Flora and fauna

Borrowdale is a very special place for flora and fauna. The combination of weather, mountains and effects of the last Ice Age has given rise to distinctive habitats that can be easily recognised:

Mountain tops with rugged crags, peaty hollows and sheep-grazed common.

Steep fellsides clothed in ‘hanging’ oak woodlands.

Flat valley floor divided into green fields or left as wetland mires.

Scenic lakes of Derwentwater and Watendlath Tarn with the sparkling thread of the River Derwent running through the main valley.

Each of these habitats is occupied by specialised plants and animals that, in some cases, are unique to Borrowdale and form Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).

Mountain tops

Borrowdale’s rugged crags provide niche habitats for rare Alpine plants that are able to survive beyond the reach of grazing animals. Historically, these crags were the haunt of golden eagles up to 1800s. They were once regarded as a threat to new-born lambs, so their nests (eyries) were systematically destroyed by local sheep farmers. Today their memory is recalled by local landmarks such as Eagle Crag in the Langstrath Valley. Peregrine falcons and buzzards still haunt the craggy outcrops of Walla Crag and the aptly named Falcon Crag.


Borrowdale is famous for its ‘hanging oak woodlands’ that clothe the sides of the valley. These woodlands are remnants of temperate ‘rainforests’ that once covered the entire Atlantic seaboard of western Britain. The moist climate has given rise to a rich assemblage of ferns, mosses, liverworts and lichens that drape the woodland canopies, with drifts of dog’s mercury, primrose, woodruff and celandine carpeting the woodland floor.

The woodlands were traditionally coppiced to provide timber for charcoal, bobbins, swill baskets, hurdles and tool handles. Coppicing is a sustainable form of woodland management that is beneficial to wildlife, as it allows sunlight to reach the woodland floor. This creates a varied ground flora, drawing in butterflies, moths and other invertebrates and attracting a variety of woodland birds and animals.

‘By the path to King’s How, I used to see the twinkling white flowers of Grass of Parnassus. I have found butterwort, sundew and cottongrass in the marshy areas. Occasionally stars of yellow tormentil and gentian-blue milkwort shine out on the higher slopes, while creamy white meadowsweet, pink dog rose and foxgloves jostle for position on the lane sides.’ Nan Hicks, 2011

Borrowdale Yews

At the head of Borrowdale near the hamlet of Seathwaite are a group of ancient yew trees, described by William Wordsworth as ‘those fraternal four . . . joined in one solemn and capacious grove’. They are at least 1500 years old, but only three yews remain of the original grouping.

Valley Floor

After the last Ice Age, the valley floor would have been boggy marshland. Much has been drained to form fertile grazing land, but pockets of wetlands remain. These harbour a mosaic of specialised plants including cottongrass, bog asphodel and the insectivorous sundew. The flat valley floor is divided into irregular fields by drystone walls.

Occasionally, these boundaries feature pollarded trees, typically ash or holly. The trees have had their trunks cut several feet above ground to encourage multiple shoot growth. The leafy branches were harvested on a regular basis as a source of fodder for livestock.

‘Using a light-trap we recorded over 200 species of moth in our Borrowdale garden last year. The most beautiful included Brimstone Moth, Large Emerald and the wonderfully-named Merveille du Jour, whilst Oak Lutestring, Great Prominent and Barred Chestnut are three scarce species that are able to find a home in this very special valley.’ Linda Reinecke, 2011

Lakes and Rivers

Derwentwater is one of Cumbria’s most scenic lakes, formed by glacial action during the last Ice Age. The lake is home to the rare vendace – an arctic fish left over after the glaciers melted. Derwentwater is the only lake in the UK that harbours natural populations of this endangered fish. With global warming threatening their survival, 25,000 vendace fry were recently taken to Sprinkling Tarn above Seathwaite, where the water is cooler and less prone to siltation and phosphate pollution.

The lake attracts a wide range of waterfowl (mallards, moorhens, coots, Canadian and greylag geese) with goosanders and cormorants often seen diving for fish further out on the water. The sparkling waters of the River Derwent and its tributaries are noted for freshwater shrimps, lamprey and salmon. Dippers and kingfishers are sometimes seen along the river and you may spot the occasional otter on the banks.  

Further information

The Foreshore Project aims to improve access to the lake shore around Derwentwater and offers a host of guided walks, conservation projects and family events for all to participate in. www.foreshoreproject.com

The National Trust owns most of Borrowdale, Watendlath and the foreshore of Derwentwater. www.national-trust.org.uk/borrowdale

Nurture Lakeland works with local businesses to encourage sustainable tourism practices and provides funds for conservation projects throughout Cumbria (www.nurturelakeland.org). ‘Love Your Lakes’ is one scheme that aims to reduce phosphate run-off into Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake.

Borrowdale Parish Council www.borrowdale.org.uk

Friends of the Lake District aims to protect Cumbria’s landscapes and provides help on the environmental issues affecting Cumbria today. www.fld.org.uk

Natural England manages a number of National Nature Reserves throughout Cumbria and offers help and support on species, habitats and conservation schemes. www.nurturelakeland.org