Landscape image
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 has been 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 centred 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 Lecturer in Ecosystem Resilience at the University of Plymouth. As well as the "Biodiversity and land use project", 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 Science Advisor at Historic England and was previously 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.
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.
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.
Biodiversity and land use project
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.
Isles: pollen-based vegetation cover and diversity, insect faunal group change
and population trends inferred from archaeological sites over the last 10,000
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.
Workshops and conferences 
  • Anne de Vareilles presented at the 27th Environmental Archaeology Association conference (2021) and The International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany conference (2022). 
  • Jessie Woodbridge presented at the PAGES (Past Global Changes) OSM (2022), convened a thematic session at the BES Ecology Across Borders (2021) conference. 
  • Ralph Fyfe presented within the Devon Archaeological Society lecture series (2021), Exmoor Historic Environment series on Nature Recovery (2022), Exmoor Society conference, on Nature Recovery and biodiversity (2022), and at the University of Birmingham Landscapes roundtable discussion (2021).
  • A workshop was held (2019) with the aim to include and collaborate with the archaeobotanical community in harmonizing existing archaeological datasets. 
  • At the Association for Environmental Archaeology conference (2019), Jessie and Anne presented an overview of the research, and presented at subsequent online AEA conferences (2021 and 2022). 
AEA conference
Jessie presenting initial research outputs at the AEA conference in Sheffield
Dissemination and outreach:
Artist's reconstruction of Carn Euny ancient village and field-system (Cornwall). © Historic England Archive. Illustrator Judith Dobie
Artist's reconstruction of Carn Euny ancient village and field-system (Cornwall). © Historic England Archive. Illustrator Judith Dobie

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.

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

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.