COP26 case studies - Will Rawling, Cumbria

8th October 2021

As the global politicians and state leaders prepare to travel to Glasgow for this November’s COP26 conference discussing the worldwide climate emergency, NSA is working hard to raise awareness of the positive role UK sheep farming can have on the issue.

As a finger of blame may once again be pointed to livestock production as a key contributor to climate change NSA is explaining that the UK’s methods of sheep production are in complete contrast to some methods of intensive farming found in other parts of the world. The Association is therefore aiming to improve understanding amongst the wider public of the importance of the UK sheep sector and demonstrating that a more holistic approach to sustainability is required if we are to meet environment, economic and social goals.

NSA is encouraging policymakers not to think of climate change or nature recovery in isolation, but to consider these things in tandem with the protection of natural resources, heritage, rural economies, the health and wellbeing of people, and sustainable and local food production and consumption.  

We spoke to five NSA members from across the UK who explain how their farming systems work with the environment and communities around them.

Will Rawling, Ennerdale, Cumbria

“Farming with my wife and son on the fells of the Western lake District National Park we work every day alongside nature, creating much of the landscape that is deemed worthy of protection.

“The farm is predominantly owner occupied land extending to around 700 acres of enclosed land, 500 acres of unfenced Lakeland fell and grazing rights on Kinniside common. Although the farm is not entirely typical of a lake district hill farm our two flocks of Herdwick fell sheep are managed on traditional lines, hefted to their particular fell grazings, with bloodlines extending back many centuries. They are very regionally adapted to the western lakes. Alongside the fell flocks the family business runs an upland flock of Aberfield type ewes and a flock of Herdwick draft ewes derived from the fell flocks.

“The farm is all semi improved grassland or unimproved fell land and all part of an ELS/HLS scheme, including the common land. The land is regularly soil tested and managed on the basis of the results, very little artificial fertilizer is used. Some of the better land is paddock/mob grazed or used for a single cut of silage, some hay is made when conditions allow. Rushes are harvested for bedding as part of a control programme.

“Sheep are all extensively managed and kept outside year-round, with the exception of a few wether lambs housed for finishing. We believe this traditional method of managing the farm delivers many environmental benefits and public goods.

“We have employed varied grazing techniques over recent years to improve the environment, reducing poaching and retaining tight herbal swards. The extensively grazed grassland acts as a huge carbon sink and sequestrates much more carbon than it uses. This is complimented by the mature native woodland on the farm both grazed and stock excluded. Hedgerows have been renovated with nature in mind and some new hedges have been established to create nature corridors and provide natural connectivity. The fell and common land has never received any fertilizer or pesticide and has never been ploughed or cultivated. There is an ancient Neolithic township on the common which might have been cultivated and a Celtic settlement on the open fell, both sites show evidence of sheep and cattle farming - this has been a way of life for a long time.

“All of the land has provided drinking water for the catchment in the past, some areas still do. Clean air is a product of these traditional pastoral systems, fossil fuel use is minimal and there is little or no disturbance to wildlife where it can be avoided. We manage two butterfly breeding sites on the farm and provide and enhance habitats for birds and mammals by employing nature friendly management systems and sensitive predator control. The farm is home to everything from fish, pearl mussels and dippers in the becks to red squirrels and woodpeckers in the trees, we host a diverse natural population and all seem to get along fine. I think this could be described as an holistic approach, we have a strong affinity with the natural process because we are part of it.

“Food production remains our main objective. High quality protein in the form of red meat produced on the fells and dales is some of the most sustainable the world can provide. The area we farm in the Lake District should continue to produce food and can only do so through pastoralism, it cannot ever grow cereal crops because of the terrain. Food security in an ever-unstable world is vital to the population of Britain. Consumers should be made aware of the genuine carbon footprint of imported products. Sustainable and seasonal home production has to be encouraged if we are going to achieve the government’s carbon targets, British farming is key to this objective.

“The cultural heritage and particular skills involved with fell farming are crucial to the future health of the National Park, not only from a nature enhancement point of view but also because of the maintenance of the manmade infrastructure of the fells. The walls and pasture mosaics of the Lakeland valleys are what people expect to see when they visit the park, a working landscape, this is a public good.

“Grazing sheep in the fells of the Lake District is part of the solution to climate change and can assist with flood mitigation. Nature enhancement is an ambition of every farmer I know. We have done it for years, we are part of that nature, we cannot ignore it or try and work against it, natural process will always prevail.

“The fells provide a livelihood for a few but inspiration for many, they provide a sense of place, an area that has changed little from the early settlements. The fells are valued by many people for many different reasons but are the way they are because of, not despite, farming.

“The days of headage payments and government sponsored overgrazing are long behind us, if we work in genuine partnership, together we can preserve and protect the precious landscapes we need. They are the ultimate public good, delivering for everyone and everything, if they are lost or destroyed, it is unlikely they will ever return”.