Biodiversity and human 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, Historic England and the University of Birmingham.

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.

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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.

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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).

Project partners

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