Archaeology South-East


Archaeology’s future benefits for landscape recovery, sustainable farming and wilding initiatives

22 October 2021

Dr Andy Margetts, post-excavation project manager at ASE, explores archaeology’s potential contribution in shaping our future countryside. He discusses historic landscapes as habitat and how ecologists and the heritage sector can work together for nature restoration and recovery.

Orange and white cattle lie in the shade of a massive old oak tree.

A challenge to meet

‘The case for conservation is weakened by lack of coordination between those concerned with scenery, wildlife, antiquities and freedom. The arguments, naturally, differ, but the objectives are often the same. (Rackham 1986, 28)

Since the great Oliver Rackham published his seminal History of the Countryside (1986) the need for joined-up thinking in relation to conservation has only increased. Humanity is at a cross-roads in its relationship with the planet, the choices we make today will have a profound effect on the world of the future. Both nationally and internationally, communities face the problems of a changing climate, depleted soils, pollution and struggling wildlife, all within the backdrop of rising populations, a need for space and increased food production. These challenges confront everyone and it is our collective responsibility to forge the best outcomes through informed decision making.

Those of us who work in heritage have much to contribute to debates about how we shape this altering world. Archaeologists are blessed with a profound appreciation of time depth and the changes that have occurred over the millennia in forming the environment that surrounds us. We are uniquely placed to help contextualise some of the most important issues that confront humanity, from climate change to nature recovery and from inequality to food production.

Historic landscapes contribute to the beauty and diversity of the British countryside. They hold considerable cultural value and have produced differing habitats suited to particular species (photo the author).

Through the medium of archaeological and palaeoecological studies, heritage professionals have been able to chart the sometimes dramatic processes that have altered Britain’s landscape and in turn its associated plant and animal communities. From the tundra and megafauna of the Last Glacial Maximum to the major shifts in Bronze Age hydroclimate that created our peat uplands, archaeologists can tell the story of Britain’s countryside.

Farming and sustainability

Despite the fact that human interference has often had a negative impact on Britain’s natural world, not all human intervention has been bad. It is often perceived that farming in particular has been detrimental to nature and biodiversity as well as the health of our countryside. Certainly this appears to be the case with some post-industrial land-use, where chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, together with mechanisation and monoculture, has led to ecological impacts and soil degradation. Over the last two-hundred years this, as well as irresponsible forms of fishing, hunting and predator control has perhaps had the greatest impact on Britain’s wildlife. Anthropogenic climate change is set to cause intense ecological upheavals now and in the future, just as natural cycles of climate change did during prehistory.

In contrast to much modern farming, pre-industrial agriculture was, in many ways, geared towards sustainability and relied on natural in-puts focussed on soil health and the carrying capacity of the land. It could never be suggested that direct aping of early farming could solve modern agricultural issues, but by studying past pastoral, arable or mixed regimes we can position ourselves to inform future developments and take the best elements from past land-use and apply them in suitable contexts. It must be remembered that some species thrive alongside traditional agricultural regimes and that sustainable farming is essential to humanity’s survival.

Historic landscapes as habitat

Indeed, our moorlands, heathlands, wooded commons and sheep cropped downland are all a product of human intervention. The British countryside is composed of distinctive cultural landscapes, which contribute to the beauty and diversity of the countryside whilst also providing a sense of place. These landscapes originated at different periods and all have evolved overtime. Nevertheless, their essential characteristics often owe their foundations to particular land-uses and agricultural practices. Within South-East England the sheep-corn husbandry of the South-Downs and the exploitation of the Weald as wood-pasture left a legacy in the morphology and ecology of the landscape. These humanly influenced variations are all around us and people together with animals have manipulated habitats within the countryside for millennia. This is the case across the country, whether that be the peat uplands of South-West England, the heaths of Breckland in East Anglia or the Frith landscapes of Wales. These historic landscapes accentuate certain environments that in turn encourage certain species. Consider heathland specialists such as the Dartford Warbler or one of Britain’s most endangered insects the ‘wart-biter’, itself reliant on chalky grassland and suitable grazing regimes.  

Locations that are today a target for nature recovery are often inherited from fragments of historic land-use that once characterised wider geographical areas. It is frequently the case that these fragments escaped the agricultural ‘improvers’ of the 18th and 19th centuries as their soils, topography and/or hydrology were perceived to be just too extreme to warrant investment. They could also be a legacy of elite hunting preserves or landed estates. Alternatively, they are sometimes inherited from landscapes where the history of communal farming was so strong that older forms of land-use maintained an adequate defence against agricultural conversion, such as late post-medieval enclosure.

Habitats, cultural and historic landscapes thus evolved in tandem and it may be possible to suggest that enhancement or revival of the essential characteristics of a particular landscape holds the key to local nature recovery. Holistic and informed conservation measures where ecology is encouraged, studied and preserved alongside an understanding of the historic environment and how it evolved can only be beneficial.

A heathland landscape at Wren’s Warren Valley, Ashdown Forest. Heathlands are a threatened environment formed through the combined efforts of people and grazing animals. They are important both archaeologically and ecologically (photograph courtesy of Richard James).

The role of ‘ELM’

The government’s new farming policy identifies three schemes that may qualify for funding as a means to encourage Environmental Land Management (ELM). These are the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. Through these schemes farmers and other land managers may enter into agreements to be paid for thriving plants and wildlife, heritage and engagement with the environment. The Local Nature Recovery scheme will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and meet local environmental priorities; whilst the Landscape Recovery scheme is intended to support landscape and ecosystem recovery through long-term projects. These may include initiatives such as peatland and salt marsh restoration, large-scale tree planting and restoring wilder landscapes in appropriate places.

