England’s Un-Natural Landscape

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, West Yorkshire, Calderdale Borough, Hebden Bridge, Haworth Moors, View over the moors; a farm track runs from hedged farmlands to wild moors, with an isolated Pennine farmstead [Ask for #270.403.]

A footpath crosses Haworth Moors and dives into farmland, an area frequented by the Bronte sisters, who lived nearby. The path appears to cross from wild lands into settled, but in fact both are the product of human action. This is located near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. [Ask for #270.403.]

When we Americans discuss the environment, we tend to talk about natural/clean/good ecosystems v. man-made/polluted/bad ones. When we talk about “restoring” the environment, we are talking about returning a human-influenced landscape to its natural state. This is so normal to us that we have a hard time thinking in any other terms.

So it can be quite a shock to discover that England (along with Wales and nearly all of Scotland) has no natural landscape at all, hasn’t had one for many centuries, and maybe never had one. In England, “good” and “bad” environments are a choice between competing human-made landscapes – just the sort of thing many Americans consider too dicey for government intervention. Of course the British government does intervene, and quite a lot. The landscape politics which result can be quite lively.

SCO: Western Isles Region, Lewis & Harris, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Dun Carloway broch, View from the broch with Loch Carloway in bkgd. [Ask for #175.094.]

Cottages line Loch Carloway, viewed from an Iron Age broch, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outher Hebrides. [Ask for #175.094.]
ENG: The Northwest Region, Cumbria, Lake District National Park, Central Lakes Area, Great Langdale, A narrow lane, flanked by dry laid stone walls, heads towards the cliff-sided peaks of Langdale Pikes [Ask for #262.434.]

Hedgerows line a narrow lane in the Lakes District National Park, near Great Langdale. Traditional stone walls such as these are "dry laid" without mortar. [Ask for #262.434.]

Take that eternal symbol of the English countryside, the hedgerow. Until about 80 years ago, these dense, carefully managed field hedges were the preferred method of keeping livestock away from crops and roads. Every 20 or 25 years, the farmer would have to trim and thicken his hedges by cutting the largest branches nearly clean through, laying them over, and intertwining them. Nowadays, however, wire fences are cheaper and ancient hedgerows get in the way of mechanized farm equipment. Farmers have been grubbing up their hedgerows for decades, and British environmentalists have been fighting it for just as long.

Of course, in the usual American terms this isn’t an environmental issue at all. It’s just a choice between two different types of fences, one pretty and expensive, the other cheap and ugly. English environmentalists make a biodiversity case, in addition to the pretty v. ugly case: the completely man-made hedgerow creates niches for more plants and animals than the equally artificial wire fences, although few of the species are rare and some (from the farmer’s view) are pests. Farmers make the case that the 18th century farming methods that caused this artificial biodiversity haven’t been able to produce profitable crops since the 1890's. Your preference depends on what you want to do with the field – gaze at it or sell its wheat. As you might expect, the government comes down solidly on both sides of the issue, at once subsidizing hedgerow removal and issuing a paper blizzard of regulations to hinder it.

The fact is, England lost its natural landscape quite a long time ago. Archeological pollen analysis shows that the Romans chopped down the last of the native English forests in the second century AD. By 350 AD, only 3% of modern England was covered in forest, and these were all in the form of wood lots, carefully managed for the farmers’ needs. Well, what about that Great Wood that King Arthur’s knights were pricking through with such abandon? The Great Wood existed all right. It grew up during the Dark Ages on abandoned Roman villas, with those wood lots supplying all the seeds. In other words, the Great Wood had its tree species chosen by Romano-Celtic farmers – human selection as much as natural selection.

ENG: Northumbria Region, Northumberland, Northumberland National Park, Hadrians Wall, Peel Crags, The remains of this Roman wall stretch through the open contryside [Ask for #132.060.]

Hadrian's Wall, c. 130 AD, in the Northumberland National Park. The last of Britain's natural forests were being felled at about the time this wall was being built. Woodlots — parcels of trees cultivated for farm use — were the source of the great Dark Age forests. [Ask for #132.060.]

Even the pre-Roman forests may have been human-selected rather than natural. After all, England was covered by glaciers as far south as the Thames Valley as late as 12,000 BC. Advanced Stone Age cultures entered England as fast as the glaciers melted, and these cultures had the technology to induce large-scale changes on the post-glacial ecology faster than it could stabilize. Pollen evidence indicates that they used these methods just about everywhere. If you could visit Neolithic England, you might find it as heavily farmed as modern-day England – particularly around central Wiltshire, where Avebury and Stonehenge provided centers for a sophisticated farm-based society. Neolithic settlers even had commercial mines (for high quality flint), one of which survives in Norfolk as Grim’s Graves and is still linked to Avebury and Stonehenge by the Stone Age highway known as the Ridgeway.

