Weerbarstig land : een historisch-ecologische landschapsstudie van Koekange en de Reest

J.N.H. Elerie

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    During the last five thousand years, the original natural landscapes in the Netherlands have gradually been influenced and changed by agrarian ecosystems. At the present time we are at a stage in which the remains of these old ecosystems have become scarce. In the peripheral regions too, urbanisation has become so dominant that the last remnants of these premodern and site-specific ecosystems are about to disappear. Knowledge about how historical ecosystems work is important not only in an academic sense but also for integrated nature conservation with a sense of responsibility for the preservation of a diverse historical cultural landscape. Insight into the symbiotic relationship of local societies with the productive environments of their landscapes, as well as knowledge about small-scale adaptation to the potential of local ecosystems, are important for the sustainable quality of our lives.

    In the light of its genetic and spatial approach, historical geography is the appropriate discipline to provide insight into the development of site-specific, anthropogenic ecosystems. This historical geographical study aims to provide insight into the operation and development of agrarian ecosystems in different landscape environments. This process is described and charted for two regions in the Southwest of the present-day province of Drenthe for the period 1600-1850 on the basis of written sources and of the archive constituted by the landscape itself.

    In order to gain insight into the functional interaction between farming and the area of production, it is necessary to switch to the level of the village territory or marke , the smallest unit of administration and jurisdiction, which is also the administrative starting-point for research into the historical sources. A chorological and chronological approach has been adopted in order to gain insight at the local level into the interaction between a human group (culture) and its immediate surroundings (natural substratum).

    Besides the focus on the village territory, this study is also marked by an emphasis on the agrarian form of life. This gave form and content to the interaction between culture and nature. The 'style of farming' forms an integratory core concept in this field of tension. The concept is understood in this study as a derivation from the more general concept of 'form of farming'. Style of farming derives its specific significance from the ecological setting of a village territory and should be considered as a translation of a form of farming at the local level. The link between style of farming and local ecosystem is a thread running through the present study.

    This study comprises a collection of independent investigations of the cultivation of the edge of the peat moor in Koekange and the stream valley landscape of the Reest. Although there are hardly any differences in respect of the object and method of investigation, the two studies are not identical. In the case of Koekange, the choice of an object of study fell on a village territory that coincided with a parish. In this case the productive environment of the agrarian community thus coincided with an administrative unit. Thanks to the greater availability of serial sources, this coincidence enabled us to emphasise aspects concerning farm economics and demography. In this sense, Koekange can be characterised as a cultural ecological study in which the central question is how a local community has exploited its landscape area and how this environment has influenced the agrarian way of life.

    The emphasis in the Reest investigation is primarily on the consequences of the historical forms of exploitation on the soil in the context of a landscape consisting of a stream valley system. In the case of Zuidwolde, it was possible to link up with a field research into soil ecology.


    Typologically, Koekange can be regarded as a case of peat moor border cultivation. This type of settlement is found in the Dutch-German lowland plain in the coastal areas and in the Pleistocene situated further inland. The latter category emerged in the Late Middle Ages and was cultivated in the original border territory between the stream valley and the peat moor. In Drenthe there are seventeen such roadside villages with plots on an incline that can be characterised as peat moor border cultivation.

    The present-day roadside village of Koekange is situated on the extreme south-western tip of the Drenthe Plateau. The cultivated area of Koekange coincided with the stream valley of the Koekanger Aa (Olde Aa) and the 'Echtener fene' at cut its course along the boulder clay ridge as far as the marken of Echten and Ruinen. The moorland has now virtually disappeared as the result of centuries of primarily agrarian exploitation. During the colonisation in 1275 the orientation of the first cultivators was on the valley of the Koekanger Aa and they used the upward slopes ( opgaanden ) from the stream to the peat moor as an axis of cultivation.

    In 1832 Koekange comprised forty-four plots on these upward slopes, varying in width from 60 to 120 metres and with a maximal length of 6 kilometres. When the church was founded in 1331, the village consisted of twenty Oldehoven from the first stage of colonisation and an unknown number of Nijehoven. The last phase of cultivation, in the early sixteenth century, ended with the establishment of the southernmost cluster of the village, the Lage Linthorst.

    The study of Koekange made it possible to demonstrate a clear connection between the specific content of the style of farming and the local ecosystem. Ever since the colonisation in the Late Middle Ages, this system was caught up in a constant process of change through human intervention. Vice versa, hydrographic changes and modifications in the soil ecology necessitated continual alterations in styles of farming.

    The decapitation of the Oude Aa by the construction of the medieval watercourse to Meppel had far-reaching consequences in the long run. The fact that the dynamic stream system with flooding and silt deposits no longer functioned eventually turned out to be disastrous for the greenland in the cultivated area. The middling bio-production in this rudimentary stream valley already obliged the people of Koekange to look for alternative meadows in the sixteenth century. To some extent these were found by buying up land alongside the Oude Aa to the south of Koekange. This made it possible to extend the area of production outside the actual area under cultivation.

    The quality of the marshlands deteriorated too. The regular cutting of peat and alternation with oats accelerated the depletion of the peat bog. In the plots outside the dyke this 'de-peating' eventually resulted in wet podzol soil with bare heath overgrowth that could only be used for extensive grazing by sheep and calves. In the plots inside the dyke the alternation with oats provided an alternative for the mediocre grass supply for a much longer period. All the same, this form of greenland improvement was still unable to prevent some lots from becoming bare heath pastures. Coppice wood cultivation offered an economic alternative for the low level of productivity of the enclosed fields. Nevertheless, this form of exploitation did not really contribute to an efficient utilisation of the nutritional cycle.

    The southern greenland outside the plots depreciated from the seventeenth century on as well. This was primarily due to inadequate drainage via the Hoogeveensche Vaart at times of increased flow. The limited availability of high quality catchment areas and common pastures forced the people of Koekange to keep cows. Within their limited conditions, this offered the best guarantee of rapid reproduction. Besides, the attempt to secure double production (dairy cattle and meat cattle) had the advantage of flexibility in unforeseen circumstances.

    Furthermore, sheep farming ensured a level of stability in the production of manure, in response to the availability of marsh heath and bare heath greenland.

    The ongoing deterioration of the greenland destabilised the fodder situation of the cattle. Winter feeding in particular came under pressure from unpredictable hay harvests. Although alternation with oats made it possible to spread the risk, in the long run this alternative did not provide a solid enough basis to keep up the cattle stock. Reduction of herd size, however, meant an attack on the fertility of the peat fields. Since there was no more room on the village territory for additional meadows, farmers had to seek compensatory greenland outside the village. In the course of the eighteenth century this led to a large-scale practice of renting hayfields in neighbouring villages and neighbourhoods. In addition, the people of Koekange used to pasture their herds in meadows in Overijssel during the summer months.

    Another negative development of the local ecosystem was a gradual drop in the surface level of the regular arable fields and increasing flooding from the fields behind them. Both phenomena were connected with the deterioration of the peat soil by drainage and soil cultivation or by peat cutting. A side-effect that also had considerable importance was the problem of the low level of porosity of the cultivated peat soil. This was due to the intrusion of amorphous humus, leading to the formation of black humus strata below the old peat layers on the sandy subsoil.

    The reaction to the flooding was in the first instance defensive. The oldest peat fields were abandoned as permanent land for cultivation and were only used as sheep pastures or as extensive arable land or hay fields, while other plots were reserved for forestry. The loss was made good by the construction of new peat fields in the land behind the cultivated plots. In the course of the eighteenth century the disused land was brought under cultivation again with a loamy sand substratum.

    Other measures were also called for to reduce the risk of a bad harvest on the wet peat fields. Buckwheat as a summer crop provided an alternative to avoid the risks of a wet winter. Moreover, this crop did not require such heavy manuring and its inclusion in the rotation of crops helped to combat weeds.

    At the end of the eighteenth century the stagnant marshy water in the area behind the peat fields became a problem. The constant reduction of the surface level had made the plots vulnerable to the peat water that ran off to the Koekanger Aa. The medieval structure of border drainage ditches was no longer sufficient to get rid of the acidic water without damage, so that a new system of ditches was required in the parts of the village that were most seriously threatened.

