I'm with a group of birdwatchers walking up a wide valley in Lancashire. Within an hour, we’ve left behind a small woodland and followed a river onto the moor, spotting kestrels, meadow pipits, peregrines, ring ouzels and sandpipers along the way.
I’m guessing that such a beautiful landscape must overflow with visitors at the weekend but, apparently, it doesn’t. One of my fellow birders has lived in the next valley for decades and never been up this track. It’s a familiar story. The Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is located in England’s northwest and visitors (and locals) tend to be sucked past its charms into either the Lake or Peak districts.
‘It’s silly really,’ says Hetty Byrne, the AONB’s sustainable tourism officer, as we drive through a particularly lush part of the 800-plus square kilometres of pastures and moorlands peppered with stone-built villages and walls. ‘You get the same experience but without the crowds.’
A TREE-FREE FOREST
But those who make it to ‘The Forest’ will have to come to terms with the fact that it isn’t actually a forest at all. ‘That always causes confusion,’ says Mike Pugh, the AONB’s business development officer. ‘The meaning of the word “forest” has changed over the years. It meant “royal hunting land” and the king would come up here to hunt for deer and wild boar. Part of Bowland is still owned by the Queen, but it hasn’t been completely wooded for about 1,000 years.’
The area is no longer a royal hunting ground (the legislation that created royal hunting forests was revoked in 1507) but because much of it is still owned by three large estates and a water company (United Utilities), the countryside and villages have remained very traditional.
‘The estates have had a stabilising influence on the landscape,’ says Dave Padley, the AONB’s countryside officer. ‘For example, we are upland, but we don’t have the conifer forestry that other upland areas have.’ Instead the area remains focused on farming, largely providing grazing for cattle. ‘Agriculture of arable crops is virtually impossible here, but we can grow grass. We have one of the highest rainfalls in Britain and 90 per cent of the land is used for permanent pasture or rough grazing,’ says Pugh.
Sadly, this meant that when the foot-and-mouth epidemic hit Britain in 2001, it devastated the region. ‘It was an awful time,’ says farmer Thomas Binns of Hecklin Farm in Downham. ‘Up until the slaughter, there was all this activity, all these people coming onto your farm and then, afterwards, no sound at all. No sheep. Nothing. Everything had gone. It was like being left alone in a house after a funeral.’
Afterwards, Binns continued farming, but he found it challenging. Although he received compensation, the new sheep he bought came with a virulent strain of foot rot – a laming disease that plagues the sheep industry – and decades of careful breeding were lost.
As a result, sheep didn’t know their way around the moors like they once did. Many upland sheep are ‘hefted’, meaning they are attached to a particular piece of land. They will graze in the same way every year and teach their lambs to do the same. This knowledge has often been passed down for hundreds of years and means that flocks from different farms grazing on open land don’t get too mixed up, and areas don’t become overgrazed or suffer from a buildup of parasites. ‘This knowledge was lost after foot-and-mouth,’ says Binns. ‘Farmers had to actively shepherd their sheep and push them onto new pieces of ground.’
Binns has now bred a new strain of sheep that he hopes will get more meat off the moorland as he and other farmers gear up for increased food production. And he’s looked into making his flock organic, but he doesn’t believe there’s a market for organic lamb in the current recession: ‘The public just won’t pay the premium like they will for milk.’
Binns is also receiving money because his land is managed under environmental stewardship schemes. The AONB team is keen to encourage this work and reposition farmers as more than just food producers. ‘We like to see them as resource managers,’ says Padley. ‘That way, the environment is looked after and if we get another foot-and-mouth-type incident, instead of farmers’ money stopping overnight, they’ll have more income streams to tide them over.’
A DIFFERENT WAY
Other Bowland farmers have diversified out of traditional farming completely. Harry Backhouse of Clough Bottom Farm now has a surprisingly lucrative business selling trees. ‘If they don’t sell, I don’t mind as I really like having them around,’ he says. And, following a chance conversation in a pub with some friends who were looking to find a building for their candle-making business, Richard Drinkall began renting out his farm buildings to local designers and craftsmen.
