A research project of the Department of Archaeology
The IRIS project is funded by the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. UK funding is delivered by the AHRC.
The Cheviots are border country, wild and empty hills on the watershed between Northumberland, England’s northernmost county, and southern Scotland. We are exploring the history of hill farming here, the value which people place on this heritage today, and its potential for securing a sustainable future for local communities and meeting the challenges of food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.
Our case study draws together the existing evidence from archaeological records, maps and historical documents to create a chronological timeline. We combine that deep history with the testimonies of those have worked in this landscape in more recent memory, highlighting the fragility and quality of the resource and the lessons their understanding might hold for future generations.
This research is undertaken in partnership with Inherit – York Archaeological Trust’s Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development and we are working with Northumberland National Park, local charities and community organisations to translate the results into practical benefits.
Hill farming has deep roots and it has shaped the open landscapes we see today in this region. The forests which covered the hills were cleared – rapidly and dramatically – around 2,000 years ago, leaving open grasslands and heath with patches of woodland. Since then, the main productive use of the uplands has been livestock rearing, although crops were once grown high into the hills.
In the Middle Ages, the monasteries held extensive estates and turned them over to large-scale sheep farming to supply the wool trade. Management and ownership were intimately related to wider estates and landuse practices in the lowland, including seasonal transhumance along drove roads. In the 17th and 18th centuries modern farms established, common lands were divided up, land was hedged and fenced, and the farms laid out then are the farms that we see today.
To bring the story up to date, we are exploring the practical details of land use and land management in particular valleys and farms today. We are also looking at how farming has shaped the local environment and how life has changed for those who live and work in the area. We’ve been speaking with active and retired farmers, shepherds and estate staff to build up a picture of how hill farming has developed since the 1950s and exploring what hill farming heritage means for people today. Many insights and skills have been passed down through the generations. Not only do people value this knowledge today through their local culture and identity, but hill farming could also play an important part in the future through more sustainable land use practices. Much has changed in the British landscape in recent decades, as those who have managed and used the land will know, but we believe that local knowledge and land use traditions have an important role to play the future. ‘Traditional’, our research tells us, need not mean an unchanging way of life.
This work is part of Inspiring Rural Heritage, a project which is exploring upland land use heritage in five countries (https://iris-jpi.eu). In Spain, the University of Granada is working with local communities in the Sierra Nevada to understand historic irrigation systems and bring them back into use. In Montenegro, the Universities of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and Montenegro are working with the communities of Sinjajevina Mountain to protect their at-risk common lands. In the Pyrenees (France) and Apennines (Italy), the Universities of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and Genoa are exploring the relationship between livestock farming and woodland management with farmers, communities and public authorities.