    Despite all these problems, grain cultivation in the interdependent system of the mixed farm was the only alternative for an efficient utilisation of the nutritional cycle. A significant proportion of the mineral surplus found its way to the peat fields. A large part of the farmlands were thus 'creamed off' to the benefit of a regular rye cultivation, which alternated with buckwheat in the eighteenth century. The deep litter house system played a crucial role in this creaming - off -economy. The peripheral situation of the southern peat bog meant that it could hardly play a part in the deep litter house system, while there was little or no room on the cultivated plots for more intensive grazing.

    The territory of the village of Koekange offered the farmers little room for intensification. With the switch to dairy farming at the end of the eighteenth century, they were forced to resort to the catchment hayfields alongside the Reest and the Meppelerdiep. Only after the construction of the Koekangerwijk in 1848, which meant an 'unlimited' supply of urban compost, was it possible for a more intensive cultivation to get underway within the boundaries of the village territory. This was concentrated on to bring the plots outside the dyke back under cultivation for the emergent dairy farming. This socio-ecological study of Koekange has demonstrated that the ecological setting of the village territory cannot be understood as a closed system that determined the content of the style of farming. The relatively favourable location close to the Hoogeveensche Vaart and the available catchment greenland offered a solution to the limited use that could be made of the actual village territory. The import of urban compost, long drives to remote summer pastures and the utilisation of hay fields outside the territory already constituted an alternative to the restrictions of the local ecosystem before 1800. This early and broad outward-looking orientation developed to become a typical characteristic of the style of farming in Koekange.

    Koekange is a good example of peat moor border cultivation where the ecological structure of the village territory was influenced by the historical system of farming. When colonisation started in the Late Middle Ages, the landscape was determined by two ecotopes. Most of it consisted of a continuous peat moor complex changing to peat bog at the stream. The differences in gradient between the valley of the Olde Aa (including the Koekanger Aa) and the Pleistocene border area were very gradual. As a result of the poor drainage of the border areas, an oligotrophic peat surface developed here that rose above the Pleistocene border zone to the village territory of Echten. In the stream valley a broad zone of marshy woods developed, interrupted near the actual bed of the stream by fluviatile sedge. When the land was issued in 1275, it was referred to as the 'Echtijger vene ofte bruyck' [Echten fen or brook]. This name, the oldest designation of the area, further emphasises the original preponderance of the ecotopes mentioned above. The first colonists settled on the border between peat moor and peat bog. This border zone provided the most favourable position for draining and for the establishment of a mixed farm. The peat moor was drained and prepared for moorland cultivation, while the woods in the valley of the peat bog were cleared and turned into meadowland and hayfields.

    Already by the seventeenth century the homogeneous peat landscape had been transformed into a varied cultivated landscape with a number of different forms of exploitation. This differentiated landscape continued down to the middle of the nineteenth century. The construction of the Koekangerwijk marked a turning-point in the landscape and ecology when the import of urban compost came within reach of every farm and a start could be made on bringing the impoverished enclosed fields back under cultivation.

    The 1:25,000 grid map of the topographical military map of around 1850 shows the exciting results of centuries of interaction between culture and nature. A highly varied landscape emerges with elongated lots with a great diversity of ecotopes and gradients in the plots of land extending for kilometres, apportioning the village territory into a cake with more than fifty slices. From East to West you passed through marshy heath and shifting sands, alternating with de-peated pools, that were sheltered from the marshy ryefields by coppice woods of alder and birch. Between the peat fields and the farmyards were extensive sheep pastures and hayfields. The farmyards with their vegetable gardens, milk wagons and orchards lay beneath a green umbrella of hundreds of tall oaks. In front of the farms were the enclosed fields in a mosaic of walled greenland, plots of coppice wood and oat fields, interspersed with grassland that had turned into bare heath. The area outside the dyke consisted of heath and bare greenland, with scattered de-peated pingo remains. So the original 'Egtinger broeck en vene' had become a highly variegated mosaic landscape with numerous transitions from small-scale use ecotopes separated by many hundreds of kilometres of border ditches and alder hedges.

    The Reest Valley landscape

    The second research area comprises the northern part of the valley landscape of the Reest in Drenthe. The Reest is the traditional border between the provinces of Drenthe and Overijssel. It is probably due to this function that its course has hardly changed over time. The Reest is one of the few small rivers in the Netherlands that is still more or less in its original state. The stream valley system has attracted renewed attention in recent years because of its designation as a nature reserve, part of the so-called Ecological Main Structure. The morene dam complex in Zuidwolde and Lutten and the Reest valley system on the southern side determines the main contours of the landscape in the Reest area. These structures were embedded in the extensive peat moor that was created in the Late Holocene in the sandy surface of the Oer Vecht that the winds had deposited.

    The morene dam complex consisted of a series of North/South ridges. Only the higher ridges in Zuidwolde and Lutten were suitable for settlement. The other ridges had become so flat during the second phase of the expansion of the land ice that they were covered with migrating peat moor during the last phase of the formation of the moorland. During its relatively brief history the Reest has developed to become a typical lowland stream with little drop and a very meandering course. Because of the pattern of emergent sandy mounds that follow its course, the valley is very narrow and steep in some places, particularly in the middle of its course. Downstream the acidic marsh water gradually changed to a composition that was much richer in minerals and silt.

    The valley of the Reest more or less reflected the regional ecohydrological conditions. The head of the stream was characterised by infertile wire grass peat bog formed under oligotrophic conditions from peat moss and small varieties of sedge; the middle section enjoyed mesotrophic conditions with larger varieties of sedge and clusters of marsh marigolds; and the lower region was characterised by eutrophic peat fields with silted reed sedge marshes and peat bog. Outside the valley and the higher morene dams, peat moorland was not formed until the warm and moist Atlanticum. The lowest parts saw the development of a basic peat zone consisting of sedge marsh, peat bog and peat moss. The peat moor spread from these centres over the higher parts of the sand-covered landscape. In the area between the valleys of the Reest and the Wold Aa of De Wijk a mesotrophic peat bog developed on the loamy soil of the valley [beekeerdgronden]. In this way the Reest and its riverside sand deposits were gradually enclosed by an extensive wetland of peat moor, marshes and pools.

    As a result of the absence of a systematic archaeological inventory, little is known about the habitation of the research area in prehistoric times. For the time being it is assumed that the area became uninhabitable in the Iron Age as the result of the formation of the peat wetland, and that colonisation did not commence until the Middle Ages.

    In administrative terms, the part of the Reest valley in Drenthe consisted of the parishes of Zuidwolde, De Wijk and Meppel. The upstream part of the Oosterboer neighbourhood below Meppel has not been included in the research.

    The population density of 4,3 per km2 in Zuidwolde in 1630 was exceptionally low even by the standards of Drenthe. The population was concentrated in seven clusters in the middle of their village holdings on the low dam morene that rose several metres above the flat peat moor like an island. The sparse population on the banks of the Reest was confined to a few mounds of wind-swept sand deposits. The elevated position in the wetland of Zuidwolde determined the possibilities of settlement and the clearing of arable land down to the late nineteenth century. In 1832 80% of the 106 km2 of land in the parish and the later local authority consisted of heath and 10% of fluvial soil. Apart from a few scattered mud farms on the periphery, only the remaining 10% was suitable for habitation and cultivation.

    In 1630 the population density of De Wijk was 22 per km2. Apart from this striking difference in population density, the parish also differed from Zuidwolde in terms of the ecological setting. De Wijk had inaccessible peat moorland instead of mesotrophic wetland with mounds of wind-swept sand deposits, while the large formations of sand deposits on the banks of the Reest provided more ample opportunities for settlement and cultivation. These horsts constituted the line of defence for the core farms in the Late Middle Ages, where they developed to become neighbourhoods or clusters of farms. The result was a series of five settlements or hamlets running from East to West. They divided the parish from the Reest to the North into five areas of marke land on an upward slope. Unlike Zuidwolde, the oldest farms in De Wijk were situated along the valley amid their farmlands. Moreover, they were situated in a more fertile midstream and downstream position in the valley, and the more easily accessibly marshy land offered better opportunities for cultivation than the oligotrophic peat moorland in Zuidwolde. In the first half of the seventeenth century De Wijk consisted of seven neighbourhoods running from East to West.

    The differences in the agrarian styles of farming in the two parishes were striking. An explanation for these differences must be sought primarily in the local ecosystems. In the last resort these decided the room for manoeuvre of the agrarian productive unit that can be regarded as an interdependent system of forms of agrarian exploitation. The starting point for this research was the valley system of the Reest. A considerable part of Zuidwolde and almost all of De Wijk were dependent on the ecological qualities of this valley under the historical conditions of the mixed farm. There were major differences in the physical structure and stratification of the landscape between the two parishes. Thus the situation of Zuidwolde was that of a valley at the head of the stream. Not only was the valley narrow here, but the possibilities of cultivation were also restricted by the oligotrophic conditions of the Reest and the valley soils. These conditions were much more favourable in De Wijk, so that the valley was able to perform much more of a crucial function in the mixed farm.

    A second distinction could be observed in the geomorphological structure of the deposits of wind-swept sand and the boulder clay formations. The opportunities for settlement in Zuidwolde were restricted in the upper reaches of the stream by the scarcity of sand ridges that followed the line of the valley. There were better opportunities in the dam morene on the northern side that rose above the moorlands like an island of boulder clay. This implied a peripheral position for the Reest valley in relation to its users in the neighbourhoods on the boulder clay plateau.

    The situation in De Wijk was totally different. Here the valley was flanked by tall horsts that on the northern side bordered on the mesotrophic peat bog in the late Pleistocene valley plain between the Oude Aa (Wold A) and the Reest. The East/West orientation of the different user ecotopes and the central position on the sand-covered horsts offered farms in De Wijk favourable prospects for integrated exploitation.

    All these diversities in the physical environment had their effects on the final pattern of occupation and the spatial arrangement of the different marken or village territories. Moreover, they were reflected in the different styles of farming of the two parishes. In Zuidwolde there was a strong emphasis on a creaming - off - economy in which the extensive oligotrophic peat heath played a central role. The style of farming here had a pronounced 'pastoral' accent, while the clearing of land by burning was widely applied as a typical form of overcropping. In De Wijk, on the other hand, the conditions were much more favourable for the extension of an integrated style of farming with an efficient deep litter house system.

    In this study we distinguished between the concepts 'form of farming' and 'style of farming'. The two concepts are generally used interchangeably in the literature, but our historical ecological approach requires differentiation to be made between them. A form of farming in this context can be defined as a number of techniques of exploitation linked to the agrarian use of landscape ecotopes. This concerns a combination of agrarian forms of use in relation to the different landscape ecotopes. In the seventeenth century such techniques of exploitation were already distributed on a regional and often supra-regional scale. The integration of such forms of use in a style of farming was thus primarily determined by the qualities of the local ecosystem. An example of a technique of exploitation of this kind that was relatively rapidly integrated into local styles of farming in the early seventeenth century is the buckwheat burning culture. As we saw in the case of Zuidwolde, the introduction of this technique had important consequences for the quality and accessibility of the peat heath ecotope, which in turn influenced the expansion of additional forms of exploitation such as grazing and peat cutting.

    Forms of farming thus have a regional and sometimes supra-regional impact that is related to a specific cultural landscape complex such as the Drenthe Plateau with its border zones. Style of farming is a question of how such regional techniques of exploitation are converted in the limited scope of the local ecosystem in which a farm had to operate in the marke or village context. In principle, there may thus be considerable differences between the styles of farming of two neighbouring village territories if the physical environments and derived ecotope complexes differ from one another in terms of composition and content.

    A good example of a differentiating factor of this kind that had an effect on the style of farming is provided by the exploitation of the land outside the village territories of Zuidwolde and De Wijk. In the first parish this consisted of 'velt en vene' [field and peat moor], while in the second it was mainly eckarshy land]. In principle the agronomic exploitation of both ecotopes was based on oxidation and mineralisation of the topmost peat layer so that nutrients were released for the crops in question. On the oligotrophic peat soil of Zuidwolde this process was forced by burning cultivation so that peat buckwheat could be sown for a number of years in succession. After this overexploitation the bolster was so exhausted that it took a few decennia to recover before a new burning cycle could be begun. The peat moor was grazed with sheep during the recovery period.

    On the mesotrophic peat bog of De Wijk, the neighbourhoods initiated and maintained the process of mineralisation in a much more subtle manner. Here the field grass system of the oat field culture offered an alternative to more intensive exploitation. The two-year oat cycle with a varying period of lying fallow was initiated here by a heavy one-off fertilisation making use of imported urban compost. This technique of cultivation, in which fertilisers were added to initiate the mineralisation of the peat, was thus much milder. In this sense the oat field cultivation can be regarded as a transitional form between the aggressive peat burning culture and permanent crop cultivation on the basis of regular fertilisation.

    We have already dealt with the influence of both techniques on the style of farming and the way in which they were integrated into the other bases of the farm. It is important in this connection to note that both forms of exploitation eventually resulted in 'de-peating' and exposure of the Pleistocene sand layer. It would be incorrect to compare the two techniques with one another in terms of a sliding scale of primitive and less primitive. Both forms of exploitation occurred in parallel and were a part of the agronomic exploitation complex of the Pleistocene sand zone.

    The landscape of the village territory of De Stapel forms a transition between Zuidwolde and De Wijk. It is a sample area with a large number of different use ecotopes. Through the presence of almost all the regional landscape ecotopes, including oligotrophic heath moor and mesotrophic peat bog, a style of farming developed here incorporating virtually all of the regional techniques of exploitation. Thus the open country of De Stapel was entirely dominated by creaming off, a buckwheat burning culture combined with sheep grazing and peat cutting, while the engine behind agriculture in the marshy lands was the oat culture. Thanks to the favourable situation of a number of farms on the peat moor border, it was even possible to practise peat moor cultivation on a limited scale, comparable to the system in the neighbouring peat moor border cultivation in Koekange. What we see, then, is a plurality of agronomic techniques of exploitation that responded to the transitional position of De Stapel in the landscape.

    Besides differences in ecological setting, the research also revealed that the geographical situation was important not only for the development of the style of farming but also for the arrangement and physical appearance of the cultural landscape. For instance, the possibility for farms in De Wijk to transport bulk goods in and out was of decisive importance for the exploitation of commercial timber activities and a rapid breakthrough of the oatfield cultivation. The direct link by water with the economic heartland of the Republic gave the agriculturalists in De Wijk an advantage over their colleagues in the peripheral upstream village of Zuidwolde. Already in the pre-industrial stage, the supply of urban compost offered the villagers in De Wijk an opportunity to break out of their ecological corset. This led before 1800 to the clearing and cultivation of the common areas outside the village in an umbrageous meadow landscape of grazing land, coppice woods and oatfields. The favourable position in relation to the Hoogeveensche Vaart was also to the advantage of the exploitation of downstream hayfields, enabling early specialisation in dairy farming to continue.

    Synthesis and conclusions

    Anyone wishing to collect information about the functioning of local agrarian ecosystems is bound to meticulously comb through and interpret sources of all kinds at the level of the smallest administrative units of parishes and marken, in combination with private archives. This method inevitably leads to a certain arbitrariness because the activity of collecting runs up against the principle of incidental availability and the instantaneous and discontinuous character of many of the sources. In addition, we have noted that there may be considerable differences in the informative value of the frequently consulted estimates of land, as regards the preliminary work of compiling an inventory, at local level. Dependence on this local accident' can be reduced during the collecting of data by also drawing on the local archive of the landscape that is primarily embedded in the soil. Opening up and interpreting this natural archive requires an interdisciplinary approach with specialisations in soil science and biology. Thanks to its spatial and historical perspective, historical geography can perform an interpretive task in historical ecological research in which subdisciplines like palaeo-ecology and soil ecology can offer the required breadth and depth. In the present study, an interdisciplinary approach of this kind would probably have yielded a by no means negligible amount of extra information and insight.

    During the period under review, 1600-1850, the farm and its productive environment in the landscape were caught up in a constantly changing relationship. The engine behind these changes was the process of intensification, in which labour was deployed to increase the crop yields.

    This study focused on the local level, paying particular attention to the ecological dimension. This approach in terms of the ecological landscape revealed that intensification was carried out in a variety of ways. It was determined on the one hand by the ecological setting of the productive environment, and on the other hand by the geographical position of the village territory. Koekange is a good example of a style of farming that eventually ran aground on the gradual deterioration of the local productive environment. The collapse of a dynamic stream valley system and the degeneration of the soil as a result of the depletion of the peat layer were the main causes of this stagnation. The colonisation of the Lage Linthorst at the beginning of the sixteenth century meant that the capacity of peat moor border cultivation was full, and there was no more village space available for intensification. Alternatives for intensification and specialisation had to be sought in an orientation outside the village by bringing in compost or exploiting hayfields outside the village territory.

    The conditions in the upper reaches of the Reest below Zuidwolde were different. Here there was still plenty of room for a more intensive exploitation of the different peat ecotopes. Drainage and staking out the common marshy lands, as well as stepping up sheep grazing on the extensive heath moor, provided scope for intensification and specialisation.

    Intensification followed a different course in De Wijk, where the advantages of a location downstream enabled early specialisation in dairy farming. The ecological niche was here located in the cultivation of the marshy lands with the oat field culture as the main propelling force. But as in Koekange, these opportunities for expansion could only be seized by bringing in urban compost via the Hoogeveensche Vaart. The latter point once again underscores the importance of a favourable geographical position for transport via the network of waterways of that time. In this respect De Wijk, partly thanks to the establishment of a system of districts, was situated more favourably than Koekange, which was not able to benefit from the infrastructural network that provided access to the cities on the IJssel and the Zuiderzee until the middle of the nineteenth century. The expansion of coppice wood cultivation in the eighteenth century is essential in this respect. This lucrative addition to the ways of making a living was easy to accommodate with the exploitation of estates in De Wijk, and in Koekange it offered an alternative to the stagnating oatfield culture.

    It may be concluded from this that intensification was not only a matter of increasing the grain yield. It also implied an increase in the number of ways of making a living that aimed at a more intensive and more multi-functional use of the ecotope complex. The deployment of more labour was the hub of this process of intensification. In addition, the buckwheat burning culture, peat cutting and the cultivation of coppice woods brought about a better division of activities throughout the entire year.

    Further research will have to demonstrate whether the orientation on hayfields outside the village territory played a role in intensification in other parts of Drenthe as well. This is primarily a question of downstream valley systems in which the broad valleys functioned as hay storehouses. At any rate, the exploitation of downstream hayfields beside the Reest and the Meppelerdiep offered a solution to the restrictive corset of the local ecosystem for the farmers of Koekange. An expansion of indoor feeding not only furthered the deep litter house system, but in the long run it also had a beneficial effect on the fertility of the adjacent greenland because of the higher erosion. In De Wijk it was mainly the emergent small farms situated on the downstream haybanks that benefited. A distinction is made in the literature on anthropogenic ecosystems between natural processes that take place by autonomous action, and the process of cultivation that is regarded as a form of deliberate intervention. The objectives from an agrarian perspective, however, were limited. The long-term consequences of the interventions and forms of exploitation could not be envisaged. In Koekange these changes in the local ecosystem reacted on the style of farming because the village territory was not large enough to offer compensatory space.

    The physical stratification of the Pleistocene sand landscape offered the historical farmer a pluriform basis of production. Village territories should be considered as integrated use systems with a high dynamic between the different use ecotopes. In this study we were confronted with a complex network of spatial and ecological relations that were governed by the style of farming. In current nature conservation, ecological management models are followed that are derived from historical forms of farming. For instance, the management of impoverished resources is based on what is by now the classic spring/well model. This method may be the only alternative for the time being in the light of budgetary restrictions, but the simplicity of the model has little connection with the much more complex situations of the past.

