Landscape Histories for Landscape Futures
Exploring the evolving role of archaeology in large-scale nature recovery projects.
In the face of accelerating climate and ecological crises, nature organisations and government bodies are devising ambitious new initiatives for landscape adaptation and nature recovery. Defra and Natural England have created the Nature Recovery Network to work towards a target to protect and effectively manage 30% of land for nature by 2030, as outlined in the 25 Year Environment Plan.
Research questions and approach
Within this overall context, the National Trust, as an organisation designed to manage its land for people, nature and heritage, is in a unique position to develop new integrated approaches to landscape stewardship.
Nature recovery projects promise to enhance biodiversity, improve climate change resilience and create spaces for wellbeing and health—but they can also reinforce the cultural diversity of the landscape and protect the historic environment.
In 2022 the University of Exeter and the National Trust developed the Landscape Histories for Landscape Futures project to explore how archaeology and understanding of past landscape change could inform the Trust’s planning for accelerated nature recovery on its properties. The project followed on from the Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change project, which was jointly led by the National Trust, Historic England, the University of Exeter and University College London.
Landscape Histories for Landscape Futures was designed with the following research questions in mind:
- How can deeper knowledge of landscape history and archaeology inform and activate new directions for future landscape management, in alignment with nature recovery and carbon sequestration goals?
- How can historic and natural environment practitioners (including National Trust staff) be empowered to use this knowledge to help them work together more effectively in their planning and decision-making?
Four diverse National Trust sites carrying out different kinds of nature recovery work were chosen as case studies for the project:
- the Lake District;
- Divis, Northern Ireland;
- Killerton, Devon;
- and Wallington, Northumberland
We were interested in hearing from different staff and specialists at each site to gather a range of perspectives and understandings around the issues. Some of the sites were further on in projects than others, offering the added benefits of hindsight and changed perspectives.
Rather than produce a written document on the work, the conversations were recorded and used to create a series of podcasts (one for each site, and another in conversation with University of Exeter academics).
The podcast format aimed to give space for the voices of those involved in nature recovery projects to be heard, and to offer an opportunity for people to consume the information in an alternative format. The podcasts are now available as an internal resource at the National Trust for all their staff embarking on or involved in nature recovery projects. An external podcast is planned for later this year, to be made available to all organisations involved in this work. Initial responses from National Trust staff have been overwhelmingly positive.
At all the case study sites, the recurring lessons were those around communication and timings. It is vital to involve all specialists at an early stage, to give everyone time to properly understand all perspectives and draw together an approach that works best for the natural environment and existing heritage.
These conversations need to take place in person, and if possible out on site. In this way, projects can be developed based on broad understanding from the start, rather than bringing in archaeologists at the end, which often results in parts of the work being limited or cut. At present archaeology is commonly viewed as a blocker in nature recovery projects, rather than a key tool in planning for and imagining landscape change.
The project also identified that communication is often hampered by the use of specialist language, which can be confusing for those from other specialisms. Methods of communication also need to be more nuanced. Mitigation documents and GIS maps, while an essential planning tool, do not always allow for more complex landscape narratives or for flexibility to take into account ecological or natural management in real-world nature recovery projects. From the archaeological side, this includes finding better ways of communicating what past landscapes are, what they can tell us and how we understand them on a broad landscape scale rather than as individual features or areas.
Thinking between past and future
There is often an inherent misunderstanding amongst non-archaeological specialists about what archaeology/historic environment/heritage actually is.
The historic environment is often seen as a series of discrete features or finds, rather than embracing the complex process of long-term landscape change, with all historic elements integrated into a wider understanding.
This is more of an issue in landscapes where the archaeology is vestigial or invisible, such as in peatlands, where we have to base work on what ‘might be’ or on more cumulative understandings that draw in many different kinds of archaeological research (e.g. paleoecology, geoarchaeology, Environmental DNA).
As archaeologists we need to be better at communicating these broad ideas of what archaeology is, and what it offers in terms of understandings of landscape change. Understanding past change offers a vital mode of imagining possible futures. The long timeframes of human and environmental interactions seen in the archaeological record also allow people to understand broader perspectives of change, thus making nature recovery projects seem less frightening and more positive and acceptable. This is a key area especially when engaging with communities.
The podcast format grew out of awareness that it is difficult for staff to keep pace with the speed of nature recovery projects and the paperwork involved. The episodes can be listened to anywhere, such as in the car travelling to sites. Podcasts bring a more immediate understanding of place and people, and give an opportunity for those involved to have their own voice. Careful editing enables narrative to be created at each of the sites, drawing out the most important issues and lessons. The process of interviewing staff also highlighted the importance of listening, and giving the time to feedback and mull over projects.
The Landscape Histories for Landscape Futures podcasts revealed the need for more resources for those working within nature recovery projects, including guidance, shared knowledge and case studies for working in particular environments. These projects are driving a new kind of landscape change at an accelerated rate, and therefore it is critical that archaeologists share and develop strategies for effecting positive landscape change which is informed by understanding of the historic environment. Work is now ongoing to create new resources to help integrate archaeological perspectives in nature recovery projects, and share how to best manage past and future landscapes through sensitive change.
Dr Rose Ferraby FSA
Prof. Caitlin DeSilvey
Dr Hannah Fluck
Dr Ingrid Samuel OBE
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