Cumbria’s Herdwick Sheep helping Lapwing, Curlew and Skylark

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Herdwick Sheep With No Fence Collar (ImageCredit: Ian Ryding)

A new and innovative conservation grazing method, using sheep fitted with ‘Nofence’ collars, is being trialled at RSPB Geltsdale in Cumbria. 

Just in time for the ground nesting birds breeding season, it is hoped that three of Britain’s native species will benefit from this new technology and that a flock of Herdwick Sheep will help to create the ideal nesting habitats for some of the UK’s most threatened and much-loved farmland birds at RSPB Geltsdale.  Lapwing, Curlew and Skylark are on the UK red list, which means they are at the highest level of conservation concern. 

These birds like a good view of what’s around them so that they can look out for predators such as foxes and crows and need to nest in open ground.  A key problem in large areas of the uplands is that rush pastures, unless regularly grazed, can grow dense and deter these species from nesting.

A flock of 22 Herdwick sheep have been grazing a 26-acre ‘Nofence’ enclosure since February, to help ensure the areas where the birds prefer to nest are now in perfect condition for them.  Since the sheep have now left the area, already Curlew, Lapwing and Skylark have been sighted nesting and the first Lapwing chicks are expected to hatch within the next couple of weeks.

‘Nofence’ is the world’s first virtual fence designed for controlling where animals graze and the system consists of an app and a collar where the two communicate with each other over the mobile network.  It means that animals can be kept within a designated area, using this virtual fencing technology. An electric non harmful pulse is triggered initially but the sheep soon learn to follow the audio warning preceding this.

RSPB Geltsdale is a large nature reserve in the North Pennines comprising two upland farms, Geltsdale and Tarnhouse, both over 2000 hectares in size and is an important site for demonstrating how upland habitat management can help reverse the declines of threatened wildlife to create a thriving and diverse upland ecosystem. 

The sheep have learned to listen to the audio sounds delivered by their collars which divert them to areas to graze and they will happily nibble any new rush growth and cover the area with dung, which in turn attracts the invertebrates, such as beetles, flies, and earthworms which the birds like to eat.

Curlews, Lapwing and Skylark are all rapidly declining in the UK, since 1995 Curlew and Lapwing have both declined by nearly 50% and Skylark by 14% due to a range of factors including habitat loss and climate change.

RSPB Geltsdale is now mid-trial and early signs are that this new sheep grazing method will deliver results. 

Ian Ryding, Warden, RSPB Geltsdale, said: “Curlews, Lapwing, Skylark, and other ground nesting birds urgently need our help. Already these birds are nesting, sitting on their eggs, so this is encouraging to see, and the first Lapwing chicks are expected in the next couple of weeks.”

Tenant Farmer Ian Bell With Herdwick Sheep Wearing No Fence Collars (Photo By Ian Ryding)

Ian Bell, who owns the sheep, has been tenant Farmer at Tarnhouse Farm, at RSPB Geltsdale since 2016.  He and his partner manage a total of 7,000 acres across the two farms, focusing on producing sustainable food in balance with nature, whilst running a viable business alongside protecting and enhancing the land for nature recovery, habitat creation and biodiversity.

Ian said: “I must admit I was sceptical at first as to how our sheep would respond. But this new ‘Nofence’ technology is a game-changer. We want to manage the land to create a mosaic of habitats rich with wildlife and show how nature friendly farming can enrich the landscape.

“Herdwicks are notorious escape artists and certain individuals have a complete disregard for field boundaries, however, we have managed to train the sheep to go exactly where we want them to.  The technology appears to be better than a stonewall!”

The ‘Nofence’ collars have been purchased via the North Pennines National Landscape’s Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

RSPB Geltsdale’s expert conservation team works with farmers, like Ian Bell, and land managers to benefit wildlife on their land and create opportunities for wildlife to flourish in the wider landscape.  Ian Bell was also a winner of the inaugural *Farmland Curlew Award in 2023 for his efforts to help protect this endangered species.  Through the Curlew LIFE project, launched in October 2020, The RSPB is also working with land managers and farmers across the UK, to help improve habitat and raise awareness of conservation issues facing this rare bird. 

If successful it is hoped this sheep grazing concept could also be used on limestone grassland which needs grazing at different times of year, to encourage wildflowers to flourish.

Eurasian curlew Numenius arquata, lone adult, RSPB Geltsdale Nature Reserve, Cumbria, April (Curlew By Andy Hay)

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Ullswater Catchment Restoration partnership shortlisted as finalist for 2024 UK River Prize 

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Goldrill Beck Ullswater Credit: National Trust Images / Land and Sky 

The River Restoration Centre (RRC) awards the UK River Prize to celebrate the achievements of those individuals and organisations working to restore our rivers and catchments, recognising the benefits of having a healthy natural environment.  

