How natural is natural? Historical perspectives on wildlife and the environment in Britain: Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture

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This article explores some of the ways in which historians can, and should, engage with current debates about the environment. What we often think of as ‘natural’ habitats in Britain – heaths, ancient woodland, meadows and the like – are largely anthropogenic in character, and much of our most familiar wildlife, from rabbits to poppies, are alien introductions. The environments we cherish are neither natural nor timeless, but are enmeshed in human histories: even the kinds of tree most commonly found in the countryside are the consequence of human choice. The ways in which the environment was shaped by past management systems – to produce fuel, as much as food – are briefly explored; and the rise of ‘re-wilding’ as a fashionable approach to nature conservation is examined, including its practical and philosophical limitations and its potential impacts on the conservation of cultural landscapes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-311
Number of pages19
JournalTransactions of the Royal Historical Society
Early online date1 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019

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