Head out of a town and into the countryside and you’re likely to find gently rolling hills, lush woodlands, trickling streams, meadows, moorland and mountains – in fact, there’s a plethora of picturesque places out in the rural environment where you can escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life. However, these scenic landscapes that we think are ‘natural’ or intrinsic to the natural world are actually a product of centuries of sculpting by humankind.
The farmed landscape for instance, which is noticeably manmade, is consequent of the huge demand for crop resources, including food, fodder, fuel and various other produce. Even mountains and moorland are managed and are kept open and devoid of encroaching tree species by using livestock such as sheep and wild ponies to nibble back any young saplings. Take Snowdonia for example, a landscape generally considered as wild, natural and pure as any, is in fact a managed ecosystem, designed for grazing; a landscape that would look completely different without human intervention and constant management. Sadly, there are very few places left on the planet that are truly ‘natural’.
A Wooded Land
Up until the 1600’s the landscape in the British Isles was predominantly woodland, an ecosystem that required no input from mankind and one that was perfectly in balance. But as the human population increased, we shaped the landscape to suit our requirements. Food and shelter demands increased, and our ancestors realised that farming both crops and livestock was a way of obtaining food, supplemented by what the forest provided. This trend has continued, with natural populations of both animals and plants unable to support our vast population growth. During the 1900’s in the UK, forest coverage fell to a meagre 5%, and although it has now recovered to almost 12%, it’s hardly surprising that many of our plant and animal species have declined. Issues such as flooding, soil loss and drought have increased during this time too, thought in part to be a consequence of the severe deforestation that has occurred.
Generally speaking, farming practices used today are employed solely to maintain the land in order to generate the highest yields in the shortest amount of time possible. These intensive methods (which include ploughing and the use of synthetic fertiliser etc.) are common practice in modern agriculture and are widely accepted as the most efficient techniques; however they come at a substantial cost. Firstly they require a high input level (physical labour/expensive machinery and the pricey annual application of fertilizers and herbicides) which although may deliver a high crop yield, can be very costly for the farmer involved. Secondly they do not take into account the sustainability of the wider environment – i.e. they are not in sync with the surrounding ecosystem. The latter cost, although seemingly not important for the progression of agriculture, is actually crucial for maintaining a resilient landscape which can be sustained for future generations. To put this in context Britain has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, which is mostly down to modern farming practices. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that Britain is in severe danger of decreased yields in the coming decades if practices don’t change.
The way we cultivate the land (particularly the large scale operations in the western world) are unsustainable on a basic level because they’re farmed at an energy loss (i.e. the amount of energy put in is far greater that we get out). With a sudden boom in the population over the last few hundred years, the need to produce more food has sky rocketed, resulting in an increased demand on the land to provide us with all the food and nutrients we need. Modern agriculture has adapted to meet these short term demands, but we have not looked to the long term. Farmland managed in this way is part of this unsustainable ecosystem and without human input (and indeed the pressures that we exert) it would eventually revert back to something more natural – a wild ecosystem that is able to sustain life also known as a “self optimizing system”. (We will look at the issues surrounding agriculture and potential long term solutions in a later blog).
So what would farmland revert to?
If left alone, farmland (and indeed many other habitats managed by humans) would gradually revert back to the most resilient and sustainable ecosystem possible – one that functions perfectly of its own accord without assistance or inputs from outside influences.
The very definition of a sustainable ecosystem is “a biological environment and series of habitats that is able to thrive and support itself without outside influence or assistance.” Of course, in an ideal sustainable ecosystem, everything beneficial life requires to survive is provided within the ecosystem. Thus, if humans were removed from the equation then a landscape such as farmland for example, would receive no added assistance; this means that the soil would receive no supplementary nutrients (and therefore issues such as nutrient leaching wouldn’t be such a problem), the soil wouldn’t be disturbed through ploughing, weed proliferation would be supressed by larger and more beneficial plant species able to support greater diversity and the ecosystem would find balance once again, this is achieved by a chain of events referred to as succession. The tough ‘pioneer’ species would colonize the disrupted land and kick-start a chain of ecological events, which would ultimately lead to potentially huge bio-diverse ecosystems. If you’ve ever been to one of these places you may have remarked on the sheer beauty and harmony of such a place.
In closed loop systems no materials enter or leave the system – waste products from one organism are used by another for metabolic function – (in reality these closed loop systems are purely hypothetical, as there will always be “loss” of outputs through migration for example). Interestingly, sustainable ecosystems share several attributes, most notably their biological diversity. This means that a large amount of different species are present in an ecosystem, and this natural diversity can significantly benefit the ways in which the ecosystem functions. Biodiversity and resilience go hand in hand. This is nature’s back up. If one system fails, another kicks in. The age of the planet would testify that this is a highly remarkable and resilient form of operation.
At 59 Degrees our method of approach is to learn from the ways in which nature maintains balanced ecosystems in order to improve and progress our own land management techniques. By mimicking nature we’d ensure that the food we consume is viably produced and is sustainably managed for the future. It doesn’t get a lot of airtime outside of the agricultural world, and the information that does reach the masses is often gargled and inaccurate.