Revealing Long-Term Change in Vegetation Landscapes: The English Lake District and Beyond

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: History


Ecological restoration and re-wilding are common practices in the management of landscapes. Both of these approaches aim to restore past landscapes and, in doing so, enhance biodiversity. Unfortunately, whilst we have a good understanding of what past landscapes looked like, we have little idea of what the species were that inhabited those landscapes. Botanical surveys using modern scientific approaches did not start until around the 1960s and prior to this data is in disparate and descriptive sources which pose many challenges for scientists to use. The lack of readily accessible data makes it difficult to make management decisions regarding how habitats should be conserved or restored.

In this project we will bring together academics from landscape history, digital humanities, and botany and conservation to address this challenge. Using approaches from digital humanities we can access a wide range of sources that are not easily accessible to botanists. We will utilise a corpus of over 300 texts that we have already assembled. In a series of workshops we will explore the major challenges involved in using this data appropriately and communicating its information to academics and non-academics who are interested in the landscapes of the present and the future. Over the course of the network we will use the workshops to develop and shade a series of exemplars of our techniques in action focusing on a small number of species in the Lake District.

Our first workshop will focus on how we can extract species names from historical texts in digital form. This workshop will bring experts in natural language processing (NLP) and digital humanities techniques together with landscape historians to explore and apply approaches such as NLP, geographical information systems (GIS) and qualitative spatial representation (QSR) to address some of the challenges faced in understanding what species there were, and where and when they were recorded. Location is a particularly challenging as we must be able to cope with and combine both place names and other types of information such as "...on the lower slopes above Borrowdale."

Our second workshop will focus on integrating these sources into the modelling approaches used in modern botany. Historians and botanists very rarely work together so this will be an excellent opportunity to bridge this disciplinary divide. One key challenge will be data accuracy, the implications of the limited and fragmented nature of our sources, on the so called 'recorder effort.'

The final workshop will focus on novel ways to communicate this data bringing together experts from a range of disciplines together with stakeholders such as planners and representatives of the heritage sector. The workshop will report on the findings from the previous two workshops and explore how data can be best communicated to those who will find it most useful. It will also develop an agenda for publication and future grant applications to further develop the network.

Planned Impact

This project has significant potential for impact among a wide range of organisations and others with an interest in the landscapes, vegetation, and habitats of the past and how understanding these affects current landscape management and planning. Subjects such as re-wilding, restoring and preserving historical or traditional vegetation are widespread; however, as described elsewhere in this application, our knowledge of the vegetative landscapes of the past - which largely means before the 1960s - is remarkably limited. By unlocking the information in a wide range of humanities sources stretching back to the 18th century we should be able to do much to improve our understanding of these landscape - important for the cultural heritage sector - and do much to improve decision making by planners, land-owners and others.

We have five main project partners: the Natural History Museum, the National Trust, the British Library, the Lake District National Park Authority, and Friends of the Lake District. These organisations will participate in relevant events of the network. We will also host an outreach day as part of the third workshop where we will invite a much wider range of organisations and individuals. Given the importance of the topic, and the controversy that it can provoke, we anticipate that this will be very popular. Through Lancaster University's Regional Heritage Centre and other links, we are well connected to relevant people and groups.

Of our major partners, the Natural History Museum is a national organisation with an interest in botany and botanical history. The National Trust combines being a national organisation with also having a strong presence in the Lake District. It provides a partner with an interest in landscape heritage and, as a major landowner with a large number of sensitive and culturally important sites, in planning and landscape management. The British Library is another major national institution. Its interest is in how its world-leading collection of resources can be used in new ways, particularly in the light of new digital resources and methods. The Lake District National Park Authority and Friends of the Lake District provide us with two regional partners with differing perspectives on the heritage and future of Lake District landscapes.

Beyond the lifetime of this network, we plan to develop these partnerships further, hopefully with new funding, in ways that will lead to our approaches being applied in partnership with at least some of these organisations.


10 25 50
Description TBC at the end of the award
Exploitation Route TBC at the end of the award
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description SBE-UKRI: Understanding imprecise space and time in narratives through qualitative representations, reasoning, and visualisation
Amount £814,611 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/W003473/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 09/2025
Description Meetings involving a range of partners including the Natural History Museum, Centre for Ecology, Friends of the Lake District, Lake District National Park Authority, etc 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact A range of partners discussed how we could use historical digital approaches to better understand long-term environmental change
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022