Environmental History Key to Future of Wildlife in England

First Posted: Dec 16, 2013 08:19 AM EST

As environmental conditions shift and change due to human impacts, wildlife across the globe is suffering. Now, scientists have stated that protecting and enhancing our wildlife for future generations will need radical new policies that are informed by history as much as science. The findings reveal that the past can inform both our present and our future when it comes to the environment.

A great example of this past history can be seen in England. Tom Williamson, landscape historian, examined how the number and distribution of different species altered over three centuries from 1650 to 1950. During this time, the environment was transformed by unprecedented levels of population growth, large scale urbanization, economic globalization and successive revolutions in agriculture and industry. This had a huge impact of the country's flora and fauna, but a less uniformly negative one than is assumed.

"The environment of England faces more challenges, and more complex challenges, than perhaps ever before," said Williamson in a news release. "Continuing increases in population, and radical reduction in household size, put more and more pressure on space. Our insatiable demand for energy threatens to cover the rural landscape with wind turbines and solar farms. Above all, globalization, and perhaps climate change, bring not only more foreign plants and invertebrates to these shores but also--more worrying by far--new pests and diseases, especially of trees, such as the recent ash chalara."

While most people today think the countryside is "natural" in some sense, Williamson argues otherwise. Rural landscapes are as artificial as urban ones. Because of the years and years of human influence, there's a shifting baseline of what is actually considered natural, which is important to take into account when considering conservation policies.

More specifically, history can inform the recreation of lost habitats. There's also danger when it comes to a one size fits all approach. For example, over the last few decades there's been a widespread replanting of species-rich hedges and woodland. While this has brought real benefits, other habitat should also be considered--such as heaths, downs and wetlands.

The findings reveal that it's important to understand the past in order to implement conservation policies in the present. Restoration of certain areas requires knowing what was there before and also what might work in the present. This is crucial for preserving wildlife for future generations and has implications not only for England's environment, but also the environment of countries across the globe.

The findings are written in Williamson's new book An Environmental History of Wildlife in England 1650-1950.

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