Country diary 1971: Lakeland’s smittle places for wildlife

KESWICK: One cannot help casting up accounts at this time of the year – a time belonging to Janus, the god of January. There is a Janus aspect in many things. I was told lately by a university lecturer that “natural history is well past the country parson era” and though, no doubt, he is right in some ways even natural history without its countrymen, past and present, and without its looking back for comparison would be poor indeed. I heard a Cumbrian say recently that the River Derwent, where it runs into Bassenthwaite Lake, used to be a “terrible smittle place for fish.” It no longer is (for various reasons) but I have come across the self-same expression in a different context. It was in notes made in 1907 by a natural historian of some standing of his walks and talks with an elderly dry-stone waller who lived in Keswick. The waller was naming the mountain summits which were “ter’ble smittle places for dotterel to breed” – birds which seldom breed here now.

There are other contrasts – in 1907 foumarts (polecats) were already very scarce but sweet-marts (pine-martens) were still then numerous. Otters (rare now) were plentiful then, especially in Borrowdale, and using a variety of holts, including one of their last in Hollow Stones under Shepherd’s Crag where, now, only climbers flourish. But – swings and roundabouts indeed – badgers were almost extinct then and though I have not seen an otter for over a year I could, now, name many “smittle” spots for badgers.