Landscape conservation and nature conservation: uneasy bedfellows?

Two perspectives – one from Europe and the other from Dartmoor.
On the face, of it you would think that all those who want to protect the environment get along with each other working towards a common goal. This can happen especially if the nature conservation of species is dependent on traditional farming practices in culturally developed and ancient landscapes, but when conservation relies on process driven rewilding there are huge consequences for landscapes and the traditional cultures that sustain them.

I recently came across a couple of essays, an editorial and opinion piece about this very topic from a mainland southern European perspective. You can download the four pieces here. I was struck how the perspective essay by Mauro Agnoletti ‘Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective’ shared many of the same concerns as those held by Tom Greeves who has written on the subject from a Dartmoor perspective. You can download Tom Greeves’ paper ‘Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedyhere.

This blog reviews the assertions of Agnoletti and Greeves and discusses the future for landscapes and local cultures in the face of the globally driven economic, social and environmental pressures and changes.

Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective
Agnoletti says that landscapes are largely a cultural construct i.e. they have been created over time by the people who have inhabited and farmed the land. A cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group: culture is the agent, the natural area the medium and the cultural landscape is the result.

He argues that whilst the importance of landscapes is acknowledged at an international and European scale the policies required to conserve them are largely lacking. He suggests that if a landscape scale approach was adopted across Europe a new paradigm for a development model could harmoniously integrate social, economic and environmental factors in time and space.

But as the globalisation of agriculture has occurred during the 20th century traditional farming practices have collapsed leading to cultivatable land being industrially intensified whilst the pastoral landscapes which are on poorer land, and therefore unimprovable from an agricultural perspective, are being abandoned.

These trends are therefore leading to a cultural globalisation (i.e. homogenisation). The idea of nature has been overlapped with landscape and this is leading to re-naturalisation (what in the UK we would call rewilding) and increasing forest cover which overlays the ancient landscapes patterns along with their associated long and rich cultural history that led to their creation.

Agnoletti argues that there is a growing tendency to see a scientific approach to the study of landscape as a natural resource opposed to a cultural phenomenon. The workstreams that flow from this are ecological in nature with little cultural focus. Academic journals see landscape as an ecological issue largely in the context of nature conservation and he suggests that scientific publications have a higher academic credibility than chapters and books in the Humanities which therefore establishes an ecological bias.

Agnoletti states that such an approach causes three problems:

a) Degradation of the rural landscape
Farming per se is considered damaging to nature: 20th and 21st century approaches to traditional pastoral farming methods are lumped in together with modern intensive agricultural methods. Pastoral landscapes do not receive the financial support they require to remain sustainable and are abandoned either to be re-naturalised or afforested. Cultivated land is intensified agriculturally – both phenomena lead to a loss of local knowledge, cultural landscapes and the rural population.

b) Abandonment and reforestation
The abandonment of European landscapes has also been encouraged by European Union set-aside policies. As a result of this and globalization it is estimated that 400-500k ha of forest advance occurs per annum – partly through abandonment and partly through active re-afforestation.

The dominant narrative of European ecologists is that the environment needs to be returned to the natural state, partly because Man has destroyed nature and partly because the EU Habitats Directive has an emphasis on natural habitats.

How can it be logical to want to return to the natural state in landscapes that haven’t been natural for 8000 years? Nevertheless, re-naturalisation has been aligned in Europe with nature policies and the promotion of rewilding and afforestation in the fight against climate change through increased carbon sequestration.

c) Rural landscapes, history and biodiversity
Whilst the re-naturalisation of closed forest landscapes provides new habitats for some wildlife this is at the expense of the wildlife which already lives in the historical and largely open landscapes. A greater diversity of wildlife will be conserved if many cultural landscapes are protected.

Agnoletti summarises his argument as follows:-

  • Landscapes need to be viewed for they are i.e. their cultural origins
  • Europe needs an adequate characterization of rural landscapes
  • Support for traditional agriculture is required to halt further losses
  • Nature narratives need to be combined with cultural ones to create biocultural diversity
  • Natural habitats need to be prevented in unnatural places
  • Achieving these things will help maintain rural communities

This is an interesting and informative perspective from Southern Europe however it contrasts markedly with the situation found in the UK for the following reasons:-

  1. The UK values its Cultural Landscapes and has categorized them in great detail under the Natural Area Profile assessment (see here).
  2. The abandonment of land seen on marginal land in Europe simply hasn’t happened on anything other than a minor scale in the UK
  3. Marginal land particularly those in protected areas have received considerable sums of subsidy through the agri-envionment schemes to ensure that traditional management practices are encouraged and continued so that the landscapes, the cultural groups that produced them and the biodiversity are protected.

