Cumbria Connect

United Kingdom

Patrick Neaves

Cumbria, a county in the North-West of England, is home to some of the UK’s most prized landscapes which provide habitat for rare species such as red kite, melancholy thistle and European water vole. Over the centuries, intensive land management approaches have unintentionally caused the landscape to become degraded and fragmented. The plans for agricultural transition following the UK’s departure from the EU have created a unique opportunity for stakeholders to work in partnership to transform this landscape. The project will seek to build a consensus for nature restoration in this renowned upland landscape that, in turn, will help to underpin a sustainable local economy.


The 33,000 ha project area in North West England encompasses the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks, considered to be some of the country’s finest areas of natural beauty. Traditionally, the landscape hosted a diverse agricultural economy where mixed farming practices dominated, creating a diverse rural landscape. These practices continue to this day, although post war agricultural policies have reduced the diversity of approaches which has impacted local wildlife and habitats.

Habitats in the area include upland heath, alpine meadow, ancient woodlands, river corridors, fens and blanket bog, harbouring relict and isolated populations of special and rare species. However, these habitats and associated species are highly concentrated in protected areas managed specifically for nature.

This area is of high ecological and cultural value, and includes a World Heritage Site (WHS), three Natura 2000 Sites, seven Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), two National Parks and a National Nature Reserve.

Project context and opportunity

Much of the project area has been degraded through human activities preventing tree regeneration, draining peat bogs, and reducing the number of wildflowers.

There have been many valuable conservation efforts by organisations and individuals in the project area but joined up and coordinated action at the landscape scale could result in an overall landscape of much greater value for nature.

England is undergoing an agricultural transition in which landscape-scale approaches funded by the government’s new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) will replace EU farming policies, with area-based payments set to be phased out by 2027. This presents a time-critical opportunity for transition to new approaches to farming and conservation to support both nature recovery and land-based businesses.

With sufficient inputs, this landscape will naturally begin to regenerate, tipping the balance towards a self-sustaining, dynamic habitat mosaic.

What the project will do

Cumbria Connect seeks to inspire a co-developed vision of a restored 33,000 ha English upland landscape through a partnership united by mutual interest in the landscape’s future. The project aims to restore natural processes on core sites owned by United Utilities and Lowther Estates through large scale planting and natural regeneration, peatland restoration and reestablishment of historic river systems. Additionally, the project will work outside of these core sites, seeking to support farmers and land managers through a period of change and foster a collaborative working model that seeks to bring together differing values and perspectives.

To achieve this, the project will:

  • Restore and reconnect woodland, scrub, grassland, peatland and wetland habitats.
  • Selectively reintroduce rare or lost species.
  • Restore natural dynamic woodland and peatland/hydrological processes and increase the landscape’s carbon sequestration and water holding capacity, to increase ecological and human climate change resilience.
  • Contribute economic security for land-based businesses by helping them to access the new UK agricultural payments for ‘public money for public goods’.
  • Collaborate with local communities to identify values and attributes that form a ‘sense of place’, to understand how these relate to perceptions of landscape change, and the relationship to historic and cultural values.

For more information on the Cumbria Connect project, contact Martin Varley on

Project Partners

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
United Utilities
Lowther Estate
Natural England

Quick Facts

Project lead:

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

Project location:

Cumbria, northern England


England, UK

Landscape size:

33,000 ha

Key habitats:

Upland hay meadows, upland woodland, upland peatlands, species-rich upland grasslands

Focal species:

Water vole, pyramidal bugle, marsh fritillary butterfly, downy willow, red squirrel, Atlantic salmon, juniper

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