I don’t often feel moved to comment on the stewardship of the places I visit, but as I have spent over 15 years walking in this area, I feel entitled to make some comments about Northumberland National Park.
As I still regard myself as a guest in the countryside, I have always tried to be respectful and leave no trace. However I am sometimes confronted by enormous traces left by other parties which leave me feeling that my efforts are a bit one sided. Walkers in Northumberland presently need to work around the management of vast Forestry Commission plantations, a huge man made reservoir which occupies an entire valley, privately owned hunting, shooting and fishing estates, and live firing on the military ranges at Otterburn which occupy 23% of the National Park. Some of these activities leave me wondering about their long term effects on the delicate terrain of the Northumbrian and border uplands.
Large parts of the Cheviot Hills have been completely given over to the sport of grouse shooting. The management of these enormous private estates involves feeding and protecting the grouse, creating an environment in which they will breed, eliminating predators such as the Hen Harrier, and muirburn (burning heather) to create new growth for the young grouse to feed on. These practices are damaging the whole ecosystem of the upland areas in many areas, leading to flooding in the valleys, the extinction of certain species and the creation of an unsightly landscape which deters the outdoor community from coming to the Cheviot Hills.
After reading about the movement which lead to the creation of national parks and the opening up of private land for working people to use after the war, I can’t help feeling that Northumberland was somehow left out of this movement. With no burning and grazing, these hills would slowly be overgrown by shrubs like gorse and fast growing trees such as birch. 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 National Parks are aware 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 sometimes seems to be more focussed on supporting local businesses than with investing in the landscape.
Some of the more popular trails around The Cheviot and Simonside, without proper maintenance, have become huge sunken scars. I have tried to point my camera away from some of this, but now I wish I hadn’t, because some footpaths are in a bad state and need urgent maintenance work. 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 attractive area.
I realise that circumstances have meant that it has taken me a while to get round to wild camping my first trail. As I have explained in my camping section, it has been a gradual journey from bed and breakfasts on Hadrian’s Wall to tea in a tent on the Berwickshire Coastal Path.
I don’t often hear this dramatic trail come up in conversation on social media or blogs, perhaps because people who backpack in Scotland are understandably drawn to the magnetic Munros, the famous national parks or the beautiful highlands and islands, ignoring the beauty of parts of the east coast.
When I moved to the borders, I was struck by the beauty of the east coast between Bamburgh in Northumberland and St Abb’s Head in Berwickshire, so I am often tempted to return there to walk.
On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I was gazing out of the window, as the train runs so close to the coast between Berwick and Burnmouth that it almost knocks walkers into the sea. I noticed a couple of backpackers across the field walking along the coast path, who stopped and waved at us on the train. I got an overwhelming urge to be there waving, instead of on the train on my business errand, and so a week later I was.
Berwickshire has some of the longest and most dramatic cliffs on the British coast, which make walking this path a challenging and attractive experience which is ideal for wild camping. I’m sure I made some rookie wild camping errors, but I really enjoyed the challenge. I hope you will take a look at my trip report – Berwickshire Coastal Path
This subject has never been far from my thoughts since I started this blog, but I would preface this post by saying that I am not an expert in this area. I saw my first fox up close when out walking on the South Downs at university, and later became aware of foxes scavenging from the neighbourhood bins in south London. Like many city dwellers, at the time I was thrilled to realise that I could be living in such close proximity to wild animals.
When I moved to the borders however, it was hard to ignore the fact that there were several active local hunts, who in those days took huge packs of noisy dogs out with them, or that the hills were chequered with burnt heather patches (muirburn) to encourage the grouse population.
Although the fishing troubles me less, as a walker I soon realised that it would be valuable to know when, where and how to avoid the hunting and the shooting. I lived amongst hunters, guns, anglers, ghillies, guides, beaters, gamekeepers, hotel staff, holiday cottage rental owners, equipment suppliers and the invisible landowners who make serious amounts of money from these pursuits, for several years. Although I am not and have never been pro hunting or shooting, one point I would now make through gritted teeth to my old city self about the H words (which I still hesitate to use), is that they still provide much needed employment in some areas.
Many rural communities in this area suffer from high unemployment, rural poverty and lacklustre tourism compared to areas like the Lake District. Like it or not, hunting, shooting and fishing are therefore still a mainstay of the north Northumbrian and Scottish Borders economy, which currently provide sustainable jobs and attract tourists who need to be housed, fed, kitted out and entertained.
Without these jobs and income streams, more young people would be forced to leave this part of the countryside in search of work, and the subsidiary businesses which are presently sustained by the hunting, shooting and fishing tourists would fail or close. All this could have the effect of making it an unsustainable community which is why I have so far been hesitant to be too confrontational about it. The point I am making is simply that if people want to abolish any of these pursuits, this needs to be done in conjunction with the development of sustainable alternative employment for the people and businesses involved. Sorry to inject a bit of realism into what I realise is an emotive debate.
Although I would never hunt or shoot personally, I gradually realised that my existence in the borders was dependent on a successful local economy. I do eat meat now, and I began to value the fact that I was surrounded by a ready supply of fresh, traceable fish and meat from farmers, although their livelihood was seriously compromised by the foot and mouth epidemic. It was all a far cry from the the meat section of the London supermarkets. So with my city morals and the last vestiges of my vegetarianism increasingly under strain, I eventually even partook of the spoils on occasions, which probably makes me every sort of hypocrite in the eyes of some readers.
All that said, I have gradually become aware during my walking of the damage which is done to the countryside in the name of grouse shooting in particular. My personal objections are concerned with the effects on the ecosystem of native plants, wildlife and birds. There are many ghost villages, industrial remains and abandoned buildings in Northumberland and the Borders to remind us that communities have come and gone since the Iron Age, so I would be sad to see this area emptied out and unable to regenerate without relying on the hunting, shooting and fishing economy.
In my humble opinion, the area needs sustainable jobs, and to attract different kinds of tourists such as walkers, cyclists, climbers, riders and nature lovers who will represent a different spectrum of opinion in environmental and outdoor debates. So, if you haven’t already sampled the borders countryside please do so, as I hope this site has shown that it doesn’t all look like the photo above.
Note: The lack of appropriate pictures in this post is due to the fact that I normally avoid areas where hunting or shooting are taking place. I have only once got close to a hunt complete with a pack of dogs, and once to a small shoot, and I got clear of both as quickly as possible, without lingering to take photos.
A year ago today I was feeling restless with my lot and decided to acknowledge my outdoor interests by creating this blog dedicated to my mum. Thanks to all the people who have followed and given feedback during that time.
Thanks for visiting and following my blog which has been going for almost a year.
My thoughts have been turning to winter, and this has made me focus on clothing and kit for the cold weather. Looking at my video last year on this subject, the quality was pretty terrible. I am happy to say that the “technical department” has had a much needed upgrade, so this year’s video offerings don’t sound so creaky.
In other news, I have got a domain name so the blog is now at rucksackrosie.com (formerly rucksackrose). It has taken me a while to develop the blog from humble beginnings but I enjoy filling it with trail write ups, reviews, information and news, as well as reading the feedback and comments by other readers and bloggers