National Character Area 17

Orton Fells - Landscape Change

The full NCA Profile landscape change page, is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Monitoring Landscape Change

Drivers for change
The Orton Fells area, a limestone plateau, and its pastoral landscape with species-rich hay meadows and pasture are subject to pressure from intensive management due to increased demand for national food security. Frequent storm events may result in the deterioration of water quality and increased riverbank erosion of upland streams. Additionally, a lack of woodland management could lead to the decline of upland ash woodland that supports outstanding butterfly populations.

Monitoring landscape change
This section is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Additional information on landscape change

Landscape change reported in 2014

Recent changes and trends (reported in 2014)


  • The 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak affected this area considerably although sheep numbers have now recovered. In 2000 there were 149,300 sheep, and in 2009 this had increased to 171,700. Cattle numbers also increased, from 14,400 in 2000 to 22,200 in 2009. The predominant agricultural activity remains livestock rearing (67 per cent of holdings), with some dairy holdings (16 per cent).
  • In 2009 farms over 100 ha accounted for 79 per cent of the farmed area, up from 69 per cent in 2000.
  • The most extensive Countryside Stewardship agreements in 2003 were for enhancing heather moorland and upland in-bye pasture.
  • Changes in agricultural practices since the 1950s, notably from hay-making to silage and haylage, along with increases in fertiliser applications and re-seeding, have resulted in a decline in species-rich hay meadows, while changes in grazing have affected the species diversity of the calcareous grasslands.

Boundary features

  • The length of boundaries is estimated to be 1,248 km. The introduction of the Environmental Stewardship Scheme in 2005 brought over 688 km of drystone walls and stone faced hedgebanks, 108 km of hedgerows and 9 km of ditches under management by 2010.
  • In recent years temporary fencing has been erected, for instance on Crosby Ravensworth Common and Gaythorne Plain, to assist with recovery of limestone pavement flora and the establishment of new woodland.
  • There has been some loss of boundary features in recent years owing to both removal and lack of management. This has affected both walls, for example, around Orton, and hedges in the fringing farmland, for example, around Sleagill and Reagill.

Coast and rivers

  • Overall the ecological quality of the watercourses in 1995 was predominantly very good and has remained good, although the quality of the River Lowther is only moderate. The chemical water quality of the rivers was also predominantly very good, and has been maintained, but the groundwater under the Lune catchment is now poor, probably due to diffuse pollution. This northern part of the NCA is a target area for action under the Catchment Sensitive Farming Delivery Initiative.
  • The quality of Sunbiggin Tarn, a marl lake, is declining due to an increase in sediment and silt, and the reasons behind this are being researched. This may include the presence of a large black-headed gull colony until a few years ago.

Historic features

  • In 1918 it was estimated that some 5 per cent of the area was historic parkland, but by 1995 it was estimated that nearly two thirds of this had been lost. About half of the remaining parkland is now benefiting from management under agri-environment schemes. Only a very small proportion of farm buildings (6 per cent) have been converted to non-agricultural uses, although there is an above average percentage (13 per cent) showing signs of structural disrepair (Photo Image Project, English Heritage, 2006).


  • In recent decades there has been extensive limestone quarrying and stone extraction from limestone pavements, largely for rockery use. Since the 1980s, limestone pavements have been protected by Limestone Pavement Orders which prevent further damage to these unique geological features. There are two large active quarries at Shap – Shap Beck Quarry produces limestone, while Shap Fell produces Shap ‘Blue’ granite, used for hardcore and aggregate for road making, and the more famous Shap ‘pink’ granite, a decorative stone widely used for building frontages. Nearby the Hardendale Quarry extracts limestone.

Semi-natural habitats

  • The main semi-natural habitats occur along the elevated land, and comprise upland heath, calcareous grassland and limestone pavement; these areas have remained relatively consistent, although their condition has improved. Sites of Special Scientific Interest cover 13 percent of the area, of which 91.5 percent are now in favourable or favourable recovering condition. This recent improvement is largely due to the introduction of more sustainable grazing regimes through agri-environment schemes.

Settlement and development

  • There is little development pressure, with housing contained within villages or farmsteads. Recent industrial and commercial development has been limited to the transport corridor along the west, with electrification of the main railway line, pylons, and the M6.

