It is not often that I feel moved to comment on the stewardship and maintenance of the places I visit, but as I have spent over 15 years walking in Northumberland, I can’t resist making some comments about areas of Northumberland National Park. As I am the guest in the countryside, I have always tried to live and let live. However I am sometimes confronted by hillsides scarred by heather burning and gouged by erosion, which leave me wondering about their long term effects on the delicate peatland terrain and beauty of the Northumbrian uplands.
Large parts of the Cheviot Hills have been completely given over to the lucrative sport of shooting game birds. The management of these enormous estates is a year round job involving feeding and protecting the birds, creating an environment in which they will breed, “managing” predators such as the Hen Harrier, and burning heather to create new growth for the grouse to eat. The extent of this burning practice seems to be increasing and this is damaging the ecosystem of the hills, possibly causing flooding in the valleys, and creating an unsightly landscape which deters many of the outdoors community from coming to the Cheviots. As a walker I have to beware of both the shooting season and the live firing in the military training range when I plan my walks.
After reading about the post war movement which lead to the creation of national parks and the opening up of private land for working people to use, I can’t help feeling that Northumberland was left out of this movement, and is still more of a playground for the few. With no burning and no grazing, these hills would slowly be overgrown by shrubs like gorse and fast growing trees such as birch, and the heather moors would be gone forever. Looking at the present landscape, I find it hard to even imagine what that alternative landscape might look like.
In other national parks, much time and money is devoted to path and landscape maintenance by organisations such as Fix the Fells in the Lake District National Park, and Moors for the Future in the Peak District. This is done precisely because the parks know that the revenue created by these popular areas is an enormous asset to the region as a whole. As one of the less populated parks, Northumberland seem much more focussed on supporting local businesses than with investing in the landscape which makes it feel more like a business park. I realise this may be a controversial viewpoint.
Some of the more popular trails around The Cheviot and Simonside are like walking along huge sunken scars. I have tried to point my camera away from some of this, but now I almost wish I hadn’t, because I think some paths are in a terrible state and need rescuing. If the decision not to invest more in protecting the landscape is a purely economic one, then perhaps the benefits of attracting walkers, runners and cyclists needs to be properly costed out in this potentially beautiful area.