How fragmented was the British Holocene wildwood? Perspectives on the “Vera” grazing debate from the fossil beetle record

Nicki J. Whitehouse, David Smith

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    65 Citations (Scopus)


    The reconstruction and structure of the European Holocene “wildwood” has been the focus of considerable academic debate. The ability of palaeoecological data and particularly pollen analysis to accurately reflect the density of wildwood canopy has also been widely discussed. Fossil insects, as a proxy for vegetation and landscape structure, provide a potential approach to address this argument. Here, we present a review and re-analysis of 36 early and mid-Holocene (9500-2000 cal BC) sub-fossil beetle assemblages from Britain, examining percentage values of tree, open ground and dung beetles as well as tree host data to gain an insight into vegetation structure, the role of grazing animals in driving such structure and establish independently the importance of different types of trees and associated shading in the early Holocene “wildwood”. Open indicator beetle species are persistently present over the entire review period, although they fluctuate in importance. During the early Holocene (9500-6000 cal BC), these indicators are initially high, at levels which are not dissimilar to modern data from pasture woodland. However, during the latter stages of this and the next period, 6000-4000 cal BC, open ground and pasture indicators decline and are generally low compared with previously. Alongside this pattern, we see woodland indicators generally increase in importance, although there are significant local fluctuations. Levels of dung beetles are mostly low over these periods, with some exceptions to this pattern, especially towards the end of the Mesolithic and in floodplain areas. Host data associated with the fossil beetles indicate that trees associated with lighter canopy conditions such as oak, pine, hazel and birch are indeed important components of the tree canopy during the earlier Holocene (c. 9500-6000 cal BC), in accordance with much of the current pollen literature. Beetles associated with more shade-tolerant trees (such as lime and elm) become more frequent in the middle Holocene (6000-4000 cal BC) suggesting that at this stage the woodland canopy was less open than previously, although open ground and pasture areas appear to have persisted in some locations. The onset of agriculture (4000-2000 cal BC) coincides with significant fluctuations in woodland composition and taxa. This is presumably as a result of human impact, although here there are significant regional variations. There are also increases in the amounts of open ground represented and especially in the levels of dung beetles present in faunas, suggesting there is a direct relationship between the activities of grazing animals and the development of more open areas. One of the most striking aspects of this review is the variable nature of the landscape suggested by the palaeoecological data, particularly but not exclusively with the onset of agriculture: some earlier sites indicate high variability between levels of tree-associated species on the one hand and the open ground beetle fauna on the other, indicating that in some locations, open areas were of local significance and can be regarded as important features of the Holocene landscape. The role of grazing animals in creating these areas of openness was apparently minimal until the onset of the Neolithic.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)539-553
    Number of pages15
    JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
    Issue number3-4
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2010

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Geology
    • Global and Planetary Change
    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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