What does ‘traditional’ management really mean?

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In spite of the increases in our knowledge achieved over the past half century, not least through the contributions of Oliver Rackham, we still know relatively little about historic land use practices or their ecological outcomes. By the time the characteristics of particular habitat types were first recorded in the mid-late nineteenth century, by Richard Jefferies for example, they were already changing fast, as a consequence of agricultural modernisation, industrialisation, and unprecedented population growth. Yet even before all of these far-reaching developments, land management systems had changed radically over time, and had varied from place to place, producing a constellation of landscape types that were considerably more unstable and variable than those produced by modern conservation methods (Fuller et al. 2017). Population fluctuated both locally and nationally, and farming varied in response to markets in meat and grain or the requirements of local and national industries.

Throughout western Europe, semi-natural habitats are often classified according to their past exploitation (e.g. Tansley 1939; Ratcliffe 1977; EC 1992), and within our surviving fragments of semi-natural vegetation, conservation management generally aims to continue the ‘traditional’ practices (those of pre-industrial [c. 1200-1750] land management systems) which originally contributed to their character. While these traditional practices have created a number of the habitats that we value today, our ancestors were, of course, not carrying them out with any aim of increasing biodiversity. The wildlife value of traditional landscapes came as a fortuitous by-product of intensive land stripping, vegetation clearance and exploitation by man; characterised by dynamic nested heterogeneity, compatible to a sizeable subset of potential Biodiversity. However, while current management of wildlife habitats may attempt to mimic aspects of ‘traditional’ practices, it arguably simplifies their character and thus, as the ‘State of Nature Report’ (Hayhow et al. 2016) has shown, is failing to sustain the species with which they are particularly associated. Indeed, it is likely that, to a significant extent, the conviction that ‘traditional’ management systems are insufficient for conservation is based on a poor understanding of what these actually involved, and of what they achieved. The management of individual land parcels, including those that we think of today as ‘semi-natural’, was far from static, and this raises important questions about how we can restore them to a meaningful ‘baseline’. More importantly, in failing to understand the real processes which made particular suites of species characteristic of particular places, we may be unable to sustain these into the future. In this article we elucidate the real character of past management systems, and suggest how the principles they embody can be used to develop innovative new conservation techniques.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-119
Number of pages7
JournalBritish Wildlife
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


  • cultural landscapes
  • biodiversity conservation
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • traditional management
  • semi-natural habitats
  • heathland management
  • nature conservation

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