Natural changes in upland landscapes
Upland landscapes in Britain are often perceived as the last wild lands on an increasingly overcrowded island. Whilst the uplands undoubtedly play an important recreational role as an escape from the urban experience, further enhanced recently by increased access under the Countryside Rights of Way Act, the notion of a wild land is untenable. The common classification of the British uplands as semi-natural ecosystems acknowledges the important role of human activity in creating and maintaining contemporary upland landscapes. In 2001, during the UK outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, concern was expressed that the loss of hefted flocks of Herdwick sheep (flocks habituated to a particular upland area) would lead to dramatic reductions in grazing pressure and scrub invasion, causing the loss of the ‘landscapes of Wordsworth’ (BBC News, 2001). At the same time the counter view that the ‘scrub invasion’ represented the precursor to a desirable return to natural woodland was also advanced (Holdgate, 2001). Central to this discussion is the fact that the upland landscapes of Britain represent a delicate balance of the processes of natural ecosystem change and both intended and unintended anthropogenic pressures on the system. Contemporary upland landscapes result from the interaction of land management and the natural biophysical environment. In this context there are three fundamental reasons why any assessment of these systems should be rooted in the natural ecosystem processes. First, effective management or manipulation of upland landscapes necessarily depends on a clear understanding of the processes of natural change both to ensure the longer-term sustainability of management solutions and to avoid unintended consequences. Second, a clear understanding of rates of natural change is a necessary context for assessment of the significance of anthropogenically forced change. Finally, whilst the uplands represent cultural landscapes, so that the definition of desirable end-points for land management lies in large part within the spheres of politics, economics and public taste, scientific understanding of the ‘natural’ system can inform the discussion through assessment of local environmental history, and assessment of what landscape states are biophysically achievable through management and
conservation. The aim of this chapter is to outline dominant natural trajectories of change in upland systems and, through a case study of eroding peatlands, to demonstrate that an understanding of both the longer-term context of natural change and shorter-term natural responses to disturbance is central to effective management of upland systems.