Local and scientific knowledge

This blog looks at local and scientific knowledge; how they differ, how they interact and why the former is making a comeback in conservation circles.

Local knowledge
Local knowledge is a form of informal learning and can be described as ‘experiential learning developed through trial and error by people who live in a particular area. As a result, it is dynamic and constantly evolving as it responds to changing conditions and external stimuli.’ (Mansfield 2018 p20). It is of direct relevance to the hill-farming community. It is about the relationship that local people have with their environment, its landscape and habitats along with its potential carrying capacity. In the English uplands the management of Common Land and the historic practice of transhumance [1] are clear examples of local knowledge systems in practice today and those from the past. As local knowledge is a trial and error process carried out in an incremental manner, people can make mistakes but then learn from them (Mansfield 2018). Clark and Murdock (1997) make the distinction between ‘local’ and ‘traditional’ knowledge, suggesting that the latter has a time element i.e. it is handed down from one generation to the next. They conclude that local knowledge is not necessarily traditional knowledge.

I have written in the past about the observations of Charles Vancouver, the agricultural improver (see here) , who in 1807 wrote

“The importance of the first description of these wastes (referring to his earlier writing on the boggy character of Dartmoor), can in no way be so fully shewn as by stating the stock feeding upon them. The Commons belonging to the parish of Widdecombe [and Buckland in the Moor] will furnish a sufficient example, when in the month of October last, there were estimated by gentlemen residing in the neighbourhood, to be no less than 14,000 sheep, besides the usual proportion of horned cattle.” p228

A dry summer (as just observed), is always the most favourable for these sheep walk. These afforded in the months of August and September last, flocks were more numerous, and in much higher condition, than has ever been observed by the surveyor in any other part of England, when such have not been aided by access to the enclosures or artificial food. Yet the grass of the sheep-walks upon the forest of Dartmoor, in the beginning of November was scarcely half consumed.” p346-347

Additionally, Mercer (2009 p303) quotes Vancouver who reported seeing ‘knee high grass’ on the Widecombe Commons in May. Ample grazing at the beginning of the growing season and scarcely half consumed in November. What makes these observations all the more remarkable are that they appear to show that the grazing densities of animals on these Common exceeded the maximum stocking levels seen on Dartmoor during the 1970s and 1980s – the so called era of overgrazing.

This must surely be a prime example of local knowledge, built up by generations of hill-farmers and as such is a good example of traditional knowledge.

Scientific knowledge
Scientific knowledge, on the other hand is a formal process where general truths of the natural world are built up through systematic study using scientific methods – the knowledge of facts, principles and laws.

As Cole stated (1992)

Natural scientists were trying to uncover the next page of a book that had already been written, whose conclusion, though currently unknown, was predetermined or inevitable. Nature, rather than sociological processes, determined the way in which scientific knowledge developed (p3 and quoted in Clark & Murdoch 1997).

A very good example of the generation of scientific knowledge is the research carried out on Dartmoor by Professor Jeremy Thomas and his fellow researchers which unravelled the complex life cycle of the Large Blue butterfly along with its very specific habitat requirements (Thomas et al 2009) – see here. This knowledge ultimately led to the successful re-introduction of the species to Somerset and Gloucestershire.


Uneasy bedfellows?
As the examples  of the Widecombe Commons and the Large Blue show local and scientific knowledges can be very powerful and lead to desired outcomes. However, trying to integrate local and scientific approaches has often proved problematic.

