About 8,000 BC: The last Ice age ended when the ice sheets finally retreated from Scandinavia and the glaciers in Scotland disappeared. People, animals and plants invaded the appearing land after the ice had disappeared. Part of the North Sea is still dry.
8,000 - 7000 BC: Age of the Hunter Gatherers. The European environment was transformed: the boreal forests (coniferous forests) were pushed back to Scandinavia, tundra and steppe were all but removed from the scene and the dominant vegetation type was now mixed deciduous forest covering over 80% of the land bordering the North Sea. Humans followed vegetation and recolonised northern Europe.
7,500 BC: The melting of the ice sheets resulted in the flooding of the North Sea basin and the disappearance of the land bridge connecting Britain to the continent by 8000 years ago. This prevented many tree and plans species to invade Britain and explains, for example, why it has only two species of conifer: Scots Pine and juniper (the status of yew is contested).
6,000 - 2,500 BC: Holocene Climate Optimum. Sea level reached a slightly higher level than today coinciding with the warmest period of the past 10,000 years with temperatures about 2 degrees celsius higher than today.
Impact Mesolithic peoples, ca. 8,000-5.000 BC
Mesolithic1 Europeans altered the landscape through fire more thoroughly than their predecessors. By doing so they created a more predictable environment for themselves.
Burning grasses helped rejuvenate their environments over a period of five to six years, attracting game, especially if open areas were maintained near water sources. It probably through the use of fire and other land management techniques that created large open areas which is probably most important environmental legacy of the Mesolithic peoples.
The Europeans learned to manipulate their environments and created a mosaic of woodlands and open land that they so favoured for food gathering and hunting. Manipulation could be extreme: it was Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who first deforested the western Isles of Scotland. By 3000 years ago there was no tree left on these isles.
Watch video: Land use and management during the Mesolithic period
Arrival of agriculture, ca 5000-4000 BC
Farming, including crops like emmer and einkorn and domesticated animals, reached northwestern Europe via southeastern and central Europe by ca. 4,800 BC during the Neolithic2 period.
It is likely that local peoples were not replaced by immigrant populations but observed and adapted to the new way of life: agriculture. Immigrants would have set examples and pushed hunter-gatherers into agriculture. That must not have been hard since many hunter-gatherers had managed wild life and plant resources in a way that can be described as proto-agriculture. It is also likely that agriculture sprang up independently in some locations and was later supplemented by the grains and animals arriving from the Middle East.
The new economic and ecological regime was based on barley, oats, sheep, goats and domesticated cattle, all of which had wild ancestors in Anatolia and the Near East. This indicates that Northwest Europe was integrated into a wider cultural-economic-environmental network (a process that we call nowadays "globalisation").
Between the Neolithic and the 18th century, agriculture was the main cause of culturally driven environmental change.
Bronze and Iron Age, ca. 2100 BC – 1 AD
By about 1 AD the countryside in many parts of western Europe was already owned, managed and planned. This had been the case for most of the Bronze and Iron Age. Little wildwood remains and the land resource was well planned with field systems in rotation, pasture and coppiced woodland. Hill forts became common and acted as local centres of administration, power and refuge.
The range of crops grown had widened considerably since the early bronze age. Although the most important were wheat and barley, oats, tic beans, vetch, peas, rye, flax and fat hen were regularly grown. Storage of crops was either in pits or in raised stores and harvest was over several months - weeds, grain and then straw.
Sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, poultry, geese and ducks. Horses were a new arrival in the farmsteads but they were not used for work so much as symbols of status.
Farming typically revolved around small hamlets and farmsteads with enclosed rectilinear fields - each having areas of pasture, arable and wood. Ploughing became more efficient with the arrival of the iron share (plough point) and a two field rotation was introduced; crops one year followed by a fallow that was grazed by livestock. This lead to suprisingly high yields and fuelled population growth, even though retreat from the uplands had been necessary because of climate deterioration.
Woodland and hedges
In southern parts of the country, most of the wildwood had been cleared and given way to farming or coppice management. In northern parts, or where the ground was particularly unsuitable for agriculture, wildwood remained, but under constant threat. Land around the farmsteads was usually enclosed by hazel fencing or hedging.
The climate of the iron age was much cooler and wetter by comparison with that of the bronze age - but was probably similar to that of today.
The Romans invaded large parts of Western Europe from the middle of the 1st century BC. This started a process of Romanisation of population and landscape.
1. The Mesolithic (mesos=middle and lithos=stone or the 'Middle Stone Age') is a period in the development of human technology between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. It began at the end of the Pleistocene epoch (coinciding with the last Ice Age) around 10,000 years ago and ended with the introduction of farming.
2. The Neolithic (or "New" Stone Age) was a period between the introduction of farming and the introduction of metal tools. The dates vary per region depending on the beginning of the development or arrival of farming and metal technology.
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