The Making of Penwith's semi natural habitat
Exploring the development of a valued environment and landscape.
With many thanks to Pete Herring who undertook this project for the PLP.
The Penwith Landscape Partnership (PLP) commissioned an overview of 11,700 years of landscape and environmental history in West Penwith, that of the Holocene period that commenced with the end of the last Ice Age. Humans and other fauna have played a creative and disruptive role in the development of diverse semi-natural environment since recolonisation around 10,000 years ago.
The study (Herring 2023, link to pdf. below) explored aspects of the peninsula’s landscape, land use history and biogeography. It reviewed geology, topography, historic landscape survey and characterisation, palaeo-ecology, archaeology, history, place-names, artistic representations and responses, and other sources. It complements and draws from the detailed landscape archaeology of the West Penwith Survey (Herring et al 2016), the Cornwall and Scilly Historic Environment Record, and the intensive study of the peninsula’s rough ground by the HEATH project (Dudley 2011; Kirkham 2011).
This PLP project complements the West Penwith Survey and the CSHER by exploring the effects of people’s activities on the peninsula’s habitats, flora and fauna. It also complements and extends the intensive study of the peninsula’s rough ground that was undertaken in the late 2000s for the HEATH project.
This study became a labour of love and has become an extensive document considering the landscape, its inhabitants, various semi natural habitats and how the plants you see today came to be here. Pulling extensively on pollen alaysis from the archaeologicla record for the area we can begin to get a sense of the plants that populated the landscape of West Penwith through time and how the actions of its population changed those plants during a given time period.
The full report is available as a pdf at the bottom of this page but below is a summary of the key findings of the report. It is hoped that this document will act as a source of information to both the individual, decision makers managing the land and as an inspiration for others who may want to pursue themes of interest raised by this study.
Summary of key observations from the report
- The peninsula’s intricate topography and complex history are reflected in a shimmering mosaic of semi-natural habitats and flora.
- Humans and other fauna have played a creative and disruptive role in the development of diverse semi-natural environment since Britain was recolonised 10,000 years ago.
- The most radical changes may have been in the last 150 years, when specialisation in order to supply the needs of urban market economies resulted in partial or total suspension of traditional land use in some parts of West Penwith, including many downlands and cliff pastures.
- Until then, there was continuity in some fundamental elements of land use even when the detail of each varied considerably between places and changed greatly through time.
- The long summertime (May to November) grazing of downlands and cliff tops, probably from Early Neolithic times, c4000 BC.
- Containment and management of woodlands in the steep-sided valleys, again from the Early Neolithic period.
- Mixed farming on the coastal plateaux and gentler valley-sides, probably from the Middle Bronze Age, c1500 BC.
- Herb-rich grasslands dominated West Penwith’s downlands from at least as early as the first centuries of the Neolithic period (4th millennium BC) right through to the Romano-British and post-Roman periods.
- Surviving grasslands may be seen as Ancient Semi-Natural Grassland.
- Their origination in the early Holocene (Mesolithic period) may have been partly natural, as elements of wood pastures, but Mesolithic hunter-gatherers probably enhanced the ‘niches’ they depended upon by deliberate manipulation, including by extending and managing grasslands to favour prey species, and to encourage plant life within the grassland that provided other forms of food and materials.
- From the Neolithic period maintenance of the grasslands was part of a pastoralist strategy using domesticated livestock (probably cattle, horses, sheep, goats and pigs, all introduced to Britain, and ultimately derived from western Asia or south-eastern Europe).
- Dairying has been an important element of West Penwith’s mixed economy, possibly since the early Neolithic period.
- The open downland grazings were probably operated from early prehistory as a Common Property Regime (the universal means of administering commons identified by Elinor Ostrom). It ensured that levels of use were sustainable while also ensuring that commoners had reasonable rights when operating responsibly.
- Much land in those commons could have been arable, but the need to maintain a balance between the enclosed and pastoral elements of a mixed farming system was maintained from the Middle Bronze Age (c1500 BC) to the post-medieval period.
- Administration of a Common Property Regime involves custom and rules, as well as decision making concerning current and future management.
- Gatherings of the community to review and plan the use of the commons probably took place at West Penwith’s prehistoric gathering places, most of which were located on the commons.
- These would have included Early Neolithic tor enclosures and cromlechs, Later Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles, hilltop enclosures, standing stones and Iron Age hillforts, many of which either reused or referred to earlier gathering places. Some hillforts (like Chun Castle) were reused in the Early Medieval period.
- Summer grazing was probably undertaken as a form of transhumance from the mid 2nd millennium BC to the end of the 1st millennium AD.
- Transhumance with dairying in the summer pastures ensured marginal land was as productive as it could be. Cheese and butter making are among the most energy-efficient forms of food production.
- The dairy food produced supported human sustenance in leaner times of the year, making society more resilient.
- Removing livestock from enclosed land in summer enabled crop and hay production.
- It was a rewarding and enriching experience for its principal practitioners, the community’s young women.
- A surge in the extent of upland heathland in the 1st millennium AD was probably due to relaxation in grazing pressures associated with development of convertible husbandry, which enabled dairying in home-farm fields, reducing the intensity of upland grazing and allowing invasion of scrub such as the heathers.
- Until then, heathland was just one of the several lesser elements of the mosaics of habitats within the herb-rich grasslands.
- The upland commons and those on the cliffs were closely subdivided to create ‘hamlet commons’ in the early medieval period, apparently using mini territories established around Iron Age and Romano-British hamlets set within intensively worked and closely organised field patterns.
- The needs of dairying appear to have underpinned the strategies and practices of mixed farming in West Penwith for up to 5,500 years.
- Its importance has been obscured by the emphasis placed on other more spectacular but also usually more short-lived or sporadic aspects of the peninsula’s heritage, archaeology and historical economy.
- The modest and subtle remains of commons and transhumance that enabled dairying have been trumped by the more spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments, the later prehistoric forts, cliff castles, round houses, courtyard houses and fogous.
- Historically, mining, pilchard fishing, market gardening (early fruit, veg and flowers) and tourism have each been showier than dairying, which has traditionally been the realm of women.
- Extents of heathland have reduced since the later medieval period, due to intakes and changing land use regimes, but remain much higher than in prehistory.
- Woodland levels have been low compared with most other parts of Cornwall and Britain from at least as early as the Neolithic period, with trees in the uplands and on coastal plateaux probably elements of wood pastures and any denser woodland largely confined to sheltered valleys and coastal wetlands.
- The Franz Vera hypothesis – that open wood pastures, rather than closed canopy continuous woodlands, would have prevailed in early prehistory – seems to apply well to West Penwith, certainly from the very early Neolithic period, and perhaps also through at least some of the preceding Mesolithic period of hunter-gatherers.
- Land uses of recent centuries – mixed and specialised agriculture, horticulture, recreation, ornamentation, industry, urbanisation, etc. – have contributed greatly to modern West Penwith’s complex ecosystems and high environmental interest.
- The semi-natural communities may be regarded as having been enriched (or impoverished, depending on point of view), by aliens: the archaeophytes and neophytes introduced by people either deliberately or incidentally respectively before and after 1500 AD.
The full report can be dowloaded as a pdf. here: