Once Furness, along with the Old Man of Coniston, had been transferred (fee undisclosed) to Cumbria, Lancashire was left looking for a new County Top. If all things had been equal, Ward’s Stone at 1839 feet would bear that particular palm, but those whose job it is to move boundaries around thought otherwise. No doubt in the interests of safeguarding someone’s parliamentary majority, the highest point in the Duchy is now halfway up a hill belonging to somewhere else. Gragareth, at 2057 feet, is an inconsequential bump halfway up a ridge leading to the Cumbrian top of Great Coum. Today, the birthplace of a brotherhood of climbing luminaries who have fearlessly scaled the daunting heights of the Alps, Andes and Himalaya now has a County Top you can summit by walking downhill.
Ward’s Stone is another matter. Before the turn of the century, there was only one way to reach its summit and that was by a concessionary footpath starting at Tarnbrook. The reason was simple. The land that you’re walking on is the Abbeystead Estate owned by the Duke of Westminster and the Abbeystead Estate contains a very lucrative grouse moor. The last thing the Duke wanted was the much-demanded freedom to roam. So, apart from the one not so straight and narrow way, the Forest of Bowland with its other Marilyns, White Hill and Fair Snape Fell were strictly out of bounds.
The Access Acts, of course, changed all that and opened not only great tracts of moorland but also the eyes of the general public. What it saw was and remains disturbing. To maximise the supply of grouse and consequently the profit when they are slaughtered on and after the “Glorious Twelfth”, estates such as Abbeystead took and still take three courses of action. First it will burn back the heather to encourage the growth of new shoots the grouse feed on; second, build drains to dry up the moors and third, eliminate all possible predators of game birds, their young and eggs.
Such drastic interference with the ecology of an area must have an effect and in the case of the Forest of Bowland it is particularly worrying. In the short term, it increases the chance of flooding with the potential of serious damage to the neighbouring villages. The sphagnum moss acts like a giant sponge, absorbing even the heaviest of rain fall, then gradually allowing the excess to flow into the streams and rivers. You alter this delicate balance at your peril. In 1967 the village of Wray and the surrounding farms were devastated by a flash flood. In total thirteen houses and seven bridges were swept away or damaged beyond repair (for the full story see “The Wray Flood of 1967” by Emmeline Garnett). It could be argued that such an occurrence is an Act of God, but this is a too easy get-out clause. Nature’s defences only work if they are left alone. Activity by humans such as overgrazing, collection of water and altering the ground, can unwittingly tip the balance. Less Hand of God than hamfist of man.
And in the long term, the interference of Man could have even more serious consequences. The blanket bogs, of which Bowland is one, act as carbon sinks that convert the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere into oxygen and in their own way are just as important as the Amazon Forest. Draining the moors is as morally irresponsible as felling trees in Brazil. But as is often the case there is more than one side of the argument. Although all of the estate management mentioned above can cause serious damage through the erosion of the thin top soil and the consequent destruction of essential yet fragile plant life, walkers must also take their fair share of the blame. There is a tendency to follow boundary fences and the steady procession of boots can cause irreparable damage in a very short time. Although it is right and proper that the public should have access to what was originally public land, there are limitations. With right comes responsibility. If land has to be closed to allow regeneration, the prerogative of The Manchester Rambler to “walk where I will” must also be suspended.
The third course of action, the wholesale slaughter of wildlife that threatens the success of £8000 a pop shooting parties, has had a mixed press. As far as I am aware no one has considered launching a Royal Society for the Preservation of Rats, so little fuss is made if the odd rodent or two disappears. Birds, however, are different. The hen harrier, Bowland’s honorary mascot appears to be declining in numbers. Despite it being a protected species, some conservationists believe rogue gamekeepers are still trying to get rid of them. The Estate counter argue that uncontrolled access has scared the birds into infertility. If truth be told the debate generally creates more heat than light. But it is probably also true that if the habitat of the harrier and the money spent on shooting were more evenly spread, the Forest of Bowland and possibly the world at large would be a better place.