One of four finalist, the Ullswater Catchment Restoration Partnership, is led by the National Trust and Ullswater Catchment Management Community Interest Company and supported by partners such as the Cumbria River Restoration Strategy.  

Working to restore habitats around Ullswater since Storm Desmond in 2015, the partnership has delivered 282 individual projects, resulting in 843ha of habitat restoration. Projects include over 13km of river restoration, 46ha of pond creation, over 16km of hedgerow creation and significant areas of wood pasture, peat and wetland restoration. The work aims to restore habitats for people and nature, wrapping the communities of Ullswater in a resilient landscape.  

Rebecca Powell, National Trust Project Manager, says: ‘It’s fantastic to be recognised for the work we have been doing together in Ullswater. The key to our success so far has been working together with the local community, farmers and other partners. We really believe in regenerative agriculture and we aim to put farmers at the heart of our projects. Ullswater is an example of how you can have natural rivers, thriving wildlife habitats and farming existing happily together for the benefit of everyone involved.’ 

Danny and Maddy Teasdale, Ullswater Catchment Management CIC, say: ‘We are delighted to have reached the finals of the river prize and are very proud of our working relationship with the National Trust, which we feel shows what is possible when we strike the right balance of farming, river restoration and nature recovery.’ 

The 2024 UK River Prize winners will be announced at the Awards Dinner at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, North Wales on Wednesday 24 April 2024.  

Tree planting in Ullswater in the Lake District as part of the Green Recovery Project. NT funded project, not NT land. (Credit: Danny Teasdale_Ullswater CIC_C.National Trust Images Annapurna Mellor)
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British Army Troops rally to help restore Cumbrian peat bog

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Submitted Kay Hyde, RSPB England Communications Officer 

Haweswater. Image credit: Patrick Neaves

A team of sixty soldiers from the British Army had joined up with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to reinvigorate the peat bog ecosystem at Haweswater, as part of an extensive landscape restoration effort. 

This collaborative project happened on Thursday 19 October, marks the second year of the British Army’s ‘Global Charge’ green initiative, demonstrating their commitment to supporting local environmental projects. In an area of peat bog in the Riggindale Valley, the soldiers will be using their strength, and crucially, their engineering expertise, to strategically move several huge boulders and 1,000 natural bags of earth, so that water will be captured and held in place to re-wet this landscape for a thriving habitat to develop.

Haweswater, nestled in the Eastern Lake District, was selected as the site of this partnership due to its long-term conservation work.  It is the base for ground-breaking landscape recovery work, which is the result of the pioneering partnership between landowner United Utilities and the RSPB, working together since 2011, to enhance this beautiful landscape for the future, to benefit wildlife, water and people. 

Major Sean Mackey, of the Light Dragoons, who instigated the army’s involvement in the project said:
“As a local resident, I was aware of the vital work taking place at Haweswater to improve the habitats there. When the British Army’s annual green initiative was coming round again this year, I saw a golden opportunity to contribute. The team at Haweswater readily embraced our offer of assistance, knowing that with 60 soldiers, we can make a significant impact on the peat bog restoration.”

The Army will be working at Sale Pot which means “Willow Pool”, situated in the Riggindale Valley adjacent to Haweswater Reservoir. Its meaning gives a nod to how it used to be and previously the RSPB conducted vegetation surveys that revealed this now dry area was once a flourishing wetland habitat, as evidenced by the remnants of bog plants that still exist.

Extensive peat bog drainage has historically occurred in upland areas, primarily for agricultural purposes. However, this practice has inadvertently impacted water quality, increased downstream flooding, and disrupted the bog’s capacity to support diverse plant and animal life.

Richard Smith, one of the RSPB Wardens, who will be involved in leading the day said:

We’ve previously investigated re-wetting this peat bog, but it would have involved helicoptering in machinery and the cost of that was prohibitively expensive. We’re a small team of three Wardens here at Haweswater, so it isn’t a task we could have done alone.

“But with 60 soldiers to lend both engineering expertise, and their collective strength – moving rocks and earth to block old ditches and hold the water in the bog again, it will hopefully only take a day to complete this mammoth task. We’re extremely thankful to the Environment Agency who funded the natural bags we’re using to hold the earth in place, and of course, to the Light Dragoons for thinking of us and we hope to work with them again in future years.”

John Gorst, Catchment Partnership Officer for United Utilities said,
We’re delighted to have the army’s help on this project. It’s a continuation of previous peat bog work we’ve carried out at Haweswater to improve drinking water, slow the flow during high rainfall, and increase the wildlife and biodiversity that relies on this internationally important habitat. Wet peat bogs also absorb large amounts of carbon, so make a huge contribution to the fight against climate change.”

To discover more about the work of the RSPB and United Utilities at Haweswater, visit

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