Case Study: An integrated approach to the modern environment

Environmental evidence provides a very different perspective on the history of Scotland's landscapes from the human-centred view provided by many other sources. A significant challenge, but one worth taking, will be finding ways to integrate these perspectives (Hamilton et al. 2009).

Environmental evidence provides an independent strand of evidence which can be combined with written records and material remains. Together, these sources allow for more powerful historical analyses of human-environment relationships. Here the environmental evidence is not optional 'background' but an essential part of a multi-stranded approach, where the different lines of evidence and enquiry complement or challenge each other, producing fuller and more rigorous accounts of past landscapes.

Currently, the main limitations acting against an integrated approach are a shortage of environmental data and a tradition of poor integration in the theory and practice of landscape. Most palaeo-environmental analyses have focussed on prehistory and on millennial time spans which are inappropriate for integration with the finer-resolution histories which are the norm for the modern past and for understanding change on a human generational scale. Added to this, many pollen records of vegetation and land-use change originate from large lakes and bogs which provide a composite of regional-scale patterns. Such evidence is appropriate to historical interpretation at the regional scale and, in this, it concords well with regional studies based on archaeological, documentary and other sources. But archaeology, documentary history and other disciplines can also consider landscapes of a more localised kind and, here, the environmental evidence can lack the spatial resolution necessary for meaningful integration.

A secure chronology is an essential prerequisite for effective integration of environmental and historical sources. Errors associated with radiometric dating techniques (like radiocarbon dating) routinely span +/-80 years. This has led palaeo-ecologists to seek confirmation for known historical events in pollen diagrams, rather than treating these as independent sources which can be used to test hypotheses regarding causal mechanisms (Tipping 2004). However, alternative dating methods are readily available for the last c.150 years to reduce this problem.

Integrating quantitative environmental records with often largely qualitative written sources also requires careful efforts of disciplinary collaborations if new insights are to be generated into the influence of changing values on resource management choices (Davies and Watson 2007). Data are now increasingly available to understand landscape trends (primarily in the uplands) through the modern period. Increasing recognition (in the UK, Europe and beyond) that historical legacies rather than recent land management decisions determine many current ecological patterns and that past land-uses have contributed to current conservation values (e.g. for Scotland: Tipping 2000, Davies and Dixon 2007), such as biodiversity, indicates the relevance of integrated research into past human-environment interactions: this research into the past is fundamental to a sound understanding of the present and for adequately predicting future trends and thinking and acting in relation to the future landscape.

Return to Section 8.5 Human Ecologies