The Lake District: In pursuit of purple

As we left the car park and headed towards the dark crags in the distance, I asked what we were looking for. “Purple saxifrage” Lee replied. “It’s a creeping plant that likes to grow on calcareous, north-facing rock faces”.

Lee and Bill (pictured) from the ELP Cumbria project lead me on a search for the elusive purple saxifrage.

I was in the Lake District, just prior to the Coronavirus lockdown, visiting the ELP-funded project in Cumbria’s Lakes and Dales. Led by a partnership between the RSPB, United Utilities, the Lowther Estate and Natural England, this project is working with the people that live and work here to map out a collective route towards a landscape-scale, nature-led future in which the economy, ecology and people’s cultural identity are all connected.

We’d parked at Mardale Head at the far end of the Haweswater Reservoir. This spot alone tells you much about the economic and social history of the area as well as the current challenges the region faces. The Haweswater Reservoir is one of several in the Lake District. When it was built in the 1930’s, it flooded the village of Mardale Green. Today it provides drinking water to over two million people. The surrounding hills are the catchment for the reservoir which means that their management affects the quality of the water – and therefore the amount of treatment required before water can be delivered to people’s homes.

A view through Mardale Common, located above Haweswater Resovoir.

The upland fells are grazed by sheep, a practice which over the centuries has transformed the landscape. The historical removal of trees and scrub followed up by high levels of grazing and the drainage of bogs has resulted in a landscape where nature is struggling to maintain a foothold. The cover of trees and dwarf shrubs is low, and the peatlands degraded. Erosion scars, landslides and peat hags are visible throughout the area. This increases the amount of suspended sediment and discolouration of the water. A sustainable solution to issues like this needs farmers, water companies, the region’s tourism industry and NGOs concerned about the area’s wildlife, to work together.

I’d joined two of the people leading the project for the day; Lee Schofield, the RSPB’s Site Manager at Haweswater and Bill Kenmir, Warden at Haweswater and Project Manager for the ELP-funded Cumbria project. As we headed up the valley, they pointed out to me some of the past tree planting and fencing that had been carried out in an effort to restore the area’s ecology. Birch and juniper were protected behind wire cages, but we still found a determined sheep pushing at one of the tree guards. “Apart from coarse grasses there is little for the sheep to eat here, especially during the winter months, and so they’re always on the look-out for something different and more nutritious” Bill explained.

Bill and Lee stand on the shore of Blea Water.

We soon reached Blea Water, where the steep slopes leading to the summit of High Street provided a dramatic backdrop. The scene brought back to me my O-level geography syllabus – here was a classic glacial corrie, where 10,000 years ago the source of a glacier scoured the rock. Now, the dark, oligotrophic waters of the tarn rippled in response to a gentle breeze. Below the surface, unseen to us, were a fish species of the salmon family called the Schelly (Coregonus stigmaticus). Classified by IUCN as Endangered, the Schelly is endemic to just four lakes in the Lake District – Haweswater and its tributaries being one of them.

As we stood on the lake’s shore Lee explained the purpose of our visit today. Some 50 years ago the eminent ecologist and conservationist Derek Ratcliffe had recorded Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) on these crags, but it hasn’t been seen since. Lee now makes an annual pilgrimage at this time of year to see if it can be relocated, hopeful that it still clings on, on cliff edges inaccessible to sheep and deer. It is one of the first spring flowers to appear, so any plants should stand out. But even so, spotting it is never going to be easy on these rocks, and getting up close and personal to peer into nooks and crannies is required. So, Lee headed off in one direction, Bill and I in the other, in search of a lost flower.

The corrie lake of Blea Water provides a dramatic contrast to the surrounding crags.

We joined up for lunch an hour or so later. It had been another fruitless year of searching, but there is hope that conservation work on these hills will, in time, lead to the reappearance of species like purple saxifrage. Since 2017, in a partnership involving the RSPB, United Utilities, the Alpine Garden Society and Natural England, fencing has been keeping out sheep and deer as part of the ‘Mardale Mountain Meadow’ project.

As we made our descent Bill pointed to Riggindale Crag to the north of Blea Water. “England’s last resident golden eagles once nested there,” he told me. “But in 2004 the female disappeared, and the male was left on its own. It hung on until 2015 but then it too disappeared. Now there aren’t any golden eagles resident in England”. Maybe restoration efforts will one day also help bring back this beautiful and charismatic bird to the Lake District.