The campaign to save the wonders of Windermere
- Credit: Alamy
A project aimed at undoing the damage done to Lakeland’s quatic heart is bringing together a community. Mike Glover reports
It is tempting to think that Windermere is quite able to look after itself. After all, it has remained pretty much unchanged for at least 17,000 years.
At 11 miles in length and up to a mile wide, this iconic remnant of the last ice age gives its name to the onset of a warm period, known by scientists as the ‘Windermere Interstadial’.
But its waters are not as settled as they appear. Under the rippling surface lurk threats to its continued well-being and its role as a major tourist attraction.
These threats come in many shapes and sizes, but most of them boil down to one factor: human activity. And it’s those same humans who need to start putting it right.
The phosphates used to wash a mountain of clothes and dishes each year, alien plant species, fertilisers used in gardens and on surrounding fells are more than enough to disturb the equilibrium of the 17 billion litres of water in Windermere and its catchment area.
That is why two years ago the Environment Agency was instrumental in setting up an initiative called Windermere Reflections with the help of £1.5 of Heritage Lottery Funding.
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That sounds a lot of money but when compared to the size of the challenge it is not, especially as the project also includes Grasmere, Rydal, Elterwater, Esthwaite, and the rivers as far as the head of Langdale.
From an office tucked into the University of Cumbria’s Ambleside campus, two full-time and one part-time members of staff have to change the thinking of visitors and residents. And they only have a year left to achieve their aims before time and money runs out.
Leader Liz Davey oversees a programme with 19 projects all designed to involve locals and visitors in doing their bit to change the things that are damaging to the lake.
The most noticeable threat comes from phosphates, which create algal blooms reducing light an oxygen essential to aquatic life. Some species, like blue-green algae, are harmful to both wildlife and humans causing the cancellation of the Great North Swim in 2011. This was probably a help to the Reflections team as it served as a wake-up call.
Alien, or non-native invasive plant species, like Himalayan Balsam, Japanese Knotweed and Skunk Cabbage, out-compete valuable native species and leave bare soil in the winter. This becomes vulnerable to rain and washes into the waters.
So how do Liz and her tiny team go about combating these and other threats? From the start she has needed partners, such as the Environment Agency, the National Trust, the Lake District National Park Authority and university funding and resource support.
Then there are South Cumbria Rivers Trust, Nurture Lakeland, Friends of the Lake District and Windermere Rotary helping to deliver projects.
Other key partners are farmers, gardeners and businesses. The project even hosted Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time in Ambleside as part of the campaign to persuade local gardeners to use fertilisers free of phosphates and other chemicals.
Local businesses have joined the crusade, too. Five green tourism business scheme Gold award holders quickly pledged support by using phosphate-free detergents. These were Langdale Hotel and Spa; Cedar Manor, Low Wood, Cote How and Elder Grove.
Liz, who has a background in environmental sciences, is full of praise for the way the local communities have engaged with keeping the environment special for future generations.
‘There is no quick solution. It is going to take 20 or 30 years to reduce the phosphate levels to a healthy, sustainable level,’ she said.
‘So the key is going to be our legacy - changing behaviour to restore the quality of water. If we get enough people involved we can preserve, restore and protect important natural habitats and celebrate the cultural heritage of the landscape.’
More details on: www.windermere-reflections.org.uk