2017 Press Releases

Historic records inform perspectives on woodland uses

23 Feb 2017
Dr Suzi Richer, University of York, and Dr Benjamin Gearey, UCC, hope their work will offer new insight into ways in which woodland management systems can be adapted to increase a sense of ownership amongst local communities.

Cultural records and perceptions of a landscape dating back 300 years could shape conservation efforts in woodland areas, according to research by scientists at the University of York and UCC. 

Dr Suzi Richer, University of York, and Dr Benjamin Gearey, UCC, hope the work will give a cultural narrative to environmental data, but also new insight into the ways in which woodland management systems can be adapted to increase a sense of ownership amongst local communities.

Historical evidence provided the team perspectives on how documented woodland uses can be coloured by a cultural perception of them as either ‘wild’ places, working environments or spaces of leisure. 

By analysing pollen grains preserved in a waterlogged area of Shrawley Woods, the researchers were able to provide environmental data dating back to the 11th century. This was then compared with oral history records from the 18th century, which revealed the differences that occur in how the same type of tree is referenced between environmental and cultural records over time. The data show that the names given to the trees related more closely to how it was used by woodland dwellers and not by its species name, something that becomes more common from the industrial revolution onwards.

The team found the scientific data indicated both oak and lime trees, but the historical information refers primarily to the products of the woods, such as ‘poles’ used for hop growing, and do not reference the species name at all. It is only when the local oral history evidence is included that historical and scientific data can be linked together and the evolution of wooded areas fully understood.

Dr Ben Gearey from the Department of Archaeology, UCC, said: “We often think of environmental data as giving us information on the adverse effects that human activity can have on the environment, but our research shows that it can also demonstrate how cultural perceptions of a landscape or species can shape conservation efforts.

“We hope that this work demonstrates the importance of combining information from scientific and cultural approaches, and also accounts from the local communities in which these types of studies are undertaken.   

“The next stage is to look more closely at the archaeological record and how we can present combined records so that they are meaningful for policy makers and woodland managers.”

Dr Suzi Richer, University of York’s Archaeology and Environment Departments, said: “We find that many books, television programmes, films, and art work, position woodlands as ‘dangerous’ or ‘alien’ places, where cultural norms can be broken, but archaeological and historical evidence shows that these were often working and living spaces with evidence of charcoal burning, brick kilns, and water-powered mills, which bring people and wooded areas much closer together in a working, living harmony.

Records show that from around the 1800s, woodlands become far less ‘personal’ in the way in which they are documented, but the oral history accounts demonstrate that this ‘other way’ of seeing trees persisted and still persists in areas of the West Midlands today. The need to standardise resources was also consistent with the Enlightenment way of seeing the world at that time – one that saw the natural world as ‘civilised’. It is from this point onwards that names, like ‘oak’, are used more commonly.

The research is published in the Environmental Archaeology: Journal of Human Palaeoecology

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