Guest Blog: Upland Land Use Heritage and a Sustainable Future

As part of our 50th Anniversary Celebration, we are featuring guest blogs from various researchers and project partners that we have worked with over the years, discussing some of our best research collaborations. Today’s blog post is from Dr Chris Dalglish, Director of Inherit.

Inherit – YAT’s Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development – helps communities to safeguard their heritage and use it in taking action which improves their lives and places. We work with diverse communities across Europe and the Middle East. In the Cheviot Hills in southern Scotland and northern England, we are exploring the history of hill farming, the value which people place on this heritage today, and its potential for securing a sustainable future for local communities and meeting the challenges of food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.

We are doing the research with Durham University and working with Northumberland National Park, local charities and community organisations to translate the results into practical benefits. Hill farming has deep roots in the Cheviot Hills. The forests which covered the hills were cleared around 2,000 years ago, leaving open grasslands and heath with patches of woodland. Since then, the main productive use of the uplands has been livestock rearing and – while the balance between cattle and sheep has shifted over time – the association of these hills with sheep is a long-standing one. In the Middle Ages, the monasteries held extensive estates and turned them over to large-scale sheep farming to supply the wool trade.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the old villages were cleared and modern farms established. The common lands were divided up and the land hedged and fenced. The farms which were laid out then are the farms that we have today, although there has been further change in the generations since. Some changes are readily visible and some are less obvious – new or improved breeds of sheep, the impacts of new technologies, fewer shepherds and farmers, and more land given over to forestry, hunting, nature conservation and peatland restoration, to name a few.

Through the research, we are exploring the practical details of land use and land management in particular valleys and farms. We are also looking at how farming has shaped the local environment and how life has changed for those who live and work in the area. But this is not just about the past. While much has changed, there is much that is still with us, from the landscapes shaped by farming, to inherited knowledge and skills, to the place of hill farming in local culture and identity. Given this, we are also exploring what hill farming heritage means for people today and working with local partners to see how this heritage might benefit people as part of the sustainable land use practices of the future.

We’ve been speaking with active and retired farmers, shepherds and estate staff to build up a picture of how hill farming has developed since the 1950s. To take the story back further, we’re looking at documents and maps in the archives and at the physical character of the landscape itself, which tells us much about how it has been organised and used over the years.

To understand why things have changed, we’re looking at outside influences such as government policy and trends in the farming economy. We’re also asking people what they think the future might hold, how they think hill farming traditions might contribute and what’s needed to sustain those traditions and adapt them for use as part of a viable and sustainable approach to farming in the 21 st century.

This work is part of Inspiring Rural Heritage, a project which is exploring upland land use heritage in five countries. In Spain, the University of Granada is working with local communities in the Sierra Nevada to understand historic irrigation systems and bring them back into use. In Montenegro, the Universities of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and Montenegro are working with the communities of Sinjajevina Mountain to protect their at-risk common lands. In the Pyrenees (France) and Apennines (Italy), the Universities of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and Genoa are exploring the relationship between livestock farming and woodland management with farmers, communities and public authorities.

The project is funded by the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.