ENG: South West Region, Wiltshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Avebury, West Kennet, West Kennet Long Barrow, near Avebury. Neolithic burial chamber (c. 3200BC) [Ask for #136.077.]

Built around 3200 BC, the West Kennet Long Barrow, a tribal burial chamber, is part of the massive Neolithic monument site surrounding Avebury in the Wiltshire Downs. It was sited to mark a tribal boundary on the Ridgeway trade route, then more than a thousand years old, and still in use today. This part of Wiltshire has been continuously farmed for at least 60 centuries. [Ask for #136.077.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Hound Tor, View from Hound Tor [Ask for #268.528.]

Hound Tor in Dartmoor National Park. Farmers briefly reoccupied this location during the Medieval Warm Period; the foundations of their houses can be seen nearby. [Ask for #268.528.]

The most famous “natural” areas have similarly human-induced beginnings. The Fens are the most natural of the bunch; they came into existence during the post-Roman sea level rises that created Holland’s Zuider Zee. [Update, 2016: Turns out the Fens weren't natural either. Those vast reedbeds, well known in Saxon times, were crops, carefully cultivated for the national thatching trade. When the last of them were taken over by conservation organizations in the 20th century and left to nature, they promptly grew up into inpenetrable scrub.] Dutch engineers pumped out the last of the Fens in the 1600's. The nearby Broads, however, are as unnatural as it gets; they are flooded peat cuttings, created in the 12th century as a fuel source. South England’s grass-covered downlands were forested before Stone Age farmers burnt off the trees to improve the grazing. Bronze Age farmers converted a high Devonshire forest into farms – and these farms deteriorated into the peat bogs now called Dartmoor, a piece of environmental destruction that has lasted for 3,000 years with no end in sight. Similarly early agricultural practices formed the wild-looking cores of many of Britain’s great national parks: Exmoor, Snowdonia, The Lakes, the Yorkshire Moors, the Yorkshire Dales, and the Peaks among them. Even the Scottish Highlands used to be forested. Nowadays, you count Scotland’s surviving Caledonian Forests in the dozens of acres – and that’s about it for Great Britain’s natural ecosystems.

Without natural ecosystems to fight over, the battles are waged over unnatural ones. The struggles go back a thousand years, with William the Conqueror starting forest regulation in the 1070's. Just like today’s controversies, the Conqueror’s Forest Initiative was highly contentious, extremely political, and had an agenda hidden in it.

Back then, the word “forest” didn’t mean a tree-based ecosystem; that’s a modern usage. In medieval times, a “forest” was a royal hunting reserve, and contained a great deal of farm land and upland grazing as well as “forests” in the modern sense. Hunting was important to the royal household, and not just for sport; royal hunting parties harvested game as an important part of the royal food budget. William’s goal was to systematically manage the game to maximize both numbers and diversity. His methods were similar to a modern wildlife refuge – preserving environments, increasing environmental diversity, improving game food sources, and restricting hunting.

William had a problem, however, with the traditional land ownership system. In feudal Europe, nobles held land on behalf of the king, while commoners and nobles had a baffling muddle of interlocking obligations and privileges. Didst the King wish to preserve the acorns for the wildlife’s winter forage? Alas, good king, the local villagers possess the right, granted unto them by laws most ancient, to turn their pigs into the oak forests, consuming all the “mast” (as the acorn crop was called) and starving out the game. So William invented the policy of confiscating estates from disloyal Saxon eorls (always in plentiful supply), and converting these estates to royal forests rather than handing them over to followers. As both owner and king, William could void the welter of traditional rights and impose his wildlife management regulations.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Ravenscar, Spring wildflowers frame a view of Robin Hoods Bay [Ask for #270.128.]

This stretch of the Yorkshire coast near Ravenscar, now in the North York Moors National Park, was part of the Royal Forest of Pickering in Norman times. It probably had no more trees then than now. [Ask for #270.128.]

And, yes, William had an ulterior motive. When Duke William of Normandy shook loose England’s crown, he repeatedly emphasized that his claim was legal and proper according to existing English law, and that the man he conquered was a usurper rather than the rightful king. Later, William found himself bound by that law, which put all sorts of restrictions on him that he didn’t much like. Not only did he have to govern with the consent of his eorls (not so big a problem, as he packed his eorldom with family and retainers every chance he got), he also had to give all sorts of aristocrats and officials a cut of the royal cash flow. Forests solved the latter problem. By governing the forests directly, he cut out the noble middlemen who would ordinarily be skimming most of the proceeds. Instead of using expensive and untrustworthy nobles to rule these forests, William hired a phalanx of professional bureaucrats – reeves and foresters – who might be well-paid by commoner standards but were decidedly cheap compared to nobles. Later kings discovered an even more important revenue stream: a complex system of steep fines with draconian enforcement. Within a century, the Forest Law had evolved into the medieval version of a speed trap, with reeves and foresters trolling for unwary violators that could be milked for fines. No issue more united land owners and merchants against the king; fully half of the Magna Carta is devoted to bringing these royal environmental laws under control.