Clark & Murdoch (1997 p39) state that scientists ‘tend to assume that science is a ‘special’ form of knowledge and that it should stand aloof from local ways of thinking.’ Toogood (2003) writing about Scottish Natural Heritage and its relationships with crofters and estate owners in the Highlands suggests that State ecologists and conservationists have been criticised because they interfere with and exercises control over crofters and large estates and the institutional culture, forms of scientific knowledge and assumptions about nature and society are at odds with the aspirations of local people regarding rural development and land reform. He goes on to suggest that this ‘conservation culture’ is a legacy of the nation’s former colonial past where:-

  1. science is given priority over lay knowledge
  2. nature is separate from culture
  3. bureaucratic control and standardisation of nature takes precedence over other forms of engagement with land

Additionally, in a study looking at hill-farmers’ attitudes towards scientists in the Lake District following the Chernobyl radio-active fallout incident in 1986 found that the scientists were only trusted and believed if their research proved credible and reliable. In addition, the Lake District hill-farmers resented the fact that their local knowledge was not considered scientific enough to be used by the researchers which on occasion led to ill-conceived research methodologies (Wynne 1992).

Local knowledge and cognitive conflict
However local knowledge systems do not always have positive outcomes, Mansfield (2018) cites the example of impact of the Highland Clearances in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Clan system which was in use in the Highlands for centuries had evolved to provide subsistence-level farming which was in a sustainable harmony with the environment- a local and traditional knowledge system. External agricultural improvers however saw the situation differently, they believed that the land was under-used and that it could be managed more intensively, the land was sold and the incumbents were displaced to allow for a more intensive pastoral agriculture. This led to unsustainable over-exploitation (along with much misery). Mansfield terms this process as cognitive conflict i.e. the way in which different groups see an issue from their own knowledge bases which is at odds with the other.

Ironically, the Vancouver example above eventually led to a form of cognitive conflict well over a century after the 14,000 sheep were counted. Vancouver, of course, was visiting Devon to determine how agriculture could be made more productive and whilst he stated in no uncertain terms that the Commons should not be improved agriculturally – ‘The disturbing of this herbage, however inferior it may appear in the eye of the refined agriculturalist, is on no account whatever to be recommended to be permitted.’. Change however slowly and gradually began to happen, partly driven by the ‘improvers’ and partly driven by fashion. Wool production became unprofitable, mutton was replaced by lamb and perhaps most importantly the breeds of sheep and cattle changed to those that could be grazed all year round on the moor so by the 1940s, transhumance along with levancy and counchancy[2] were forgotten traditional practices and the lowland farmers were dis-enfranchised from the Commons. Following on from the 1947 Agriculture Act all year-round stocking numbers in the uplands were increased fuelled by subsidy and headage payments – by the 1990s this all had to be reversed as this type of management led to habitat degradation through overgrazing. The older systems of local and traditional knowledge replaced by a new productivist local knowledge which ultimately proved to be unsustainable. In addition, there is a suggestion that during the period of agricultural intensification (1950-1980) farmers spent less time walking the land due the use of more hi-tech machinery along with time and labour constraints and as a result their local knowledge base of their environment was eroded (Morgan & Murdoch 2000). In an upland context the introduction of quad bikes as a means of accessing the Commons may have had a similar impact.

A new dawn for local knowledge?
Following the introduction of the agri-environment schemes in the 1990s stocking numbers on the Commons began to decrease, restrictions were put on overall numbers and in many cases winter grazing was stopped. Unfortunately, despite the detailed management prescriptions from the scientists at Natural England the Commons failed to recover – the heather continued to decline and unpalatable purple moor grass spread, much to everyone’s consternation. Relations between the hill-farmers and ecologists dropped to an all-time low, stocking numbers had decreased but it appeared the science wasn’t to be trusted. A new approach was needed to rebuild trust between the various disgruntled parties.

This new approach is known as Dartmoor Farming Futures (DFF) (Waldon 2011). The DNPA summarises the project as follows [3].

Dartmoor Farming Futures is an experimental pilot project aimed at developing a new approach to the management of the public and environmental benefits associated with Dartmoor’s moorland that:

  • Offers farmers and landowners more responsibility for the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes;
  • Focuses on the complete range of public benefits (ecosystem services) that are associated with upland farming (from food production to carbon sequestration) and identifies priorities for particular spatial areas; and
  • Facilitates a collaborative approach to agreeing the outcomes sought, delivering the management required and assisting with the monitoring of the process.

