the hippy who has just left university, knows it all and tells you how to do something because he has the power of his particular authority behind him.”
Yet despite the bureaucracy, selling up is unthinkable. “My role as landowner is to do what I instinctively know to be right for the estate… if it were to be sold it would be broken up and bought by people without the same sympathies and affection for it and this unblemished side of the lake would be irretrievably spoilt for ever.”
Whether public or private, one would hope that every Lake District owner shares Sandys’ tenderness for the land.
Like nearly a third of the national park (64,544 ha), Blencathra is also bound by common grazing legislation. Common land is usually unfenced, privately owned land, over which other people have traditional rights of grazing – and sometimes also the right to cut bracken, or collect wood and stone. These ‘commoners’ are usually the people who own or lease neighbouring farms, and use the common to graze their sheep, cattle or ponies.
There are between 300 and 400 commoners in the Lake District – more than 500 in the whole of Cumbria – whose names are held in a register at Cumbria County Council. As a group they are represented by the Federation of Cumbria Commoners.
“Only 3% of England is common land. Here that figure is 28%,” said Julia Aglionby, executive director of the Foundation for Common Land. “So the Lake District is a real haven for this traditional form of management. We must look after that.” In fact, Cumbria contains a third of all the common land in the country.
The rules governing common land are very strict, she added. “Because of the complex legal tenure, commons have not been developed in the way other land has; it is less commercialised. Many of the most famous mountains – Blencathra, Catbells, etcetera, etcetera – are all common land, so how the common land is managed is very significant in how the Lake District is perceived.”
Common land is significant not only for its cultural heritage, but for its ecological and archaeological value. 58% of common land has been designated as sites of special scientific interest, while 11% of all ‘scheduled ancient monuments’ are associated with commons – likely because unploughed soil has offered better protection for ruins and other remains.
Many recent controversies over land use in the Lake District have centred around areas of common land, often when landowners have attempted to impose ‘top-down’ environmental strategies, particularly plans to ‘rewild’ the landscape. “Owners can be arrogant,” said Aglionby. “They can think that they are ‘saving’ the land when it has been managed successfully for a long time.”
The concept of ‘rewilding’ was popularised by the journalist George Monbiot, whose 2013 book Feral called for the removal of livestock from the “sheep wrecked” uplands, and a return to unmanaged forest. Monbiot described the Lake District as “one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe”, which “competes with the chemical deserts of East Anglia for the title of Britain’s worst-kept countryside”.
His book drew words of ecstatic praise from a number of public figures, including the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and musicians Thom Yorke and Brian Eno. And it was Monbiot’s writing which also reportedly inspired Jim Lowther to withdraw his support from his Grasmere commoners’ subsidy applications [see main feature].
Other recent disputes include a fall-out over plans to remove all sheep currently grazing the United Utilities-owned Mardale Waters common (by a partnership between the water company and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in the hope of improving local water quality and biodiversity. Commoners in neighbouring areas have protested the decision vigorously, noting the potential knock-on effects for their own wandering herds. “Experimenting on delicately balanced systems of farming that have evolved over centuries should be well considered and carefully implemented,” warned the Federation of Cumbria Commoners in a strongly-worded letter of complaint.
The Lake District National Park Authority owns or leases 7,166 ha of common land, but was reported in 2012 to be considering selling some or all of its common holdings. Commoners’ rights, however, will be protected no matter the owner under  the Commons Act, 2006.
– registered charity
– Owns 46,000 ha of the national park (21%), including many of the highest peaks and 32,000 ha of open access land. 25,000 ha has been leased, shared among 206 residential and 191 agricultural tenants.
– publicly listed company
– Owns around 15,500 ha (8%) of land, mainly the water catchment areas neighbouring Haweswater and Thirlmere, plus Ennerdale Water and part of its ‘rewilded’ valley.
– private estate (Jim Lowther)
– The estate takes in more than 18,000, a “large part” of which falls within the national park. At 1400 ha, Lowther Park is the largest home park in England.
– government department
– Owns approximately 12,000 ha (5%), including 1863 ha of ancient woodland. The majority of the Commission’s land is fully  accessible to the public, except during felling.
– private estate (Hugh Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale)
– The Earl currently owns approximately 12,000 ha, largely in the Lowther and Eden Valleys. There are 20 let farms, three limestone quarries and 600 acres of commercial forestry.
– public body
– Owns or leases 8737 ha (3.8%) of the park area, 82% of which is common land. It also owns Bassenthwaite Lake.
– private estate (Hal and Susie Bagot)
– 2350 ha of the 3500 ha Levens Estate fall within the Lake District national park, including a number of tenanted farms in Shap Fell and its surrounds.
– private estate (Myles and Camilla Sandys)
– 2000 ha on the west shore of Windermere, owned by the same family for 500 years. Half is managed woodland and half is farmed by five tenants. It encompasses Esthwaite Lake and Cunsey Beck.
– private estate (Robert and Jane Hasell-McCosh)
– Family estate for 11 generations, covering 1200 ha in the Eamont valley, including the Eamont river and a segment of Ullswater.
– private estate (John and Claire Fryer-Spedding)
– Owned by the Spedding family for more than 300 years, the Mirehouse estate spans around 1200 ha near Keswick, including part of Skiddaw, Lonscale Crag, and part of the south shore of Bassenthwaite Lake.
  1. Scafell Pike (3210 feet) – National Trust
  2. Scafell (3162 feet) – National Trust
  3. Helvellyn (3114 feet) – western slopes United Utilities, eastern slopes LDNPA
  4. Skiddaw (3053 feet) – mixed private ownership (including Mirehouse)
  5. Great End (2986 feet) – National Trust
  6. Bowfell (2940 feet) – National Trust on Eskdale side, Lowther on Langdale side
  7. Great Gable (2960 feet) – National Trust
  8. Pillar (2926 feet) – mainly National Trust (some parts Forestry Commission)
  9. Nethermost Pike (2923 feet) – East slope – Dalemain estate, west slope United Utilities
  10. Catstycam (2917 feet) – LDNPA (part of the Glenridding estate)
  1. Windermere – South Lakeland District Council owns lake bed and most of the shoreline. The Greythwaite estate also owns 3 miles of shore.
  2. Ullswater –  lake bed owned by Dalemain estate, National Trust and the park authority; the shoreline is of mixed private ownership
  3. Derwentwater –  Allerdale Borough Council, Lodore Ltd, the National Trust and Mr D Walker
  4. Bassenthwaite Lake –  Lake District national park authority
  5. Coniston Water – owned by the Rawden-Smith Trust, although the National Trust owns its three islands (including Peel Island, which appeared as Wild Cat island in Swallow’s and Amazons)
  6. Haweswater – reservoir owned by United Utilities (created in 1935 by flooding the Mardale valley)
  7. Thirlmere – another United Utilities reservoir, dammed in the 1890s
  8. Ennerdale Water – United Utilities
  9. Wastwater – National Trust
  10. Crummock Water – National Trust
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