Fast forward to the Modern era. Forest Law, ensconced in the Magna Carta, provides a regulatory framework for land use that would make an American bureaucrat drool. And remember the feudal system’s interlocking land rights and obligations? Well, that continued to grow for hundreds of years after William, and a surprising amount of it continues today – from masting your pigs in the local woods, to taking firewood from the commons, to walking across your neighbors’ fields. With both forests and feudalism long gone, these two conflicting traditions can take some surprising shapes.

ENG: Southern Region, Dorset, Dorset AONB, Dorset's Southwest Coast, Golden Cap, Dorset Coast Path, on top of Golden Cap, crossing a fence with a stile [Ask for #201.014.]

This public footpath crossing a fence with a stile is one of thousands throughout Britain, relics of medieval farming. Thatched cottages such as the one in the background are much younger, dating from the 16th — 19th centuries. This one is on Dorset's Golden Cap. [Ask for #201.014.]

Take the limited right to walk across your neighbor’s fields, along traditionally set rights-of-way. In the medieval field system this was a necessary part of farming, as a single farmer might have two dozen small tracks scattered about his village in all directions. By the 19th century this rationale no longer existed, but the rights-of-way continued anyway – and people began walking along them for sport and exercise. Rural folk reacted in ways ambiguous and contradictory, at once liking the short cuts and disliking the trespassers. Conan Doyle made fun of these attitudes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as he has Dr. Watson describe “Mr. Frankland, of Lafter Hall ... Sometimes he will shut up a right of way and defy the parish to make him open it. At others he will with his own hands tear down some other man's gate and declare that a path has existed there from time immemorial, defying the owner to prosecute him for trespass.” Things came to a head in 1932, when more than 400 hikers in Derbyshire’s Peak District fought with gamekeepers trying to keep them off Kinder Scout, a prominent peak. The “Kinder Scout Mass Trespass” led to reforms that mapped and marked 118,000 miles of rural rights-of-way, and (in 2000) created a “Right To Roam” in traditionally open areas.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, West Yorkshire, Calderdale Borough, Hebden Bridge, Haworth Moors, Footpath leads to the open moors [Ask for #270.404.]

This footpath in West Yorkshire's Haworth Moor breaks out of the fields and onto the open moors. The Brontes used to walk here. [Ask for #270.404.]
ENG: The Northwest Region, Cumbria, Lake District National Park, Central Lakes Area, Little Langdale, View south over Blae Moss [Ask for #262.441.]

The Lakes District National Park was Britain's first and its purpose was to protect views like this one, from Little Langdale over Blae Moss. The mountains look like natural wilderness, but aren't. Their natural forests were removed by cattle grazing in the 11th century, and have been kept bare on purpose for sheep grazing ever since. [Ask for #262.441.]

The most remarkable result of all this, however, is Britain’s distinctive national park system. Since 1951 Parliament has created fifteen of these parks, including three in Wales and two in Scotland; when you include the similarly organized Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), fully 24% of England is within one of these special districts. Needless to say, the government doesn’t own all this land. In fact, it owns nearly none of it. National Parks and AONBs are the modern equivalent of medieval Forests, without the corruption and fee gouging. They are management districts with special, and highly restrictive, regulations. If you are seeing a lot of thatched roofs and hedgerows, chances are you’ve stumbled inside a national park or AONB.

British national parks, unlike the ones in America, concentrate on aesthetics over environment. Under the 1949 enabling act, national parks exist first and foremost to preserve “natural beauty”, with recreation a distant second. Conservation, wilderness preservation, wildlife, biodiversity – these didn’t even rate a mention, although a 1995 act did belatedly add wildlife conservation to the “natural beauty” standard. And, as you might expect, British “natural” beauty isn’t all that natural; a 1968 act said that “natural” included historical, cultural, archeological, vernacular, and even architectural features. Lest you think this is all old-style thinking, an act passed in 2000 reiterated this “natural beauty” standard.

How strict are the regulations in these areas? I once talked with the owner of a listed cottage owner. I admired her beautiful cottage but I wondered at the bright yellow front door. Was that a traditional color? “No,” she told me, “That was the color it was painted when the house was inventoried as historic in 1949. They haven’t let us change the color since.”

That’s landscape politics, British style.

SCO: Orkney & Shetland Is., Orkney Islands, Mainland (Island), Stromness, Main Street [Ask for #177.032.]

A yellow door. Not the one in the article. That one is in Wiltshire, and this one is in Scotland's Orkney Islands. It's just as protected. [Ask for #177.032.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, March 2006.
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
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