How the Forest of Bowland is aiming to attract more visitors and sustain its future

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 August 2018

View from the public footpath on Bell Syke's Farm

View from the public footpath on Bell Syke's Farm

Irene Amiet

From cyclists to star-gazers, Bowland is attracting more visitors. It’s Hetty Byrne’s job to ensure they have fun without harming the environment

Hetty Byrne with her springer spaniel Tucker near her office in Dunsop BridgeHetty Byrne with her springer spaniel Tucker near her office in Dunsop Bridge

As one of 14 brothers and sisters, playtime for Hetty Byrne and her family required some wide open spaces. And for a youngster in Clitheroe, there was nowhere bigger or better on her doorstep than the Forest of Bowland.

‘We were all very keen on the countryside so we spent a lot of time there. We didn’t have a car so we had to walk but I’ve many happy memories of picnics in the Trough of Bowland. Holidays involved hiring a mini-bus!’ she says.

For Hetty, now 43, what was once her playground is now her place of work. Twelve years ago, some time after she had completed a geography degree in Newcastle, Hetty became sustainable tourism officer for this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

The landscape she’s grown up with is part of her heritage and she’s pleased to be helping to safeguard it for future generations. ‘This is my dream job,’ she says. But she also wants more people to experience its delights.

Gate on the public footpath through the Coronation MeadowGate on the public footpath through the Coronation Meadow

Her role is to advise, encourage and support tourism businesses to develop in a way that is sustainable and maintains the delicate balances in the local environment. The hope is that at least some people will be attracted to Bowland not just because it’s a beautiful wild part of Britain with some great places to eat, but also because they agree with the ethos of responsible tourism.

Bowland can claim to be at the heart of the United Kingdom – locals say if you draw two lines on a map, east to west and north to south, they would cross at Dunsop Bridge, the community close to Hetty’s office. Yet it remains one of Britain’s hidden treasures despite containing some of Europe’s most beautiful countryside.

Bowland may still be Lancashire’s secret kingdom, but word is slowly getting out – not fast enough for some, perhaps, but it is happening. It was helped, no doubt, by being shortlisted for the BBC’s Countryfile ‘best holiday destination’ award.

Hetty’s role is to help achieve a five-year management plan ‘to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural beauty of the Forest of Bowland landscape’.

Meadow Cranesbill on Coronation MeadowMeadow Cranesbill on Coronation Meadow

Rather than roaming the fells, that will often mean sitting in meetings with farmers and business owners to help them develop their facilities for tourists in a way that has a neutral or even positive impact on the environment.

She gets people to explore ways of achieving their aims in a sustainable way. They could be farmers looking to diversify by providing accommodation or landowners wanting to develop a visitor attraction.

‘It’s very rewarding to see how local farmers and business owners don’t need converting to greener methods; they are very much on board with sustainable landscape management,’ says Hetty, whose family are the famous Byrne & Co wine merchants in Clitheroe.

She is proud that Bowland has farmed ‘green’ for generations and that farmers were quick to chose renewable energy wherever it became available.

She stresses that safeguarding an area doesn’t mean to leave it alone, but making sure it provides for all. And when conservation makes sense economically, there are only winners.

Sunset over a Bowland MeadowSunset over a Bowland Meadow

For some decades Bowland farmers have diversified into the hospitality sector, offering accommodation to visitors. The AONB advises planning councils to ensure new developments fit the landscape and aesthetics of the area.

Bowland is becoming a prime destination for hikers and cyclists. ‘It’s getting the balance right,’ says Hetty, who is married with a young daughter. ‘Our roads wouldn’t tolerate many more cars but the visitors to Bowland want to explore off the beaten path. People seek it out because they want a holiday in an area that is quiet and low key.

‘We want to attract people who really care about the environment and that’s why it’s important to have a management plan.’

The AONB is involved in various specific projects that help sustain the biodiversity visitors and locals treasure. One of these projects is called Hay Time, a wildflower meadow restoration scheme.

Some of the wilflowers in BowlandSome of the wilflowers in Bowland

Traditional farming saw Bowland meadows cut once a year to make silage. This used to happen towards the end of summer, after flowers dropped their seeds, ensuring the continued life cycle of plants.

In the last decades, the use of fertiliser has allowed for two cuts, the first of which is late spring, preventing seeding. Hay Time supports Coronation Meadows, part of a scheme championed by the Prince of Wales. According to studies, 97% of meadows have been lost since the Coronation in 1953 due to the change in cutting practices.

The scheme sees a rebirth of species-rich wildflower meadows to aid biodiversity restoration. Flagship meadows are identified in each county and ‘crowned’. Other meadows across the county will receive seeds from them and flowers, such as the meadow cranesbill or spotted orchids that have been diminished, can become part of the landscape once more.

Lancashire’s Coronation Meadow is in the Forest of Bowland, on Bell Sykes Farm, near Slaidburn. The meadow is accessible by a footpath and a loop hike of roughly two miles. The blooming wildflower fields are alive with a buzz of bees and butterflies on a summer’s day, true jewels in nature’s crown.

Another project that helps keep Bowland soil sustainable is its peat restoration. United utilities are one of the local parties helping with this undertaking. Water filtration systems work harder if there is too much run-off. Peat bogs are natural carbon sinks, more powerful than forests, but mixed with natural soil they make for an efficient natural water retention system and prevent flooding as the bogs build a natural sponge. The re-introduced peat is anchored by plug plants like cotton grass. On the ecological side, peat provides an important habitat for birds and wildlife.

Forest of Bowland has also received “dark-sky status” – accreditation for areas without light pollution where the stars are best visible. It’s an extra draw for visitors, star gazers, astral photographers or campers who love a good view of the Milky Way.

The AONB sites are at Beacon Fell Country Park, Gisburn Forest Hub, Slaidburn Village Car Park, Crook o’ Lune Picnic Site and there’s another at Newton-in-Bowland.

Hetty, who still finds time for favourite walks along the Hodder and on Longridge Fell, adds: ‘There is a very strong connection between people and what is their Bowland, a real affinity.

‘Bowland is an inspiring landscape, evoking a unique sense of space. We want to pass it on to future generations. That is my vision.’

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