Trees and woodlands

  • Woodland cover, at 4 per cent of the area, is limited to steep sides of valleys, sheltering clumps around farmsteads and in villages, and small coniferous and mixed plantations especially in the north-west. Countryside Quality Counts for the period 1999-2003 indicated that there was a significant uptake of woodland grants for restocking and management of establish woodland, although by the end of the period only around a third were covered by woodland grant schemes.
  • New woodlands of native broadleaved species have been established at Gaythorne, and community woodland at Hackthorpe and Orton.

Drivers of Change (reported in 2014)

Climate Change

  • Evidence from UK Climate Impacts Programme shows that over the coming century the climate of the Lake District and surrounds is expected on average, to become warmer and wetter in winter and hotter and drier in summer. Under the medium emissions scenario, by 2080 mean winter temperatures will increase by 2.6 degrees, mean summer temperatures will increase by 3.7 degrees, winter precipitation will increase by 16 per cent, summer precipitation will decrease by 22 per cent and there will be an increase in frequency and intensity of extreme events (floods/droughts).
  • The Orton Fells have been assessed as having a moderate vulnerability to climate change (An Assessment of the Vulnerability of the Natural Environment to Climate Change in North West England Using the National Character Areas, Natural England, 2010). The area’s limestone uplands are likely to have a low vulnerability, whereas the farmlands to the north-east of the limestone plateau have medium to low vulnerability. There is reasonable topographical variation throughout the NCA which gives it some resilience to climate change.
  • The limestone uplands are already relatively well adapted to dry environments due to their existing karst conditions and the plant communities which include drought resistant plant species. Thus any reduction in precipitation is likely to have less impact, although some south-facing slopes may well experience extreme drought conditions.
  • In the lower-lying farmland, changes to seasonal rain patterns are likely to lead to grass growth earlier in the year, but summer drought on the shallower soils may restrict biomass production. Plant communities within the upland hay meadows may change slowly to resemble plant communities of lowland hay meadows.
  • Semi-natural habitats will need to be buffered, extended and linked to make them more resilient to climate change impacts, while links and connecting habitats will be needed to enable species movement through the landscape in response to climate change.
  • There may be more extreme and more frequent storm events which would exacerbate scour and erosion of the upland stream courses, and lead to an increase in sediment load in the watercourses, thus reducing water quality.

Other key drivers

  • There is likely to be an increasing demand for national food security, which could result in more intensive management of grasslands leading to a loss of species-rich meadows and pastures, and of archaeological earthworks.
  • There is a perceived process of consolidating small dairy farms into fewer large farms which may continue.
  • Farming may become less attractive to future generations due to increasing capital costs of land and infrastructure, and the unpredictable nature of climate change impacts.
  • Continued lack of maintenance of drystone walls could lead to deterioration and possible loss.
  • Lack of management of woodlands, especially upland ash woodlands, could lead to their decline, which may be exacerbated by ash die-back disease.
  • Existing farms may continue to move into diverse activities, including providing for tourism.
  • The review of the EU funded Rural Development Programme for England to take effect from 2014 may offer new opportunities for funding environmentally sensitive farming practices
  • Measures taken to meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive will include the introduction of mains sewerage to the more remote villages and farmsteads.
  • Groups like the Eden Rivers Trust are likely to continue carrying out measures to improve water quality to meet Water Framework Directive requirements, such as fencing livestock away from watercourses and carrying out tree planting.
  • Development pressure is likely to remain low, but with continuing demand for affordable housing to meet the needs of local communities, and conversions of farm buildings to housing, some for second home use and some as holiday cottages.
  • The need to meet growing energy demands by using renewable sources will result in continuing pressure for wind turbines in and around the area, although there is less potential for providing hydro-power or biomass.
  • There is likely to be continuing demand for limestone and Shap granite, with pressure for extending depth of working and the working life at existing quarries.
  • There have been recent increases in the numbers of people visiting the area for outdoor recreation, notably walking, cycling and horse riding, and visitor numbers are likely to increase with a raised awareness of the history, geology and wildlife interest of the area.