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Campaigner who says sheep wreck Cumbrian fells faces farmers

An environmentalist who says sheep farming wrecks the fells met his biggest critics head-on in Cumbria.

Monbiot photo
George Monbiot: ‘I came here to lay to rest this idea I am out to destroy farming and farmers’

Hill farmers reacted angrily when they came face to face with Guardian columnist George Monbiot, claiming he was “totally ignorant” of their way of life.

Mr Monbiot is reported as writing in his book that sheep farming is “a slow-burning ecological disaster” that “has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution”.

Mr Monbiot agreed to meet Cumbria’s commoners at their AGM and conference at Newton Rigg College, Penrith.

He told the meeting that he had come to the county to repeat his claims and reiterate his calls to “re-wild” large parts of the uplands, which he said would revitalise both wildlife and local communities.

But Will Rawling, Ennerdale farmer and chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, accused Mr Monbiot of “destroying” the huge strides that had been made between the farmers and conservation bodies.

“Your sensationalised comments have only served to regenerate mistrust for the farming community. They are counter-productive,” said Mr Rawling, who was invited onto the panel putting forward questions to the political campaigner.

Mr Monbiot retorted by claiming he was not trying to create conflict.

“They sound sensational because they are new. I came here to lay to rest this idea I am out to destroy farming and farmers,” he insisted.

In his regular column for The Guardian last September, Mr Monbiot claimed the fells of the national park had been “thoroughly sheepwrecked” and that “you’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham”.

He told a restrained meeting of around 200 uplands farmers the forests that once covered the fells have been reduced by the white plague to “bare rock and bowling green”.

Mr Monbiot will attend the Theatre by the Lake next week to talk about his new book Feral, which argues for the “re-wilding” of treasured landscapes and in which he admits that he has an unhealthy obsession with sheep – “I hate them”.

His column prompted outrage but Mr Monbiot remains unrepentant, claiming he has had wide private support from organisations unwilling to go public.

Mr Monbiot said that when people saw what some of the benefits are to re-wilding – particularly the economic benefits, the possibilities from wildlife tourism, the money that can be made through carbon storage and flood management – then they could do a lot better re-wilding the land than by keeping sheep.

He also claimed that sheep production in the hills was a major cause of flooding in the lowlands, claiming overgrazing had removed vegetation that helped absorb water and had compacted the soil, facilitating the flow of water down the hills.

But Cumbrian young commoner Will Benson said that if the hills had no sheep or cattle then the communities would no longer exist. A lot of people besides the farmers would lose their employment and the tourist industry would collapse. Fells would become overgrown to the point where they would be inaccessible.

Federation vice chairman Pauline Blair said Mr Monbiot had based his argument on the Welsh hills.

“He is totally ignorant of the way things are done in Cumbria,” she said.

Have your say

Its always been my understanding that the fells were never particularly heavily forested and that the natural state was a fairly bare sort of heathland. The real vandalism of the fells was carried out by the forestry commission who were responsible for planting huge numbers of non native tree species in thick and inaccessible plantations. As for you Tony if returning to Cumbria is so depressing the answer is simple - stay away.

Posted by Ron on 11 March 2014 at 16:54

George Monbiot says he is not out to destroy farmers and farming but this is logically inconsistent as his dream is incompatible with the keeping of sheep and the cultural landscape so beloved by the 16 million visitors to the Lake District.

Farmers have been working hard over the last 20 years to improve outcomes for the environment and the culture that underpins WHS nomination. The removal of perverse government support has helped but it will take time for change to occur as trees do not grow overnight. Monbiot suggests farmers can change to running high end eco-tourism businesses but the wild forest will take 100 years to grow and so where will their livelihood come from in the meantime?

Posted by Julia on 11 March 2014 at 11:49

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