Wild about Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Chasing Shadows………..

Wild about Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Chasing Shadows………..

For around four years now, supported by the Peak Park and the British Ecological Society, we have worked with ‘citizen scientists’ across the region investigating the phenomenon of ‘Shadow Woods’. By mapping common woodland ‘indicator’ plants across parts of the Peak District moors west of Sheffield, we have created digital maps of the data generated to show distributions of important or significant species. Then, working with old maps and archives we can identify known ‘ancient woods’ and set these to one side. The reason for this is that we are hunting for fragments of countryside and vegetation we believe were present before the Domesday account written around nine hundred years ago; the so-called ‘Shadow Woods’. Using the indicators to guide our search we are able to locate the ancient wood pastures and wooded commons which largely pre-date the ancient woods and the moors themselves. Indeed, this new approach to understanding countryside history has suggested very strongly that our moors and heaths are the result of intensive management since the ‘parliamentary enclosures’ around two to three hundred years ago. This is when the moors, which were commonland, were ring-fenced to keep sheep in and peasants like me out. The land had twin objectives of producing grouse and sheep on industrial scales, the consequences being something environmental writer George Monbiot rails about. The moors since that time have been burned, drained, and grazed to within an inch of their lives in the name of ‘sport’.

The result of this intensive management of lands which many consider to be ‘wild’ is that ancient wood pastures, probably descended from even older primeval landscapes were degraded. However, don’t get me wrong, I love moors, bogs and heaths, though many ‘re-wilders’ don’t like them at all. But the problem has been that these remarkable ecosystems were changed and in some cases almost beyond recognition. Our surveys suggest that the unenclosed wooded commons and wood pastures extended way further ‘down the hill’, into and beyond areas such as Sheffield itself. As these ancient ecosystems were located farther downslope, they became more woody and grassy, and up onto the higher ground were wetter and more ‘heathy’. However, it seems that these were open lands but with scattered trees even up to the high moors and bogs of today and they had far more diverse flower-rich vegetation with woodland species like bluebells, greater stitchwort and even wood anemone. Imagine the moors and heaths but with more ancient trees and patches of wildflowers; wonderfully exciting wildlife habitats.

It is amazing how some of these lost ‘Domesday landscapes’ have survived as a testament to the tenacity of nature. Furthermore, we have the capacity now to release the power of the ‘Shadow Woods’ to re-colonise the moorland fringes and maybe more. You can find out more about this in the new book ‘Shadow Woods – A Search for Lost Landscapes’. The book explains how to find them and what it might mean for countryside across the Peak and further afield too.

Shadow Woods: a search for lost landscapes

This newly-published book by Professor Ian D. Rotherham was launched at the recent international conference on ‘Wood Meadows & Pastures’, as a part of the ‘Wilder Visions’ programme. The volume is intended to view ecology and landscapes in a rather different way from that which we normally do; to effectively view the countryside through a different lens. Considering ancient woods and treed countryside, the intention is to raise awareness about our ecological and landscape origins and through this to open up new possibilities and exciting opportunities.

The ‘Shadow Woods‘ project is pertinent to ideas of ‘wilding’ since it gives a real impetus and historic relevance to the ideas – with heaths and moors being wonderful habitats but transformed from even better – unenclosed wooded commons and wood pastures descended from the Domesday landscape. The concepts are based on work over 20 years or more and endeavour to place ideas of ancient landscapes and countryside into a robust framework of ecological science and history. Remarkably we are finding these  ‘lost Domesday landscapes‘ in Britain today and they have been largely overlooked in debates on, for example, re-wilding.

The book argues that viewed through the lens of single-discipline ecologists such ‘habitats’ have been overlooked and misunderstood. This adds further leverage to George Monbiot’s call to allow the trees higher up the hillside to slow the flow of flood-waters – though arguably by unleashing nature to generate new wood pastures rather than planting – which gives you ‘plantations’. The book joins ecology, history, politics and economics – to understand the past, to inform the present, and to guide the future. The idea is to trigger wider awareness to help achieve John Lawton’s call for bigger, better, bolder and more joined, to trigger new ‘futurescapes’ in the historical veracity of Dutch scholar, Frans Vera’s ideas of the ancient landscapes of Britain and Europe but looking forwards not backwards.

There are major reasons why we have to do this – sustainability, economics, and ecology – but there is also a huge issue of a need to engage and involve more people and especially those in towns and cities. Many of the current ‘re-wilding’ discussions sadly fall short and for a predominantly urban society can appear both elitist and exclusive. If we are unable or unwilling to resolve this dilemma then we will ultimately fail in the much-needed objective to ‘wild’ a more sustainable futurescape.

It is suggested that we need to understand the past to inform the present, and from this knowledge we can influence the future The book introduces a number of key issues and new ideas – shadow woods, ghost woods, lost woods, eco-cultural landscapes, cultural severance, grubby landscapes, ecological filtration, biodiversity time-capsules, futurescapes, and more. These concepts aim to help the exploration of our ecological history and to provide insight into the processes at work. The book is intended, as far as is possible with a subject like this, to be non-technical and to assume no prior knowledge on the part of the reader. However, more information and on-going guidance and discoveries can be found on the associated website.

The book is available from Amazon.co.uk:


Read alongside Ian Rotherham’s ‘Recombinant Ecology: A hybrid Future?’ published by Springer, and ‘Eco-history: An Introduction to Biodiversity and Conservation’, published by The White Horse Press, ‘Shadow Woods’, will help re-cast images and ideas of a future nature and a different countryside.

For more information please contact: Ian Rotherham, on: i.d.rotherham@shu.ac.uk
Or telephone: 0114 2724227


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