Saving Windermere With Environmentalist, Matt Staniek

Matt Staniek grew up in the Lake District, and after an injury led him to keep a closer eye on local biodiversity from behind a camera lens, he’s assumed the role of an environmental activist, passionately campaigning to save Windermere as Director of Windermere Lake Recovery CIC


Below, Matt tells us more about the current state of the lake and the work being done to protect it.


What is happening to Windermere?

The lake is at a tipping point. Enough hasn't been done over the last 20 years to ensure it is adaptable to climate change. Phosphorus is entering the catchment area in unsustainable quantities and destroying the fragile freshwater environment. Phosphorous is a problem because it acts as fertiliser for algae, and lots of algae means no oxygen in the water for fish. 


The sources of phosphorous pollution include storm overflow discharge, septic tanks, household products, and diffuse agricultural runoff flowing into the river. If combined with a prolonged drought in the summer, high visitor numbers and drinking water being taken from the lake, we could get an algal bloom so big that it will cause the death of the lake, with thousands of dead fish washing up on its shores. It's a very real possibility and could happen this summer. 


Data from the EA in 2018 has already shown a phosphorus spike which was enough to drop the lake from ‘good’ to ‘moderate’ status on the Water Framework Directive.

When did you first notice something needed to be done?

I realised that Windermere needed help almost by accident. I broke my neck in a car accident and was in a neck brace for eight weeks; in that time, I couldn't do very much, so I took up wildlife photography. By the time the neck brace came off, I was hooked, and over a three-year period of going to one of my favourite places, I started to notice a worrying decline in biodiversity. As a Zoologist, my scientific curiosity took over, and I set out to find the cause.


Windermere was exhibiting the following symptoms:


  • A noticeable absence in the keystone species, such as white clawed crayfish
  • Fish dying and becoming less visible due to loss of habitat
  • A lower diversity of bird species in the lake
  • Thick lake and riverbed vegetation being replaced by algal blooms
  • Constant riverbed disruption from erosion further upstream
  • Once crystal clear waters now clouded with toxic blue-green algae


That’s when I started to delve into the data and found out just what a state Windermere was in – and so, the campaign started.

Which plant and animal species are at risk?

As you can imagine, Windermere is home to a whole host of at-risk species. These include otters, kingfishers and dippers, but it's the fish population which is most worrying, as it isn’t recovering. Arctic charr, sea trout and salmon are all in decline, and once these go, we will lose our flagship species.


Windermere is also under the pressure of invasive plant species like American skunk cabbage and Himalayan balsam. Climate change will exacerbate this, and if we do nothing, we'll have a dead lake. For example, in terms of fish decline in Windermere, in 1980, 855 sea trout were caught by line in the river Leven; in 2021, only 12 were caught. 

Why is the Lake District important in terms of its biodiversity?

Our National Parks should be the ultimate source of inspiration for our natural world, and we should be utilising this flagship site to lead the charge for our environment. The state of our freshwater is incredibly worrying, but it is also the start of something exciting. If we can utilise the Lake District’s appeal, with the right collaborations and investment, we can take our learnings to other freshwater rivers and lakes across the country.  I'm confident that we can reduce biodiversity loss and save our rivers and lakes, but this fight has to commence somewhere, and I think that place should be Windermere. 


What does the project involve and how long will it take?

The first project of Windermere Lake Recovery CIC (community interest company) is working with the fantastic National Trust tenant farmers, Chris Laurie and Jenny Hill, in the Langdale valley. The project is all about improving water quality, allowing nature to recover and ensuring farming exists in the landscape to help protect our National Park. The project involves creating an entirely new river channel to soak up as much phosphorus as possible to prevent it from entering Windermere. Having this completed by the end of the summer means we'll have a buffer in place until infrastructural changes are made to stop the decline of Windermere. 

What are the costs and how can people support the project?

The costs include fencing materials, making a film and hiring a digger! It's a relatively easy project with minimal intervention but massive reward. It makes sense to be doing it now with the climate crisis right in front of us. The Crowdfunder is still running for the project, so that's one way people could help support us and sharing on social media is a massive help.

How have you been campaigning so far?

My campaigning involves talking non-stop about this problem, giving a lot of people headaches! Largely, it’s been social media-driven - I got an incredible number of signatures to my petition from my small Instagram following. There are some bigger plans in the pipeline, so keep an eye out.

What is your overall campaign objective?

For me, my overall objective seems relatively simple, but it is no easy feat - an end to water pollution in the Lake District. I can't fathom how this damage is happening in an area of outstanding natural beauty and the UK's best known National Park. There should be no water pollution in the National Park, and I'm not going to stop until I achieve it!


What experience do you have in environmentalism and conservation?

In terms of conservation, my degree is in Zoology. From there, I spent a year working with Cumbria Wildlife Trust, where I got thrown head-first into land management. I split my time between chainsawing trees, presenting films about Cumbria's flagship species and leading guided walks. I've also worked extensively on, what I consider, the most exciting regenerative farm in the whole of the Lake District, Whinpot Farm. They’re at the forefront of how I think farming in the UK should be, focusing on improving soil health to combat climate change and merging wildlife and livestock, so both can live successfully off the land. I've been taught everything from beekeeping to calving, haymaking, and fencing.


When it comes to environmentalism, I have zero experience - I just knew I had to do something, and I’ve been lucky to have had great success so far. I never considered myself a campaigner before this, but I suppose that's what I am now.

How would you describe your relationship with the outdoors?

I feel more comfortable outdoors than I do indoors - I spend every waking second outside, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I can't believe my luck to have grown up in the Lake District, and I want to ensure it's protected for everyone to come and experience. I think a lot of people rediscovered nature after Covid, realising how beneficial it is for your mental health and that we have to do more to protect it.

Have you always had an interest in sustainability?

Sustainability is a big driver for me. I think now, more than ever, people are aware of our impact on the natural world and the need to change our habits to protect our future. Some of this has to come from the government, but there are small things that we can change ourselves. For example, here in the Lake District, everything we put down our drains goes into our rivers, so an easy thing to do is make sure you use sustainable washing up liquids and detergents. When it comes to clothing, I very rarely buy new clothes. I often wear stuff until it is falling apart, but I think that's better than fast fashion.

How else can people reduce their impact on the outdoors?

I think it's about becoming more aware of how your behaviour and choices might impact your local ecosystems and the wider environment. For example, being careful how much you wash synthetic clothing, as it releases micro-plastic particles. With clothing, it can be hard to see the connection to climate change, but with things like the Our Planet collection at Cotswold Outdoor, you can make the right decisions for our future and the generations after us. 


Head to Matt's Instagram page to find out more about him and his work saving Windermere.

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