Biodiversity and land-use change in the British Isles

The landscapes of Europe have resulted from a complex interplay between climate and the natural environment combined with millennia of human actions and land use. 

Much concern is now placed on the consequences of land use on the natural environment, and in particular on changes in biodiversity, in the face of a dynamic and uncertain future. 

When and how did current patterns of biodiversity emerge, and how have human actions shaped biodiversity in the past, from the emergence of the first farmers to the development of complex societies? 

Historical ecological approaches, using datasets from the natural and archaeological sciences, can provide rich insights into these questions. 

This research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is collaborative between the University of Plymouth (Ralph Fyfe and Jessie Woodbridge), Historic England (Ruth Pelling and Anne de Vareilles) and the University of Birmingham (David Smith).

Project Team

Ralph Fyfe is Professor of Geospatial Information at the University of Plymouth. His research is centered on environmental change and archaeology through the Holocene, predominantly (but not exclusively) through pollen-analytical methods. His work primarily focuses on Europe, working on projects in Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, and Italy. He has been a member of the Nordforsk-funded POLLANDCAL (POLlen-LANDscape CALibration) and LANDCLIM (Land-climate interactions) networks and is currently coordinating efforts to generate state-of-the-art knowledge of Europe-wide Holocene land cover as part of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) LANDCOVER6K working group. 

Jessie Woodbridge is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow on the “Biodiversity, habitat dynamics and human land-use change over multi-millennial time scales” project at the University of Plymouth. Jessie also worked on the "Changing the face of the Mediterranean: land cover and population since the advent of farming" and “Deforesting Europe” projects at the University of Plymouth. This research aimed to reconstruct changes in European land-cover over long (i.e. multi-centennial) timescales using pollen data. Jessie's research background is focussed on reconstruction of Holocene palaeoenvironmental change using palaeoecological techniques based on peat and lake-sediment archives. Her PhD research focussed on diatom-inferred Eastern Mediterranean palaeoclimate. 

Ruth Pelling is a Senior Archaeobotanist at Historic England with specialisms in macrofossils, wood and charcoal analyses. Ruth will have responsibility for the collation and synthesis of archaeobotanical records within the project contributing her specialist knowledge as an archaeobotanist with extensive experience on the collation and analysis of archaeobotanical data. This includes methodologies and approaches to deriving land-use. Ruth’s position and responsibilities at Historic England include coordination of a network of archaeobotanists from across the UK.

Anne de Vareilles is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate working with Ruth Pelling on the collation and synthesis of archaeobotanical records. Anne is an archaeobotanist with extensive experience in macrofossils and large-scale data compilation and analysis. Anne has a strong background of working with British material from across the Holocene and in all states of preservation. She has also worked on Neolithic macrofossils from the Balkans for her PhD (EUROFARM: Transmission of innovations: comparison and modelling of early farming and associated technologies in Europe, UCL), and on remains from China (Comparative Pathways to Agriculture, UCL) as well as India (Asia Beyond Boundaries, SOAS).

David Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Archaeology at the University of Birmingham. David’s main research interests concern the interpretation of insect remains from the archaeological record. He uses insect remains to investigate landscape and land-use change as well as living conditions in archaeological settlements. David has over 25 years’ experience providing commercial consultancy on insect remains from a range of archaeological sites in the UK and abroad.

Journal of Ecology: “What drives biodiversity patterns? Using long-term multi-disciplinary data to discern centennial-scale change”

Increases in population at the start of the British Neolithic and bronze age coincide with the loss of forests, increased agricultural activity, and changes in insect faunal groups to species associated with human land use. Pollen diversity increased most notably since the bronze age, as landscapes became more open. The connections between population and palynological diversity become increasingly significant since around 3000 years ago, implying intensifying impacts of human activity overriding climatic effects. Patterns of palynological diversity trends are regionally variable and do not always follow expected trajectories.

British Isles: pollen-based vegetation cover and diversity, insect faunal group change and population trends inferred from archaeological sites over the last 10,000 years.

