Ruth Tittensor

Environmental History & Heritage, Oral History
Honeybee Forage, Edible Wild Plants, Writing

European Social Science
History Conference 2012

Date: 11 Apr 2012 to 14 Apr 2012.    Location: Glasgow, Scotland.


>> CLICK HERE for Reaction to
“Is Farming the Only Way of Providing Food?”

By Professor Richard Oram, Stirling University


The International Institute for Social History organised the Ninth European Social Science History conference (ESSHC) at Glasgow University, Scotland, UK, 11 - 14 April 2012.

The aim of the ESSHC is bringing together scholars interested in explaining historical phenomena using the methods of the social sciences. The conference was characterized by a lively exchange in many small groups, rather than by formal plenary sessions.
>> More information on the ESSHC webpages.

Us three girls, Caroline, Jennifer and Ruth organised a session on...


Caroline is an archaeologist on the Orkney Islands, Jennifer is an economist and forager in Liverpool, while Ruth is an environmental historian in south-west Scotland.

Modern western civilisation can hardly conceive of life and food without farming! But in Great Britain, before the 4000 years of farming until now, there were 4000 years of hunting, fishing and foraging to obtain food! And in North America, before the recent only 500 years of farming, food was obtained by hunting, fishing and foraging for 15,000 years by some millions of people on the continent. The Abstracts of our three talks are presented here; there is a direct link to the complete talks if you wish to read them.      

Ruth Tittensor 
Countryside Management Consultancy
Caroline Wickham-Jones
Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland
Jennifer Lee 
Department of Economics, University of Liverpool.

Can Ecology Contribute to Food Provision?

Fear of Farming?

Gathering: Reconnecting with the Landscape of our Food


New, technological methods of producing sufficient food for human populations are being developed by scientists, but in this paper I examine a radically different approach, based on ecology, archaeology and history.

During centuries and millennia, farming has produced a succession of new, anthropogenic ecosystems from the wooded, pre-farming landscape of Britain and Europe. Grass pasture, Grain fields, Watered meadows and Hedges are examples. Other human activities have produced – and still produce  – more new ecosystems, such as Heathland, Coppice woodlands, Road verges and Airport grasslands. Native species have had to adapt to them or become extinct.

Intensive breeding and selection has reduced the genetic diversity of farmed species. Large areas of the same crops and stock can be calamitous if pests and diseases get a grip. To prevent this and to increase productivity of the desired food species, weeds, pests and diseases are eliminated. When more farmed food is needed, agriculture expands and incorporates other ecosystems. These two measures reduce farmland biodiversity.

The unwanted inhabitants of farms are actually wild species which adapted to farming in prehistoric times. They, and the populations of anthropogenic ecosystems, are being squeezed out of today’s intensively-farmed Europe. Does this matter? It does. They contributed to the diets of our pre-farming, hunter-gatherer-fisher ancestors. Before domestic sheep, wheat, barley and so on were introduced, native, wild species made up the complete diet of Mesolithic people . . . European civilisation existed for six millennia on wild-food diets before farmers arrived. 

Hunting, gathering and fishing of wild species has continued alongside farming to the present day. Feral species, such as rabbits, fallow deer and pheasants, found niches in existing ecosystems and are also culled as nutritious wild foods.

Historical records can inform us of the species harvested in the past. Oral history and personal experience demonstrate what has been available recently to rural people. Ecological research provides a detailed picture of how ecosystems function. We know that some, particularly wetlands, are very productive biologically and as past food sources – a hint of their future potential? 

Could new versions of ‘old’ ecosytems provide acceptable foods for the 21st century? Can ecologists recreate long-gone, productive ecosystems? Can they predict the consequences of harvesting and how much harvesting any particular ecosystem could support? Nature conservationists tell us that ecosystems currently need our help, so the idea of harvesting them might be difficult to sell! 

Could there be sufficient for more than an occasional delicacy after a day of fun for urban dwellers?  What social and environmental benefits will new styles of hunting, gathering and fishing provide?

Farming has bought undoubted benefits since its introduction to Britain some 6000 years ago. 

Nevertheless, there have also been drawbacks, many of which still resonate today.  This paper will consider the impact of the introduction of agriculture to Britain from an archaeological perspective: pre and post farming populations; innovations and benefits; loss and disadvantage.   It will end with a discussion of the lasting effects of that impact in the twenty-first century.

While the mechanisms by which farming became established across Britain remain open to debate, the date at which this took place is not in doubt; by 3800BC settled farming communities existed from the Northern Isles, to the southern shores.  The introduction of farming was relatively rapid (in comparison to social and economic change among the preceding hunter-gatherer population) and certainly all embracing; within a century or so the population of Britain had abandoned all trace of the previous way of life.

Farming bought many immediate benefits: a more stable food supply allowed population expansion; human control over the natural world; and settled communities.   Other changes were inextricably entwined: technological development and the introduction of new materials; architectural advances; modifications to spiritual and social life.  There were, however, disadvantages: disease; the fear of the wild (plants, animals, land); loss of control; pressure on land; uncertainty and famine.

In the 6000 years since the arrival of the first farmers to Britain’s shores, farming has developed apace as the mainstay of economic activity.  In spite of this, problems still exist.  Some are obvious: pressures on land and farmers to feed an increasing population.  Less obvious problems include: the reduction in food crops currently consumed; struggles to manage vermin, weeds and wild land; attitudes to strangers and those with an alternative lifestyle.

How to move forward?  One suggestion lies in a reappraisal of some of the ways that have been thrown out down the millennia.  As a starting point it is worth looking at indications of the hunter-gatherer way of life that have survived to the present day.  Other possibilities include a return to some of the essentials of earlier farming techniques and perhaps a reappraisal of how we define food.

This paper presents a specifically archaeological approach to the role of farming in society today, but of course archaeology is about the past – in order to move forward we have to consider the present and broaden our information base.

Biological evolution fitted humans to be hunter-gatherers living in small groups and consuming the produce of the land, rivers and seas that surrounded us. 

Today, however, we are settled in towns and cities, with our days governed by technology, and our food gathered from a supermarket shelf. 

Life no longer coincides with what evolution fitted us for: there is a fundamental mismatch between our biological make-up and the society and culture of the modern world. 

Caroline has given us an understanding of when and how that mismatch occurred and Ruth has highlighted some of the ecological consequences. 

Yet she also opens the possibility that ecologists could help to recreate new versions of long-gone ecosystems and promote non-farming methods of food provision. 

With the cooperation of ecologists, conservationists, local councils and community volunteers, we can manage our landscapes with a view toward providing substantial quantities of local – and often ‘free’ – food.   

This is actually being attempted on a small scale in several places around the U.K. and we may one day find ourselves regularly dining on plants foraged from the hedge, fruits cultivated in the park and vegetables grown via community schemes. 

This paper proposes that such efforts can succeed and that the social, physical and mental benefit of reconnecting our biology with the landscape of our food makes an even greater effort worthwhile.