Some reflections on the Wicken Fen workshop


By Jan Oosthoek

One of the main aims of the Wicken Fen workshop, and the two that will follow, is to facilitate interactions and exchange of knowledge between environmental historians and those who manage landscapes and nature reserves. With the challenges of environmental change, continuing urbanisation of the landscape, increasing demand for outdoor recreation and changes in agriculture this is becoming even more important. But how do historians take up an active role in informing conservation and land management decisions? Most historians are not actively involved in the existing consultation processes because they mostly operate as individuals writing their monographs and articles. Some individuals are good in getting involved in consultation work, but not everyone is cut out for this. But to make the work of historians heard in consultations about land management and conservation, communication skills and networks need to be developed, perhaps through the structures of history and policy networks.


Current issues

This becomes more urgent in the present political and economic climate and the threat of selling off nature reserves to private companies. If the rules of the market are applied to nature conservation and protected areas do not attract sufficient numbers of people then it is likely that the owners will concluded that there is no market for it. This will change the way in which the land is managed and what will be done with it and what is considered valuable enough to preserve. This connects with the recent debate in the media about the perception that conservation organisations are turning some of their properties into a kind of historical theme parks. The question is who or what decides how a landscape is managed and what needs to be preserved. In order to prevent the loss of valuable historical landscapes or counter the negative effects of a perceived “Disneyfication” of some landscapes there is a need for good history and the involvement of historians in the consultation processes. In addition, the so-called privatization of nature itself calls for scrutiny by historians. It is not a new idea and it has been floated in the past, for example during the 1990s and the early 1980s. Historians have a lot to say about these past developments, which could help to put the present developments in a wider historical context.


Paradigm shift

Discussions with the management team of Wicken Fen made clear that they are very much aware of the historical context in which this remnant of the once extensive wetlands of east England developed. Their approach was not to apply result oriented thinking to the management of the Fen, counting individual numbers of species and viewing the increase, or decrease of undesirable species, as a benchmark of conservation success. Instead the management of Wicken Fen is process oriented: observing what is going on and recognising that natural processes cannot be expressed in benchmark numbers. A rigid approach to conservation trying to achieve some sort of traditional benchmark landscape and to keep it that way is almost impossible. The management team at Wicken Fen recognises that natural systems are complex, dynamic and ever changing and that past landscapes cannot be brought back. Instead we can learn from past management practice and emulate some of these practices used by our ancestors in order to recreate or preserve a landscape that approximates what came before while realising that it will never be the same. This approach is a major paradigm shift among conservationists.



The workshop brought out many narratives, reflecting the diverse interests and backgrounds of the participants. It is very well to connect our own narratives with those of other academic colleagues but it is also important that these have a resonance beyond academic interests and debates. For this reason a continuing dialogue between environmental historians, land managers, scientists and other stakeholders needs to be developed. Many of these non-academic stakeholders have their own narratives, which can differ significantly from those provided by researchers. For this reason discussions between people managing and using a particular landscape can sometimes result in one party dismissing the others’ narrative. These discussions are often touching the livelihoods of people living and working in the landscapes involved and there are social, economic and social implications with deep historical as well as emotional roots. To overcome hostilities or misunderstandings it is important for environmental historians to understand the needs and concerns of the stakeholders and to provide them with good histories to inform the debate and to bring across the importance of a historical context in land management and land use issues.


Global connections

Part of the network title is “Local Places, Global Processes” and during the workshop, connections between the two were easily made. A sense of place affects the way we are thinking of a landscape and how we perceive it. The talk by Petra van Dam took us from the lowlands of the Netherlands trough a conceptual apparatus provided by Greg Bankoff’s (University of Hull) ideas of cultures of coping to Bangkok. But also in other discussions and papers, connections were made between very different places in different parts of the world. The local clearly leads naturally to comparisons elsewhere, justifying the global and the local approaches.


Environmental history is exciting

One question that came back at the end of the workshop is why we come together to discuss environmental history? It is easy to come up with all kinds of dry and rational practical, political or management issues to justify such a meeting. But fact is that all participants at the meeting really wanted to be there because environmental history is exiting. In the words of one participant: “environmental history is fun!”  But why is it “fun”? Because environmental history crosses many subject boundaries and tries to be all-inclusive in order to provide new vistas on historical developments. In the process it unearths fascinating and often unexpected new explanations and processes that we were not aware of before. This generates excitement among its practitioners which should be transferred to a wider public. For example, local communities or managers of conservation areas should be informed about the historical values of the landscape in which they live or that they manage. Environmental historians should transfer their narratives of the landscape to stakeholders so that it comes to life and makes it more fascinating and exiting than ever before. It can even instil pride, for example in the case of Kielder Forest and Reservoir. This area in the northeast of England is an important recreational area for boating, walking, camping and many other outdoor activities. At the same time the area is home to rare bird species such as the red kite and small mammals. Kielder reservoir, the largest of its kind in northern Europe, and Kielder Forest, the largest planted forest in Europe, instils pride in the people of northeast England. The dam and forest are impressive achievements with fascinating environmental, industrial, social and political histories attached to it. Providing visitors with information about these histories will surely increase the fascination and excitement that people feel for the place.


Naming and defining the object of study

As part of the articulation of the findings of historical research, it is important to understand the meaning of the object of study: in this case the environment and landscape. What do these terms mean and what research question do they generate? If historians fail to name these objects of study they cannot address issues and questions that matter to environmental managers and other stakeholders. Therefore, the participants of the Wicken Fen workshop critically examined what the environment means and what research questions this term generates for historians investigating past environments. It was suggested that the next workshop opens with a paper examining another grand idea: that of natural beauty. That is very appropriate because this meeting will take place in the Quantock Hills area of outstanding natural beauty. A place of beauty is a joy forever, but what is beauty in the eyes of different stakeholders? How did people view natural beauty in the past and how did this lead to the designation of areas of natural beauty? Generally, why does it matter? I am looking forward to the discussions of these issues at the next workshop in the Quantock Hills in March 2011.

Participants of the Wicken Fen Workshop

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  1. chris smout says:

    I think Jan’s comments are very wise. To me, the main problem seems to be how to enter a dialogue with land managers: we can lecture them and they can lecture us, as happened at Wicken, which was certainly informative for us, and we historians (plus Carrie) got into a good dialogue with each other. But the problem not yet overcome is a real exchange of ideas beween ourselves and those in charge of the reserves. Maybe we should have a part of a session where we ask them to reply to the question ‘how do you see historians being able to help you’?

  2. richard says:

    Some really nice comments, Jan, about what was clearly a fascinating event.