During lockdown Mark Cropper began to develop a vision.  

For some years, Mark - the chairman of James Cropper Plc in Burneside, near Kendal - had been considering how farming could be done differently on the land his family owns in the area.  

"I read a lot, magazines and books, and when I find something interesting I'll rip it out and file it. I had built up reams and reams of notes and cuttings, thinking about what we could do more positively with the land," he says.  

"During lockdown I sat down and I turned that into an environmental plan." 

The initial outline of his ambitions for the 2,500 acres of land surrounding Kendal has now been enshrined into a 10-year Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme, funded in part by £1.3m of grants from the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs to cover the capital works of the scheme.  

This money is in addition to an area payment intended to cover the income lost due to the introduction of new farming practices, such as ending the use of fertiliser and restricting the number of grazing animals at particular times of year. These payments also help to pay the cost of establishing new habitats.  

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As part of the scheme, sustainable farming practices are being introduced across the area, including moorland restoration, establishing 15 acres of plum, damson and apple orchards and reinstating over 4,000m of new hedgerows. 

Cumbria Wildlife Trust is involved in the project, reseeding 285 acres of the estate with species rich grassland, thereby creating traditional hay meadows which can be grazed by both cattle and sheep. 

Elsewhere, 27,000 trees are being planted to create 1,500 acres of traditional wood pasture - where cattle graze in low densities around parkland trees, helping to fix carbon at the same time as replenishing soils.  

This soil improvement will also help the land absorb more rainwater and reduce flooding risk downstream, addressing the impact of soil compaction often associated with more intensive approaches to farming. 

The Woodland Trust has also donated 20,000 native trees for the project. 

Plans even include growing willow for weaving and flax to produce paper in The Paper Foundation, Mark’s recent charity celebrating the history, culture, creativity and importance of paper.  

Stock management will also move steadily towards a ‘mob grazing’ model, where animals are regularly moved from one area to another allowing the land and soil time to recover and allowing the grass cover to regenerate.  

However, Mark is clear that this is not a rewilding scheme, but one that seeks to balance the needs of the environment, food production and the local community. 

"The whole estate will still have livestock, we are still going to be grazing meadows with sheep,” says Mark.  

“I want to maintain our cultural landscape; it's incredibly beautiful around here. What I didn't want to do was just let the whole place go and rewild it. I want to maintain that kind of patchwork of woodland and fields with a mixture of scrub and single trees, but also actually open meadows as well.” 

Mark says the current debate about the future of the countryside can become polarised between those who want to focus on food production and others who are in favour of rewilding as much as possible. 

“As usual the reality is that the solution is somewhere in the middle,” he says. 

"For me, the most important aspect of the project is that we need to continue farming the land.” 

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Survey work will be carried out to determine what effect the new approach is having on factors such as soil quality and biodiversity. 

The project is the latest for Ellergreen Group, which Mark started in 2008.  

Ellergreen has built over 15 hydropower schemes in the Lake District since then, as well as a recent 250kW ground mounted solar project – supplying energy back into James Cropper. 

Phil Davies, productive landscapes manager for Ellergreen, is overseeing the farming project.  

"It's really about trying to create a landscape that produces more and creates more jobs and more activity rather than shutting things down,” says Phil.  

He says farming at Ellergreen still needs to be viable for the six graziers who currently have stock on the estate. 

The ambition is to benefit the local economy as much as possible, both by engaging contractors to carry out work such as fencing and hedge laying and making tree cages, sourcing seed mixes from farms and then butchering and selling meat in the local area. 

As part of the scheme farmers have agreed to farm without using pesticides, fertilisers or insecticides.  

Phil is realistic that in the short term this is likely to see their income go down and, accordingly, the farm rents have been reduced to a sixth of what they originally were. 

In a world where many landowners are turning land over purely to trees, or where large companies are buying up land to plant trees and trade in carbon credits, Phil says adopting regenerative farming practices can offer a better alternative for sustaining farming communities while also benefiting the environment. 

"If you actually dispossess a farmer and a farming family then beyond the devastating impact on that household, the decision can have a direct impact on the local schools and shops, the butchers and agricultural sector more widely. We're really conscious of that knock on effect and hence why it’s so important for us to retain farmers and local skills.” 

As part of the project, farmer Chris Chinn is grazing 25 Black and Dun Galloway cattle on 100 acres of parkland near Burneside.  

Chris says the ethos of the Ellergreen project fits with the approach to farming he and his family take on High Wallabarrow Farm, which is owned by the National Trust, in the Duddon Valley.  

"We keep Galloway cattle which are a hardy native species, which don't really require supplementary feed if they've got plenty of grass through the winter,” says Chris. 

Chris also farms Herdwicks in the Duddon Valley, as well as offering holiday accommodation. 

The land is in a Higher Level Stewardship agreement of its own, with lower stocking densities in many areas and others where grazing is restricted during the winter months.  

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“The benefits are to biodiversity and the heart of the land,” says Chris. 

"There's a reduction in the need for inputs. We don't use fertiliser on most of the farm. There's more vegetation developing and it helps with carbon sequestration. It slows down the progress of water from the fells into the valleys and down onto the floodplain.” 

Fencing contractor Rob Bell, who runs Robert Bell Fencing, has also been playing a major part in the Ellergreen project. 

Rob, who is based at Plumgarths, near Kendal, has been contracted to install 9,000 tree cages across the estate, as well as 14 kilometres of fencing.  

While the tree cages will protect the newly planted saplings, the fencing will protect sensitive areas from animals, as well as laying the foundations for new hedgerow installation. 

“This is a huge contract for me,” says Rob, who runs the business alongside wife Clare and two other employees. 

“I’m based at Plumgarths so my house borders the edge of the estate.  

“So my claim to fame has been that I’ve had the shortest commute in the world. I walked out of my garden and straight onto a machine to start knocking a post in.”