AN OUTSPOKEN environmentalist who wants to see sheep removed from Cumbria’s fells faced an angry grilling from the county’s farmers.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot was guest speaker at the annual general meeting of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners’ (FCC), at Newton Rigg College, near Penrith.

Mr Monbiot, author of several books on climate change, received a chorus of boos from the 100-plus audience as he described the fells as an ‘ecological disaster’.

“It looks like the aftermath of a nucleur war,” he said. “It is an extraordinary barren landscape comparable to the chemical deserts of East Anglia.

“You see more birds and a greater variety of species in a five-mile area in any urban area.”

But young Commoner Will Benson reacted angrily to his comments.

“Cumbria is a very diverse place for wildlife,” he said. “When I get up, there is a deafening dawn chorus.

“You are attacking som-ewhere that is nature rich, and it is quite insulting.

“I think it is just to get a reaction and publicity for your book.”

Mr Monbiot hit back, saying: “I came here because I thought it was the right thing to do.

“I did not come here to be told I am getting a reaction to sell my book, so please show me some respect.”

And Will Rawling, Ennerdale farmer and chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, said: “Some of the sensationalised comments you make have only served to regen-erate mistrust for the farming community. They are counter-productive.”

Towards the end of the meeting, as Mr Monbiot discussed the ‘cosy relationship’ between the National Farmers’ Union and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, several attendees left the room claiming to ‘have had enough’.

The lack of trees in the uplands, Mr Monbiot said, had also contributed to recent severe flooding.

But Mr Benson retorted: “Surely it is rain that causes flooding, not sheep.”

Other topics discussed included the potential benefits of ‘nature tourism’.

“There is huge economic potential if you start bringing back forests,” said Mr Monbiot.

“Subsidies might not continue because of the way Britain is going.

“Some farmers will need to find other ways of making money, and this is an option.

“I want to see a living landscape that will work for farmers and wildlife.

“I believe it has got out of balance, and some aspects of the farming system are regrettable.”

Speaking afterwards, he said: “It was pretty nerve-wracking and scary.

“It is incredibly important to have this dialogue to improve understanding.”