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Anthropogenic Heathlands

Disturbance ecologies and the social organisation of past resilient landscapes


More than 4,000 years ago, small-scale agropastoral communities of Northern Europe began the first fire-based management and expansion of naturally occurring heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Palynological evidence suggests that there was an exceptional continuity of some of these enormous landscapes, covering thousands of hectares, until the 18th-19th century.

Large-scale anthropogenic heathland is a unique form of ecosystem, an artificially sustained vegetational succession stage, whose retention is dependent on systematic disturbance. Left on its own without repeated and frequent efforts to rejuvenate heather, including burning, grazing and turf-removal, heathland will turn into crowberry or grass heath and eventually dwarf shrub and forest.

As a result, the palaeoecological evidence poses an intriguing puzzle regarding how such a particular type of landscape, which is constantly in the process of becoming something else, could be sustained for more than four millennia.

Their survival suggests the existence of highly specialised multispecies entanglements and forms of social organisation based on grazing and controlled burning with a unique capacity to persist or re-establish.

And they invite an exploration of how people can self-organise around land held in common and devise resilient structures of governance: What was the actual stability of these landscapes? How did they apparently become super-resilient in some areas but not in others? And how did these heathland regimes self-organize and manage to stay in place in spite of radical demographic, political and tenure changes?

Principal investigator

Mette Løvschal, PhD, Associate Professor,
Aarhus University and Moesgaard Museum

Paper presented at the International Association of the Society of Commons, July 2020.

By Mette Løvschal, AU & Marie Gravesen, DIIS: 

FENCING/deFENCING LAND: New pastoral commons in postcolonial Kenya

Visit IASC to read the further discussion of the presentation. 

News and events

2021.06.29 |

New blogpost in Cambridge University Press

Blogpost 23 June 2021 Wild and wishful: The emergence of heathlands as anthropogenic assemblage

2021.05.28 |

Owning Natures in the Longue Durée

CEH seminar examining early land ownership regimes in Europe with talks from scholars Susan Oosthuizen and Mette Løvschal.

2021.05.19 |

New postdoc in ANTHEA: Mark Haughton

From 15 August 2021, Mark Haughton will be joining ANTHEA as postdoc. MH has recently successfully defended his PhD thesis in Archaeology, University of Cambridge, in 2020, called "Narrativizing Difference in Earlier Bronze Age Society: a comparative analysis of age and gender ideologies in the burials of Ireland and…