Recent activities:

Jessie presented research at the 2020 Palynology Short Talks programmeEnvironmental Change, Landscape Reconstructions & Ecological Management.

Ralph gave a key note talk focussing on the project at the 2021 Quaternary Research Association Annual Discussion meeting 'Landscapes of Change: past, present and future perspectives' hosted by the University of Portsmouth.

Anne led an article published in Historic England Magazine: Biodiversity and land Use - how ancient practices shaped Britain

Jessie created a video presenting research at the FUTURES2020 public Global Science Show event celebrating European researchers.  

Artist's reconstruction of Carn Euny ancient village and field-system (Cornwall). © Historic England Archive. Illustrator Judith Dobie

Survey: Environmental management projects in the UK

As part of this research we are aiming to gather information about recent and current environmental management and restoration projects taking place across the UK. If you work for or run an organisation that carries out environmental restoration or conservation work we would very much appreciate if you could take the time to complete this survey, which takes no more than 15–20 minutes. 

Complete the survey

Biodiversity at a Crossroads | Research Festival 2020

Global environmental and climatic change and human activities are affecting biodiversity on unprecedented levels, requiring widespread interdisciplinary responses to tackle these issues.

In this full-day event, scientists from across the University of Plymouth and further afield came together with practitioners, individuals from Government organisations, artists, the third sector and the general public, to showcase nationally and globally important research, focused on the understanding and management of natural and human-modified landscapes.

Conservation and promotion of biodiverse landscapes is a major target for ecological conservation and landscape management as biodiversity is a key determinant on ecosystem functioning. 

Recent accelerations in the intensity of human land use have been implicated for changes in biodiversity, but relationships between land use change and diversity are complex (Ellis et al., 2012), include important historical legacies (Higgs et al., 2014) and major transformations are likely to have occurred across much longer time-scales than those covered by direct observation records. 

This project aims to synthesise palaeoecological datasets from both the natural and archaeological sciences to reconstruct biodiversity patterns and evaluate relationships of these patterns with land use over multimillennial time-scales.

View a more detailed version of this map

Location of archaeobotanical sites (Tomlinson and Hall, 1996), pollen sites used in Fyfe et al., (2013) and location of additional records now available, and location of insect assemblages used in Smith et al., (2019).

The role of land use in influencing changing patterns of biodiversity will be evaluated using a deep time perspective. 

This will be achieved by: reconstructing human land use and subsistence patterns for Britain from plant macrofossil records from archaeological sites since the advent of agriculture 6000 years ago; reconstructing biodiversity patterns from palaeoentomological and fossil pollen records; examining the relationship between land use and patterns of biodiversity across different spatial scales; and comparing our land use and biodiversity patterns with other related datasets, including geodiversity (landscape structure), palaeodemographic change, and climatic changes, to assess their role as additional controls on biodiversity and land use.

View a more detailed version of this diagram

Model of agricultural changes in the UK (Stevens and Fuller, 2012), archaeological periods, UK palaeodemographic changes (Bevan et al., 2017), pollen-based UK vegetation (Fyfe et al., 2013) and changes in insect faunal groups (Smith et al., 2019).

Workshops and Conferences 

A workshop was held in September 2019 for archaeobotanists working in the commercial sector, and in Higher Education, with the aim to include and collaborate with the archaeobotanical community in standardizing and harmonizing existing archaeological datasets for the British Isles. Please get in touch if you are an archaeobotanist and would be interested in participating in a future workshop.

At the Association for Environmental Archaeology 40th Anniversary conference held in Sheffield (29 November–1 December 2019), Jessie and Anne presented an overview of the research and the initial results from the project. 

Jessie presenting initial research outputs at the AEA conference in Sheffield

Project partners

Left to right: Jessie Woodbridge, Ralph Fyfe, David Smith and Ruth Pelling

The archaeobotanical data is being collated in ArboDat 2016 English Version (©Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Hessen, Wiesbaden, Germany, hessenARCHÄOLOGIE) held by Historic England.