Rewilding, tree planting and the historic landscape

The concept of ‘rewilding’ or ‘wilding’ is a progressive approach to conservation that attempts to restore ecosystems and natural processes, often via the reintroduction of species. Whilst restoring degraded landscapes is an essential element of such projects, rewilding in its strictest sense allows nature to take its course. Crucial in these schemes is the grazing of large herbivores, which act as habitat engineers and drivers of biodiversity. Archaeologists and palaeoenvironmentalists have much to offer such projects, by providing historical context and palaeoecological data, as well as an understanding of the processes that led to biodiversity loss in the first place.

The governments Environmental Land Management scheme makes clear that tree-planting will be a particular focus in the country’s attempt to tackle climate change. Such initiatives require careful consideration from both an ecological and heritage perspective. The uninformed planting of trees has great potential to lead to more harm than good. Plantations may be composed of unsuitable species and could be sited in inappropriate places, where valuable existing habitats or indeed archaeological remains may be unduly impacted.

From the outset, tree planting as well as rewilding projects need to come from an informed position, so as not to erode the historic landscape and local distinctions that in turn hold ecological value. Indeed, it is my view that the essential elements of historic landscapes should be given protection as heritage assets in a similar way to other archaeological sites and monuments. Some pioneering rewilding initiatives such as Oostvaardersplassen began with a blank canvas in terms of an underlying historic landscape. The project was sited on an area of polderland in the Netherlands, only reclaimed from the sea in 1968. British ecological projects such as Knepp, by contrast, are often implanted on a pre-existing historic landscape and should therefore be undertaken sensitively and holistically and with careful consideration of what is already there.

In the case of Knepp, once an understanding of the essential elements of the Weald’s historic landscape are applied, it is arguable that the project actually enhances and restores important elements of the character of the region (i.e. wood-pasture) rather than any Neolithic environment that the project was originally set up to imitate (see Margetts 2021, 253).  ‘Rewilding’ is not pretty, and in Europe at least, not without intervention (The Guardian 27/4/2018). In many ways wilding projects are merely an extension of human interference in landscape. They will remain so until projects are undertaken on a large enough scale to allow room for complete ecosystems, including large predators.

Knepp Longhorns resting next to an ancient oak. The tree is a heritage asset in its own right, whilst it, and the park-like wood-pasture environment, hold immense ecological value. The scene enhances important elements of the Weald’s historic landscape. (photograph courtesy of Lauren Gibson).

Conservation grazing as a means of restoration and enhancement

In terms of working with large herbivores, conservation grazing has for decades led the way in ecological restoration. The methods have the ability to bring together farmers, conservation professionals and the wider public to facilitate grazing for the benefit of wildlife, landscape and cultural heritage. Such projects clearly cater towards the government’s ELM schemes and perhaps hold the greatest potential for helping restore and enhance historic landscapes.

Given appropriate contexts, and the aims of particular projects, traditional breeds and forms of grazing hold significant advantages for landscape restoration. In the right circumstances, all the major domesticates can be put to use in enhancing our countryside, whether that be goats for reduction of invasive scrub, sheep for restoration of close cropped downland or ponies benefits to unimproved uplands.

By way of example, cattle have a major role to play in the restoration of our woodlands. Their grazing benefits include increases to biodiversity by reducing tree and scrub regeneration, maintaining open habitats and by decreasing dominant plant species. Trees can regenerate within cattle grazed woodlands, however, the degree of regeneration declines as grazing pressure increases. Subsequent advice for conservation managers who wish to encourage a range of ancient and semi-natural woodland types has therefore encouraged lower stocking densities (usually stocking around 0.5 livestock units per hectare). Something that was clearly managed by medieval farmers by way of stints, small herd sizes, and restrictions on the month and length of grazing. For restoration of lowland wood-pasture and maintenance of parkland environments a higher grazing intensity is usually recommended (Margetts 2021, 252–3).

The public benefits of heritage and ecology to the enrichment of landscape

Archaeologists and heritage professionals should be working alongside ecologists and the wider community to ensure the best outcomes for our landscape. Preservation of heritage and biodiversity can go hand in hand and incentives such as the ELM hold promise for how we approach the future of our countryside.

Commendable initiatives such as the upcoming discussion between the President of the Sussex Archaeological Society (Prof Martin Bell) and President of the Sussex Wildlife Trust (Dr. Tony Whitbread) lead the way in showing how heritage and ecology can work together for the benefit of all. This virtual event on Tuesday, 26th October at 7:30pm is free to attend – for more information and to register click here.

A conversation on rewilding between Prof. Martin Bell, president of the Sussex Archaeological Society, and Dr Tony Whitbread, president of the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

Final thoughts

There are two pages of Rackham’s seminal work (1986, 28–29) that should be read by every modern policy maker, proponent of tree planting, heritage professional, landscape architect and conservationist working today. Within, he reminds us that without careful thought, conservation and landscape management can be harmful to the preservation of the historic environment. It can erode local distinctiveness and irretrievably erase the inherent meaning of precious elements that make up the countryside. It is his lesson, as well as the faltering steps of early rewilding that help us realise how deeply and genuinely experts should engage with the public. This will prevent misunderstanding, promote conversation and facilitate inclusion.

Dr Andrew Margetts

Dr Andy Margetts is a post-excavation manager and landscape archaeologist at Archaeology South-East. His main research interests are pastoralism and historic agriculture as well as the application of archaeological studies to inform future landscape management. He has undertaken extensive excavations in the Sussex Weald and completed his doctorate on medieval cattle and landscape at the University of Exeter in 2020. In his free time Andy enjoys walking in the Welsh uplands and Wealden woods.


Margetts, A. 2021. The wandering herd: The medieval cattle economy of south-east England c.450 – 1450. Oxford: Windgather Press
Rackham, O. 1986. The history of the countryside. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Conservation Grazing projects: