Conflicts of land use

Dry stone walls

The character of limestone regions is, to a large extent, due to the fact that villages, field walls and barns are made of the local stone. But, the very fact that limestone was quarried placed the landscape under environmental pressure (although on a relatively small scale).

Today, pressure from human activity (such as housing, industry, transportation, etc.) is much greater and this is particularly so in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Changes at different rates

Environmental pressures result in a change, which is often a permanent change, in the landscape. However, changes to the environment are not new; they occur all the time but at different rates.

We can consider the changes that have taken place in, for example, the Yorkshire Dales National Park on three scales:

Changes on a geological scale

The landscape of the Yorkshire Dales has been evolving for over a million years. The rocks of the Yorkshire Dales comprise:

Although the rock types are important in creating the landscape, during ice ages:

  • glaciers contributed to the landscape by creating limestone scars on the sides of the U-shaped valleys
  • large quantities of water from the melting ice caused erosion of the gorges and valleys that are now dry

Since the last retreat of the glaciers the rivers that flow through the Dales have eroded the valleys, carrying the debris away down to the sea.

Evolution of the Dales (and other limestone regions) moved along imperceptibly until the last few thousand years. The very slow rate of change has accelerated because, in addition to the changes caused by natural phenomena, human beings have exerted environmental pressures on the landscape.

Changes on a historical scale

The environment is constantly changing and evolving at an imperceptibly slow rate. However, human beings see the landscape as something to be shaped and utilised, which accelerates the change. This is not a new phenomenon, but goes back thousands of years, and we can see an example of this in the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales National Park.

People have lived in the Dales for over 11 000 years, the first sign of human activity being an antler harpoon point found in Victoria Cave, near Settle.

In addition to Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures, in historical times the Romans, Celtic, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Norse and Normans have all contributed to the change of the landscape. This was continued through the medieval period into later history, and we continue to use this valuable natural resource today in a number of ways.

Great forests covered most of the Pennines 8000 years ago, but most are now have been destroyed. However, we cannot blame modern industrial processes for this situation.

Clearance of the forests (deforestation) is not new, but began during the Neolithic times (the late Stone Age), when the only tools available were stone axes. Deforestation accelerated during the Bronze Age, continued through the Iron Age and was completed in medieval times when there was great demand for timber for housing, ship building and fuel.

When the great forests were in existence, heavy rainfall was taken up by the trees so that the soils were free-draining and did not become waterlogged. As a result, the soil remained well aerated and fertility was kept high due to the large input of nutrients from the decaying leaves.

After deforestation, the lack of trees resulted in the soils on plateaux and other flat areas becoming waterlogged and the water replaced the oxygen in the soils (they became anaerobic). This prevented decomposition of organic matter and reduced the soil pH, meaning acidity increased. Fertility also reduced as there was no longer a large input of organic matter from leaves. Thick peat developed from undecomposed plants.

This change in the soils hindered the growth of native trees and is the reason why there is so little woodland in the Dales today.

Changes on a modern scale

In some respects, we must be grateful for the environmentally unfriendly activity of the past: without it we would not be left with the magnificent landscape we see today.

Although there is no doubt that the original biodiversity was fundamentally changed at that time, without the deforestation the heather moorlands and grasslands would not have developed and the Dales would not support the rare animals (for example red squirrels) and rare birds (such as the golden plover, merlin, hen harrier, lapwing and snipe) that live there today.

We should not be too harsh in judging past generations. Humans must exist with nature — it is a matter of balance.

Today, a little over 50 per cent of the Yorkshire Dales National Park is open moorland, consisting of:

  • rough, lime-loving grasses, such as sheep's fescue and crested hair grass: these grow on well-drained alkaline soils on the upland limestone
  • acid-loving plants, including rushes, cotton grass and the insect-eating plant sundew: these grow in poorly drained areas on sandstones and gritstone
  • acid-loving heather dominates in well-drained areas

The rough grassland on the limestone upland areas is suitable for sheep rearing. However, the number of animals that can be kept on the sandstone and gritstone areas is so small that it is uneconomical, although heather is regularly burnt to promote the growth of younger shoots and grass that the sheep can live on. The heather moorlands are used for grouse shooting and forests of coniferous trees have been planted in some areas, although these are not trees native to Britain.

Pressures on the landscape that are created by humans ('anthropogenic' pressures) are not new. In fact the very character and beauty of the Yorkshire Dales, which we hold in such high esteem, is almost entirely the result of human activity. It is not possible to return the Dales back to their original or 'natural' form, with great forests populated by boar and wolf. This is not what pressure groups concerned with environmental issues want: they merely demand that the landscape created by people during the last few millennia is maintained.

We have to decide whether we want to maintain the Yorkshire Dales as a museum and prohibit any future development, or allow it to evolve in an appropriate manner (and who decides what is 'appropriate'?). Clearly we must protect the environment, the landscape (whether natural or artificial) and more importantly its biodiversity.

The problem is, how can we manage our environment to the benefit of all?