The initiative was developed by Dartmoor National Park Authority and Dartmoor Commoners’ Council with support from the Duchy of Cornwall, Natural England, Royal Society for Protection of Birds, South West Water and the Ministry of Defence. The pilot resulted from a proposal to Defra in 2010 and is being run on two areas of common land: Haytor and Bagtor and the Forest of Dartmoor.

Farming Futures links into and complements the Dartmoor Vision, a shared vision developed with landowners and users which sets out what the moorland will look like in 2030. As part of the work on Farming Futures the original Dartmoor Vision was updated to include valued access, stored carbon and water resources.

The pilot is now in its fourth year and an evaluation process has been undertaken which looks at the impact of DFF on hill-farmers’ behaviours, perceptions and farm businesses (Manning 2017). The Forest of Dartmoor pilot covers 11,170ha and the agri-environment scheme which involves 80 active Commoners focuses on the ecological elements of the area. Manning (2017) concluded that the evaluation has provided evidence that DFF

is resulting in commoners having a greater understanding of what agri-environment schemes are looking to achieve and the outcomes that they are delivering. Commoners are showing an increased awareness and knowledge of the key species, habitats and archaeological features that can be found on their common. Participation with training and monitoring plays an important role in increasing their understanding and the subsequent empowerment to take control of the management. Commoners are increasingly recognising their role as land managers, not only for livestock production but for the production of ecosystem services and have a better understanding of the impacts that their management decisions have for the production of these services.

At least on a couple of Dartmoor Commons great efforts are being made to see whether local knowledge can be combined with scientific knowledge, it is early days but if such an approach can be made to work, delivering both ecosystem services and hill-farming outputs it will be a step forwards. Given time and some experimenting maybe the scenes described by Vancouver can be seen again – a productive version of hill-farming and a vibrant series of habitats.

The spontaneous vegetation of this part of the forest, among many other herbs and grasses, consisted of purple melic grass, mat grass, downy oat grass, bristle-leaved bent, eye-bright, bulbous rooted rush, common termentel, smooth heath-bed straw, common bone binder, cross-leaved heath, common heath or ling (dwarf), milk-wort, dwarf dock and agrostis vulgaris in very large quantities.
Vancouver (1808)

Adams W.M. & Mulligan M. (2003b) Decolonising Nature: strategies for conservation in a post-colonial era. Earthscan. London.

Clark J. & Murdoch J. (1997) Local knowledge and the precious extension of scientific networks: a reflection on three case studies. Sociologia Ruralis 37: 38-60.

Manning J. (2017) Dartmoor Farming Futures: evaluation report. Natural England, Duchy of Cornwall, Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners Council. http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/916104/Dartmoor-Farming-Futures-Report.pdf (accessed 15th June 2017)

Mansfield L. (2018) Managing Upland Resources. New approaches for rural environments. Whittles Publishing. Caithness. Scotland.

Mercer I. (2009) Dartmoor: a statement of its time. Collins. HarperCollins. London.

Morgan K. & Murdoch J. (2000) Organic vs. conventional agriculture: knowledge, power and innovation in the food chain. Geoforum 31: 159-173.

Thomas J.A., Simcox D.J. & Clarke R.T. (2009) Successful Conservation of a Threatened Maculinea Butterfly. Science 325: 80-83

Toogood M. (2003) Decolonizing Highland Conservation. In Adams W.M. & Mulligan M. (2003).

Vancouver C (1808) General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon – observations on the means of its improvement. McMillan. London. https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/General_View_of_the_Agriculture_of_the_C.html?id=BwhLAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y

Waldon J. (2011) Dartmoor Farming Futures Report to Dartmoor National Park Authority, Dartmoor Commoners’ Council and Natural England. http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/164564/DFF-final-report.pdf

Wynne B. (1992) Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science. Public understanding of Science 1: 281-304.

[1] The practice of summer grazing on the upland Commons by animals kept in the lowlands at other times

[2] All stock on the Common in the summer had to be accommodated and fed on the farm in the winter months

[3] http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/lookingafter/laf-landmanagement/dartmoor-farming-futures

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