Long-term ecological study (palaeoecology) to chronicle habitat degradation and inform conservation ecology: an exemplar from the Brecon Beacons, South Wales

F. M. Chambers, E. W. Cloutman, J. R. G. Daniell, D. Mauquoy, P. S. Jones

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33 Citations (Scopus)
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For ecosystems perceived as degraded, but for which the causal factors or timescales for the degradation are disputed or not known, long-term (palaeo-)ecological records may aid understanding and lead to more meaningful conservation approaches. To help ‘bridge the gap’ between (very) long-term ecology and contemporary ecology for practical application, there have been calls for working relationships to be established between palaeoecologists and conservation ecologists. One environment in which this has been attempted is blanket mire. Many blanket mires in Europe are degraded and contain few sphagna. In South Wales, almost all exhibit symptoms of degradation, with dominance by purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) widespread. We used palaeoecological techniques on three peat profiles in the Brecon Beacons to investigate vegetation history of high-altitude blanket mire to help assess the relative contribution of various factors in mire degradation and to inform strategies for mire conservation and restoration management. We found that declines in sphagna preceded the rise to dominance of monocotyledons. Macrofossil records showed that although Molinia was already present on the Beacons before the start of the industrial revolution, its major rise to dominance in one profile was within the 20th Century, coincident with evidence for local fire. In another profile, it was out-competed by Eriophorum vaginatum after the start of the industrial revolution; there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that a reduction in burning contributed to the rise in E. vaginatum. Conservation management to reduce the current local dominance of both Eriophorum and Molinia is supported by the palaeoecological data, but severe erosion and hagging of peat will constrain practical methods for achieving this on the Beacons until the peat is stabilised. We suggest that palaeoecological techniques have wider applicability in conservation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)719-736
Number of pages18
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Issue number3
Early online date6 Feb 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2013

Bibliographical note

The field and lab-based research was commissioned by the Countryside Council for Wales as part of contract no. FC 73-01-172. Site access was granted by The National Trust, Wales. Caro McIntosh drew an earlier version of Fig. 1.


  • paleoecology
  • blanket mire
  • moorland
  • conservation ecology
  • degraded landscapes
  • Brecon Beacons


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