His tenants at Backridge Farm now include joiners, hairdressers, a shop selling vintage clothes and an art gallery. And the most recent addition is a restaurant, housed in a converted barn ‘that was falling to bits’. He says the investment was worthwhile ‘as it’s now worth ten times as much’.
Byrne is encouraging all of these new businesses to sign up to the Green Tourism Business Scheme, one of the most recognised sustainable tourism certification schemes in the UK. ‘We have about 30 in the scheme now and I’m hoping for about 20 more by the end of the year,’ she says. ‘It’s a very rigorous scheme. The businesses are assessed on a range of areas including energy, water use and waste disposal, but not everyone has to invest capital. Many of the farmers who diversified were already operating in a sustainable way. It’s a way of life for them.
‘It’s amazing what people are coming up with,’ Byrne continues. ‘I encouraged the wife of a local farmer who owns four holiday cottages to start using green cleaning products. She started using them, read the labels and decided she could make them herself. She says they’re better and cheaper, and she’s even thinking about growing her own soap beans, which she’s hoping to use for the laundry.
‘We’re leading the way on this in Lancashire,’ she says. ‘We’re hoping to become like the Southwest and get a reputation for sustainable tourism.’ And the public’s new fondness for eco-friendly travel and domestic vacations is beginning to give businesses in the scheme a commercial edge: ‘This year, for the first time, people have been specifically asking for businesses that are in the scheme. The tide is turning.’
BACK TO NATURE
This means that the nature that is still the main tourist attraction can remain protected. A particularly big draw is the hen harrier, which features on the AONB’s logo. The most important breeding site for this species in Britain is on the United Utilities estate, where between six and ten pairs raise their young every year.
‘They’ve been here since the 1960s,’ says Nigel Pilling, a United Utilities ranger. ‘The area has traditionally been managed for grouse shooting, which provides a mosaic of habitat that the hen harrier likes, too.’ RSPB warden Richard Storton is looking into the possibility of expanding the population out into the surrounding lowland areas.
Traditionally, farmers and the grouse shooting estates have been nervous about increasing the numbers of birds of prey in the region, but when I meet a group of Norwegian farm advisors, they laugh at the thought that English farmers might be worried about birds of prey, as their farmers are more concerned about bears and wolves.
The Norwegians have come here to learn lessons from the Forest of Bowland and how the AONB team is working to protect the environment while continuing to develop the region and raise its profile. ‘We’re always thinking, “What do we have now and how can we enhance it?”’ says Padley. ‘We’re like wheeler-dealers looking out for the main chance.’
What to eat and drink
Lancashire hotpot and local ale. ‘We would eat hotpot at home when I was a child. It’s made with local lamb and topped with potatoes. Real comfort food. The Bowland Brewery is in the AONB and makes really good ales, including one called Hen Harrier.’
Hetty Byrne, sustainable tourism officer
Where to make a phone call from the centre of Britain
At Dunslop Bridge. ‘The village is in the centre of Britain and BT put a payphone on the exact spot, which says inside, “You are calling from the BT payphone that marks the centre of Great Britain.” It’s a really lovely village too. Very traditional.’
Paul Greenall, countryside ranger
How to spot hen harriers
Look for them contouring the hillside and then suddenly diving down. ‘In summer, you see loads of hen harriers about, but if you look for them in March and April, you might see them performing a “sky dance”, which they do when they’re looking for a mate.’
Richard Storton, RSPB warden
Where to see wildflowers
At Dalehead Church. ‘Dalehead was drowned in the 1930s, and the church was moved and rebuilt up the hill. The church yard has an amazing number of wildflowers: more than 130 varieties.’
Dave Padley, countryside officer
For more information about destinations throughout Lancashire, visit www.visitlancashire.com. Olivia stayed at the Shireburn Arms Hotel (www.shireburnarmshotel.com) and travelled to the region using Virgin Trains (www.virgintrains.co.uk)
First published September 2009