The socio-ecology of keeping Britain tidy: biodiversity conservation and the aesthetics of unruly landscapes

Society places different values on different kinds of landscapes. The landscapes around us can variously be seen as treasured, wastelands, traditional heritage, threatening, and much more besides. Understanding these values is important for understanding what kinds of benefits humans derive from landscapes, including social and cultural benefits. It also helps understand human attitudes and behaviours towards these landscapes, and the actions that they will take to reshape these landscapes. For example, an elaborate and expensive system of regulations and subsidies helps many areas of rural Britain retain their characteristics as valued traditional heritage farming landscapes. The idea of tidiness underpins many decisions on landscapes, based on a sense of what belongs and what doesn’t, and which features and forms are more aesthetically attractive and appropriate, favouring for example evenly mowed monotypic grassland, and the removal of standing dead wood. Often, there is little reflection on the origins and implications of such value framings and resulting actions, although these are increasingly being challenged, for example by ideas of rewilding.


At the same time, many non-human species of conservation value very particular preferences and requirements about their habitats. Many depend on particular ecological niches, which can be narrow, and the flourishing of these species depends on having sufficient quality and quantity of such habitats. This is particularly true of many endangered invertebrates and other taxa which are often overlooked in conservation. A key problem emerges when these same habitats are given particularly negative values by humans, and thus where there is a strong human desire to change these landscapes, to the detriment of these species. For example, many of these niches valued by invertebrates, such as long grass, dead standing wood, and boggy marshland are seen as hazardous, unruly, untidy or contrary to dominant landscape aesthetics

This PhD would explore the socio-ecology of landscape tidiness. It would draw inspiration from the range of disciplines which have explored the origins and implications of tidying landscapes, from natural sciences such as ecology and entomology, social sciences such as political ecology, and the environmental humanities. It would explore topics such as why landscapes and their features come to be seen as (un)tidy, how (un)tidiness manifests itself in landscape policies and the resulting impact on biodiversity, and the barriers and opportunities to create landscapes that work for humans and non-human biodiversity. The project would explore this through at least one case study of an ‘untidy’ landscape which is an important ecological niche. It would ask questions such as:

–              Why are such landscapes considered as untidy, unruly, aesthetically unpleasing, or dangerous? How does this vary demographically? What are the origins of such views?

–              What are the policy implications of such views, and how does this impact on biodiversity?

–              Where is the potential for conflict and coexistence between these niches and human preferences?

The exact case study or studies would be determined by the student, based on their interests, but might include unmown verges, meadows in public parks, standing deadwood in forests, parks and tree plantations, unlined urban waterbodies. We would be keen for the project to engage with current policy developments in landscape management, such as urban tree planting, the proposed ‘northern forest’ or landscape rewilding.

We are particularly keen for this project to be methodologically innovative, either by utilising technology such as virtual reality to explore landscape values and green spaces and/or successfully combining techniques from different disciplines (e.g. visual q-methodology surveys, habitat and species monitoring, choice experiments).