The brightly-coloured primulas were being heeled in to the cold flower-beds when we arrived at HF Holidays’ Thorns Hall at Sedbergh, Cumbria. ‘They’ll be back in the greenhouse this evening,’ the gardeners assured us.
The quick fix was because HRH the Prince of Wales was shortly to visit the hall, a lovely Tudor guesthouse, to celebrate HF’s centenary, and to look in on a meeting where a group of us were discussing the future of upland commons.
The group consisted of about 20 representatives of government departments and agencies, landowners, land managers, commoners, and wildlife, landscape and access bodies. Apparently HRH had expressed an interest in upland commons and reconciling the many interests there.
We were shepherded to Sedbergh by Julia Aglionby, chairman of the Foundation for Common Land and director of the National Centre for the Uplands, based at Newton Rigg College in Cumbria, who had been liaising with the prince. Earlier this year I had attended one of a number of informal gatherings at Clarence House to discuss some of the issues.
Commons provide a microcosm of the issues facing the uplands in general: such as undergrazing and overgrazing, agri-environment prescriptions which are not sufficiently flexible to recognise local variations in vegetation, climate and grazing practices; no market for the produce; abandonment as younger generations quit farming, and a fragile economy.
Commons make for interesting study because so many people have a stake in them, including the public who has a right to walk, if not to ride, there. They are gems for their wildlife habitats, public access, sense of freedom, beautiful landscapes, fresh air, fresh water, history, culture and more. Joe Relph, from the Langstrath commoners in the central Lake District fells, emphasised that if we lose the tradition of hefting on the fells, we shall never get it back. Where he farms the whole operation has to be done on foot because of the rugged terrain—a tough life indeed.
Ian Brodie and I, representing the Ramblers and Open Spaces Society respectively, emphasised the need to involve everyone with an interest in the common at the very start of any management regime, before anything is decided, otherwise it can be a messy, controversial and lengthy business. The public money which goes into our commons must be directed to a sustainable future, and to providing public benefits—such as good-quality access and habitat, fresh air and clean water—and it is vital that everyone is on board.
We agreed to establish some case studies across the English uplands to identify good practice in collaborative working as well as learning from where things have gone wrong. It remains to be seen whether this partnership can produce something that is truly worthwhile, but it’s worth a try. Certainly those of us who are concerned about landscapes and access need to be there to balance the landowning and land manager interests.
HRH said he was delighted with this approach, so we shall see how it works out. It all helps to put commons on the map.