Roger Ratcliffe has a wild idea to restore our uplands

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Even in our remotest areas of countryside it’s sometimes hard to stop feeling angry about the failure of government. So it was during my first walk of 2020, a circuit of Malham Tarn. England’s highest lake is one of only two natural expanses of freshwater in the Yorkshire Dales, and on a fine January day I appeared to have the place to myself.

My reward was a close-up view of a barn owl in an area of wetland known as Tarn Moss. The last rays of sun had disappeared behind nearby Pikedaw Hill and in the fading light the bird sailed silently across my path, startling me with its ghostly white breast.

It performed a quick U-turn as though checking it had just seen a human. The owl will be more used to seeing sheep, which is the predominant mammal not just in the mainly treeless landscape of the Yorkshire Dales but also the similarly bare uplands of the Pennines and Lake District. For in the period between the Middle Ages and Industrial Revolution these hills and fells were defoliated, shorn of much of their greenery, creating huge tracts of rough grazing for the burgeoning wool industry.

But since the 1950s, when the national parks were created, it has become government policy to stop the clock and virtually preserve in aspic these totally unnatural sheep-munched landscapes rather than return them to their naturally wild state.

The nature reserve at Malham Tarn in which I encountered the barn owl is a wildlife oasis, but for miles around there are precious few trees and bushes to provide cover and food. Similarly, look at the map showing the Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s reserves in the Lakes and you will see just isolated sites here and there, mostly around the fringes of the national park. The high fells have nothing to interest nature-lovers. In fact, over much of the north of England wildlife seems to have been driven into last refuges surrounded by largely barren landscapes.

Reversing this process is known as rewilding, and the best present I received over the festive season was a book by Benedict Macdonald entitled Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds. It makes a compelling case for restoring habitats like grouse moors, and upland areas which have long been unprofitable for grazing sheep and hardier breeds of cattle but are kept going by grant aid.

Grouse moors are an anachronism in Britain, being first developed as a playground for shotgun-toting Victorian gentry. Okay, in August and September they look pretty when the heather turns purple but otherwise they have no visual appeal and would be more valuable to nature if rewilded. What makes their existence viewed as obscene today is that the shooting industry that has grown up around these moors, earning vast amounts from mainly foreign customers, is responsible for the destruction of countless birds of prey, like the endangered hen harrier, peregrines and red kites.

The uplands should be planted with trees, shrubs and mosses that soak up rainfall and prevent flooding tens of miles away, while at the same time restoring wildlife to these virtually sterile wastelands. National parks like the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and Peak District have been managed more for walkers than nature, and it is time the government tipped the balance in favour of wildlife.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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