Finding Traces of Lost Habitats Around Us

From place names to wildflowers, clues abound about what our landscapes once looked like and how we can put things right in the future.

Bluebells flowering in the forest, Perth, Scotland
Bluebells flowering in the forest, Perth, Scotland. Westend61 / Getty Images

Here in the British Isles, we are surrounded by history, both natural and human. Many are interested in finding the remnants of the built environment that have survived through our long history.

People are commonly drawn to historic sites, from neolithic burial areas, standing stones, and cathedrals to medieval castles, monasteries, 19th-century former industrial sites, and more—all of which remind us of the past and reveal traces of what came before. Those interested in history can find plenty of sites to visit that are well-signed and often very well-preserved.

However, there is a different, hidden history that many people are not aware of or simply ignore: The traces that remain of precious natural habitats, some of which we have lost due to human activity.

Finding remnants of our ancient ecosystems, and recognizing more clearly what our landscapes once looked like, can help us see where things have gone wrong and potentially be very important in helping us put things right in the future.

Finding Traces of Lost Habitats in the Soil

The soil below our feet holds many clues about the habitat on a particular site over the years. The different layers of organic matter built up over time can tell us a lot about what once grew there.

Scientists can discover many details not only about people and their activity but also about the vegetation on a site by digging deep and analyzing what they find below.

Of course, the layperson cannot always discern much from the soil. So we may need to look for other clues to help us understand the vegetation that once covered a site.

Finding Traces of Lost Habitats in the Seed Bank

Amazingly, ancient woodland sites, even when the trees are gone, can still produce plants of the understory that have built up in the seed bank of the area.

Often when particular plants (like English bluebells, for example) are seen in profusion, it can be a sign that the area was once the site of a particular variety of oak woodland. Many woodland species might remain in an area even when the woodland has disappeared.

Identifying areas that used to be woodland can help us find the best areas for rewilding. We will sometimes see natural regeneration by removing pressures such as overgrazing (by sheep and/or deer, for example) from an area. Or, where regeneration cannot naturally occur, we can determine excellent areas for tree planting.

Finding Traces of Lost Habitats in Place Names

Sadly, all too often, ancient woodlands and other precious habitats have disappeared entirely from the visual landscape. But as well as taking clues from the location, geography, microclimate conditions, and making educated guesses, we can also often gain clues from place names.

In the British Isles, place names often give us clues that can lead us to recognize ancient landscapes and ecosystems now gone.

For example, many examples of place names indicate the presence of woodland or certain specific tree species where none now stand.

We can head on a fascinating journey into the past by examining old maps and analyzing place names to discover what ecosystems were entirely or partially obliterated by building, farming, or plantation forestry, for example.

We can look for names of villages like Birchover or Oakley, once homes to birch and oak trees. The Old English word "leah" means a field or clearing in a forest. The element survives today at the end of place names as "ley." Thus a name like Ashley suggests it was once surrounded by ash trees.

By reading the clues in the naming of places and the clues within the landscape itself, we can build up an even clearer picture of lost habitats and work out where we might begin with rewilding and restoration.

By finding the traces of lost habitats around us, we can see more clearly the strong connection people have had with places and nature throughout history.

We can learn precisely where, why, and how a decoupling took place and think about how we can repair our links to the habitats around us and live in harmony with the natural world—building back and restoring for ourselves, as well as for the wildlife around us.