Can the mid-Holocene provide suitable models for rewilding the landscape in Britain?
This source preferred by Kathy Hodder
Authors: Hodder, K.H., Buckland, P.C., Kirby, K.K. and Bullock, J.M.
Journal: British Wildlife
Palaeoecologists have been encouraging us to think about the relevance of the Holocene fossil record for nature conservation for many years (e.g. Buckland 1993) but this information seems slow to filter through to the conservation community. Indeed, Willis et al. (2005) report that recently published biodiversity reports and policy documents rarely look back more than 50 years and may ignore the historical context entirely. This has been a lost opportunity for understanding ecological systems. Many natural processes occur over timescales that confound our attempts to understand them, so the vast temporal perspective provided by palaeoecological studies can provide important guidance for nature conservation (Willis & Birks 2006).
However, accurate vegetation mapping is difficult enough in modern landscapes (Cherrill & McLean 1999), so the challenge of describing prehistoric environments is immeasurably greater.
Nevertheless, pioneering work in the mid 20th century showed that pollen and spores extracted from peat bogs were so perfectly preserved thatthey could be used to demonstrate sequences of vegetation change since the last glaciation (Godwin 1956). Since then, the science has burgeoned: ancient deposits of beetles, snails, fungal spores and plant macrofossils add to the picture, as does the chemistry of ancient lake sediments (Bell & Walker 2004).
Many questions still remain to be answered by this fascinating research and one aspect has received considerable attention in the last decade.
This concerns the nature of the ‘primeval’ landscapes, in other words our understanding of natural systems prior to significant human impact. The debate was kindled by a thesis by the Dutch forest ecologist Frans Vera in 2000 (see also Vera & Buissink 2007). Vera effectively challenged established views about the primeval landscapes and argued that the refutation, and the resulting alternative landscape models, had critical importance for modern conservation practice.
Vera’s thesis is focused on the pre-Neolithic (ca 8000-5000bp) landscape in the lowlands of central and western Europe, with the assumption that this period represents an almost pristine or ‘natural’ state which should provide a suitable conservation benchmark. Vera contends (i) that this landscape was not closed woodland but a relatively open park-like mosaic of wood and grassland,and (ii) that large wild herbivores were an essential driving force behind woodland-grassland vegetation cycles. The advocacy in his argument and the timing of the publication, when grazingwas seen as increasingly important in conservation in Europe, have combined to raise the profile of this issue. If Vera is correct, the open park-like landscapes were inherited rather than created by people; this may have implications for conservation practice in Europe.
The adoption of Vera’s ideas into conservation management plans in the UK (see Box 1) gives an indication of the influence that this work has had.
Indeed, Vera’s ideas have been described as a ‘challenge to orthodox thinking’ (Miller 2002) and considerable debate has been stimulated centering on the ecological validity of Vera’s hypothesis and its relevance for modern conservation.
In this article, we attempt to address these issues on the basis of results from a literature review, web-debate and discussions with Dutch and British ecologists, prepared for English Nature with a view to informing conservation strategies (Hodder & Bullock 2005a).