Communities and governments around the world have recognised the scale of environmental damage caused to ecosystems by humanity. Calls for climate action have resulted in government policies to try to mitigate the worst impacts and halt, or even reverse, the damage that has been caused.
Targets are set. The number of trees to be planted are specified, as is the acreage of peat bogs to be restored. These are noble aims, and positive steps are being taken by local and regional groups to implement change to meet these targets, supported through grant schemes and funds to promote environmental benefit. Private sector finance has entered the arena, particularly in carbon trading.
These interventions are well intentioned. After all, who would argue against the restoration of environments back to their former condition in aid of rehabilitating the environment?
However, there is a problem. Restoration implies recovering something to its past state. Furniture restorers can recreate the deep shine on a Chippendale sideboard. It’s a static object. Ecosystems, however, are not. They are dynamic, a complicated set of changing social, cultural, economic and environmental conditions that have come together to produce what we see today.
We are the first generation that has a clear understanding of both past environmental changes, and the current and future threats being posed to our ecosystems. As such, we are in a position to make informed choices.
The biggest mistake would be to view landscapes as a blank canvas waiting to be painted with good intentions. To ignore local understanding of conditions, challenges and the voices of the current and past custodians of the land risks unintended and unforeseen consequences in a complex system.
When two or more risks interact, the potential collective effect can be greater than the sum of its parts. Timing is also critical.
Across the world right now, some of the most effective initiatives being deployed to tackle environmental degradation are those where schemes have been co-designed with communities. Our own work in Tanzania is one such example, where lives and livelihoods devastated by soil erosion are being rebuilt through a combination of scientific evidence and cultural change.
Most ecological processes take place over long timescales. Just thinking about how long oak trees live gives a sense of the timescales we need to work to, and how long ecological processes can take to play out. However, we can learn from the deep past using evidence that spans centuries and millennia. Historical, archaeological and long-term ecological knowledge can allow us to understand how our landscapes today – which are a snapshot in time – came together. We can tease out social, cultural and economic processes from our data.
In some cases, these forces have combined to produce high-quality environments. In south-west England, our western Atlantic woodlands are full of biodiversity, store carbon and prevent flash flooding. But they are the product of centuries of management. Simply planting trees isn’t enough to reproduce these benefits, particularly in areas that haven’t supported trees for millennia.
Our historical information also tells us about nature recovery in the past. Past populations were equally as dynamic as the ecosystems we see today.
Take, for example, the Black Death in the mid 14th century. Up to half the population of Europe died, and this will have had a major impact on food production systems. Pressures on the land will have eased considerably.
Even earlier, in the Bronze Age around 3,500 years ago, settlement and field systems expanded into marginal uplands, but only for a few hundred years. Around 500 years later these fields were no longer in use, although low-intensity seasonal grazing likely continued.
By looking to these past events, we can explore the pathways that past nature recovery took and, in some instances, discover new environmental conditions that formed as nature recovered.
Trees did not re-establish naturally, because the conditions (such as soils and climate) had changed. After the Black Death, abandoned villages on the upland margins were not overtaken by woodland; heathland developed. Some of this heathland is among the rarest habitats in Europe today, supporting biodiversity.
What we find is that much of our high-value nature is a product of land management. Our farming communities know this. An Exmoor farmer I spoke with recently passionately described the biodiversity in his stone walls – walls that his grandfather built and maintained.
Our fossil pollen and insect data show us that biodiversity in the UK was lower before the advent of farming. Disturbance of the forest by Stone Age farmers increased biodiversity, by fragmenting the woodland and creating spaces for diverse ecological communities to develop.
Our species-rich meadows did not exist until grazing management created the necessary conditions for their management.
Conservation and climate action should never be about returning the landscape back to a point in time. Society has moved on and our land use and socio-economic demands have moved too far. However, being able to recognise long-term processes is massively important – and given we have that evidence at our disposal, it would be foolish to ignore it.
Ralph Fyfe’s work in reconstructing past environmental change has led him to author more than 85 academic papers and book chapters. He is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Higher Education Academy and Royal Society of Arts.