On the face of it then, it would appear that in the UK, the conservation of landscapes and local farmers was working in harmony with the objectives of nature conservation. However, this is not the case in the uplands of Britain where their special landscapes are deeply contested today by various groups of interested parties. Tom Greeves, argues very strongly that culture and landscape on Dartmoor have been detrimentally out manoeuvred by advocates of the natural environment.

Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedy – conservation imbalance
Greeves points out that the post-war conservation movement has been dominated by the natural environment and is heavily skewed towards nature. He argues that nature and culture should be given equal balance. He says that even the name Natural England reinforces the belief that the environment is natural. The 25k ha of Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Dartmoor are all about animals and plants and no mention is made about culture.

In 2006 when the Dartmoor Vision was published, areas called ‘Premier Archaeological Landscapes’ were introduced – these were areas where the historic landscape would be given primacy over wildlife. Greeves dismisses this concession as he argues that no part of the moor is without cultural value. He goes on to argue that the era of ‘overgrazing’ (i.e. circa 1950-1980) was actually revolutionary for the historic environment as it revealed many archaeological features and sites which had become lost in the vegetation. Once the agri-environment schemes were introduced and the numbers of grazing animals were reduced gorse and unpalatable grasses took over in many areas and hid and in some cases damaged the cultural landscape. Greeves argues that Natural England have ‘clung on to the concept of overgrazing’ and as a result ‘awareness of the cultural riches of Dartmoor has not yet impinged on Establishment thinking.

Policies of Natural England and the destruction of neighbourliness
Not only does Greeves loathe the agri-environment schemes for their stocking reductions he also blames them for creating divisiveness amongst the hill-farming Commoners. The subsidy money was handed over to the local Common Associations who then had to decide how to allocate sums to individuals, this practice lead to arguments and squabbles where none had existed before. Without doubt Natural England’s policies in the latter parts of the last century and earlier parts of this one created great resentment as Commoners considered they were ‘fighting for their rights’ against the Natural England ‘dictatorship’.

The Mires Project
The Dartmoor Mires restoration project, a £1.1 million scheme which ran between 2010 and 2015 also comes in more considerable criticism from Greeves. He states that no evidence was ever presented to suggest that the moor was in fact actually damaged and therefore needed restoration. He was particularly incensed that large tracked machines were taken into the ‘wildest parts of the moor’ to carry out various works to impound water and rewet the peat. He calls it ‘one of the least prepared and worst pseudo-scientific projects’ that Dartmoor has ever seen.

Rewilding
With regards to calls to rewild Dartmoor as a result of ‘sheepwrecking’ he dismisses these ideas as they take no account of ‘the significance of the cultural landscape of Dartmoor and what it means in terms of the human story over the last eight millennia or so’.

Remedy
Greeves suggests that radical reform is needed underpinned by research. The stranglehold of Natural England must be challenged and removed as they have no right to upset the age old social fabric of hill-farming and they have no right to obscure the archaeology of the moor. With regard to how the moor should be managed he urges that Commoners be asked for their views and then allowed to enact them. He urges that culture, flora and fauna are respected in equal measure and that the existing designations such as SSSIs and Scheduled Ancients Monuments are replaced with a new overarching protective mechanism and that Dartmoor is viewed in the future as an ecocultural zone. Finally he recommends that the National Park Authority is replaced by a Dartmoor Assembly which consists of elected local people.

There is much passion throughout much of Tom Greeves paper and it is fair to say that it has not been well received in a number of places! But rather like the Agnoletti paper it does raise a number of important points. Amongst the displeasure of the status quo raised in both papers there is a plea that cultural landscapes are given equal consideration to biological landscapes.

This of course sounds entirely reasonable but in practice achieving this has historically proven to be extremely difficult. A heavily grazing and swaled Dartmoor landscape (the over grazing over burning narrative) is good for the cultural landscape but bad for the biological one and of course was the exact scenario that led to the introduction of the agri-environment schemes.

Conversely a less grazed and less burnt Dartmoor landscape, even one which contains Premier Archaeological Landscapes, currently pleases no one completely as the effects of climate change and atmospheric pollution are reconfiguring the moors in ways that satisfy very few. However, the search for a better consensus must continue in the brave new world of Brexit and the ‘public money for public goods debate’, for most agree (with the exception of the rewilders) that a world without hill-farmers will create a new Dartmoor landscape that the majority don’t want.