    In the first place, we were able to demonstrate that most ecotopes had multi-functional use forms. This applied not only to uncultivated use lands, but also to hay and grazing lands and to arable land. Pre-grazing and post-grazing were the rule rather than the exception, while grazing itself was done with different kinds of herds. In addition, there was a lot of interaction from the movement of the herds and transfer of raw materials through the transport of mowings, peat, sand, clay and turf. Moreover, actions like burning, overgrazing, peat cutting and de-peating created unintended prior conditions for 'natural development', while the introduction of the coppice wood culture brought about a further differentiation in the biotope complex. Finally, account should also be taken of transitional forms such as crop alternation of the widespread oatfield culture in which well and spring situations succeeded one another.

    The creaming off areas ('spring areas') were actually intensity zones in which the distance from the plot of land to the settlement played an important role. The differences in intensity of use were particularly large in the upstream Reest area with its extensive peat heath and very remote marshy lands. Sometimes deep litter houses were set up as annexes halfway to the settlement to encourage more intensive use of such remote plots of land. In the course of the eighteenth century the gradual transitions between ecotopes disappeared as a result of the cultivation of the marshy areas. The disappearance of these natural gradients was the diametrical opposite of the interaction and dynamic referred to above. The plots of land outside the dyke in Koekange displayed the opposite trend, in which the oatfield culture on the partly 'de-peated' marshy lands was transformed into a pure creaming - off - economy with sheep grazing and peat cutting.

    The historical farm unintentionally gave direction to the local ecosystem as well as creating prior conditions. Many protected fauna and rare flora owe their distribution to the multi-functional character of the style of farming. During the period under study we witnessed the gradual incorporation of 'natural' peat moor as a landscape for use and production. Drainage, burning, temporary sowing of buckwheat, grazing and peat cutting changed the inaccessible peat landscape within a few generations into an extensive moorland steppe with drifting sand and fen pools. The semi-natural marshlands were also gradually incorporated through cultivation into the productive landscape dictated by the style of farming.

    In the peat soil landscape of Southwest Drenthe the variety of use forms had a strongly determining influence on the soil. Human intervention led to considerable de-peating and podzoling of soils, resulting in an irreversible change in the abiotic supports of the local ecosystem. This fact necessitates a measure of caution in following historical models in choosing forms of nature conservation and nature development. Historical geographical research on agrarian ecosystems provides insight into site-specific ecological processes that shape the landscape. This concerns processes that create prior conditions, not interdependent pictures of the natural habitat in historical studies. It is an illusion to think that historical ecological landscape studies could offer a range of models for future management models. In pre-industrial situations too, culture and nature were interwoven in such a complex way that studies like the present one cannot be used to derive simply applicable models that harmonise with the nomenclature of contemporary nature conservation policy. Besides, we should be well aware that the styles of farming that we have sketched had to operate under completely different soil and hydrological conditions, while the present-day physical ecological areas of the Ecological Main Structure have been fundamentally and irreversibly altered.

    However, studies of site-specific agrarian ecosystems can contribute to a better insight into the ability of culture to create prior conditions. On the one hand, cultivation led to the dismantling of natural ecosystems, while on the other hand it created the scope for new ecotopes that contributed to a further ecological stratification of the cultural landscape with new biotopes and series of successions. This resulted in a varied mosaic of use ecotopes and gradients with the style of farming as the governing factor. In this interaction between culture and nature, the landscape was a recalcitrant means of production that was gradually incorporated in the evolution of an agrarian way of life.

    This study showed that the process of intensification could have very different effects on the abiotic components of the landscape. Thus we can oppose the construction of farmlands to the depletion of peat lands, levelling and sanding to the formation of drifting sands, and gradient reduction to differentiation. It is precisely this semi-natural legacy of agrarian ecosystems that has made such an important contribution to the construction of our modern idea of nature in the twentieth century.

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    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Vervloet, J.A.J., Promotor, External person
    Award date16 Sep 1998
    Place of PublicationGroningen
    Print ISBNs9789054859222
    Publication statusPublished - 1998


    • agricultural land
    • rural areas
    • land use
    • history
    • rural environment
    • environment
    • agricultural geography
    • netherlands
    • historical ecology
    • drenthe

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