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Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 10:49 UK
Cumbrian farmers are making science history

Algal bloom at edge of Windermere
Algal bloom at edge of Windermere

In the village hall at Loweswater, with its stunning views across the fells, a strange mixture of people is meeting.

There are scientists with the highest qualifications, and farmers who probably left school at the first opportunity.

There are some of the wealthy offcomers who have retired into the area, and there are government officials.

The subject is phosphate pollution - Loweswater has some of the worst algae blooms in the Lake District - and normally branches of government like the Environment Agency are very much in the lead.

Loweswater
View of Loweswater

But here, the officials are on equal terms with scientists and locals. It's a set-up so unusual that it's also the subject of a sociological study, and of national attention because of the way it's enabling local people to have more of a say.

Working together

The Loweswater care project was started after the Environment Agency warned two local farmers that their farms were polluting becks because of poor slurry management.

It was at the height of foot and mouth, and the farmers realised that the right project could attract funding that would help pay for new septic tanks. Over the next few years the projects expanded to include other residents in the valley, and the search for reasons why Loweswater was so polluted expanded.

Ken Bell
Ken Bell farms around Loweswater

To get grants to fund the projects the farmers needed scientific evidence - so they asked scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology for help. Ken Bell, whose farm enjoys one of the most stunning views in the Lake District, says: "That's when we all started to work together, as opposed to farmers on the own, locals on their own, scientists on their own, agencies on their own."

National reputations

The locals have had help from researchers with national reputations - they've also done a lot of the research legwork. Leslie Webb, a chemist who only moved to the valley three years ago, found himself asking his new neighbours how well they looked after their septic tanks - he says he had some interesting conversations.

A photomicrograph of a filamentous blue-green alga
A photomicrograph of a filamentous blue-green alga

He also disproved one major theory about the pollution. It was being blamed on laundry detergents and dishwasher tablets, both of which can contain high levels of phosphates. "The people in Loweswater don't use laundry detergents with phosphates - and the use of dishwashers is low compared to the national average."

And once a number of fault septic tanks had been dealt with, another theory - that lots of phosphates were being washed off the land because of farming practices - was also undermined. Farmers who had felt they were being unfairly blamed for the algal blooms in Loweswater, found science was on their side.

No quick fix

Paleolimnology is the study of the past in lakes. A study for the Loweswater project suggests the big rise in phosphates going into the lake may date back to the agricultural intensifications of the 1950s. It's possible the problems date back to then as well - and because the water in the lake changes relatively slowly, the same phosphorus is simply circulating.

Cath Leck
Cath Leck

The Loweswater project has found new knowledge, and established new ways scientists, local people and officials can work together. The moving spirit at the start was a farmer called Danny Leck, who sadly died last year.

His widow Cath says: "When Danny was very ill he knew he wouldn't see the outcome of all this. But he was hoping it would continue. He would've loved to see what's going on now.

"It's not going to be a quick fix. It won't be in our lifetimes. But if you think you're doing something that's going to improve it in years to come, that's great."

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SEE ALSO
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17 May 10 |  Nature & Outdoors


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