Ambitions for nature recovery in the UK involve profound changes to land use that will shift the ecological composition and appearance of different landscapes. Recovery commonly involves a transition from worked, agricultural landscapes towards those in which natural processes are given more autonomy. It aims to move from landscapes characterised by low biological abundance and diversity, linear landscape features, and tightly controlled processes towards those marked by biological abundance and diversity, complex landscape features, and unpredictable landscape dynamics.

Some British citizens care deeply about the appearance of the landscape and resist radical changes to land use and landscape composition. Although the rural landscape has undergone radical transformation in the last few centuries, there are powerful, conservative cultural ideals of the countryside as a timeless source of aesthetic, moral and political value that is threatened by change. Imagined archetypes with ecological and cultural baselines in a desired past persist into the present. These archetypes have been central to the history of the conservation of cultural landscapes in the UK.

The lowland English countryside and the Scottish Highlands offer two important examples of these archetypes. The first is exemplary of the English Pastoral and second of the Romantic Scottish Sublime. We anticipate that these two aesthetic ideals help frame the landscape preferences of key players in our two case study regions – rural Oxfordshire and the Scottish Cairngorms. They create the popular and powerful archetypes that are both shared and contested by many farmers, foresters, traditional conservationists, tourists, stalkers, and other rural publics. We expect that there is a good chance that they may both configure and restrict the ambitions of those planning and implementing nature recovery projects across the UK. They shape perceptions of responsible land management and of mess and messiness.

This project aims to test this hypothesis to answer the following research questions:

What are the common aesthetics of UK nature recovery?
How do they contrast with the pastoral and sublime, as expressed in Oxfordshire and the Cairngorms?
How might different publics and stakeholders be engaged in deliberating the aesthetics of nature recovery?
Is there are middle ground between the aesthetics of recovery and the aesthetics of pastoral and the sublime – for example in the aesthetics of regenerative agriculture?

Why study aesthetics?

Aesthetics involves the study of perception and the generally pleasant experience of a sight, sound and smell or taste. There is much debate about the degree to which aesthetics are socially constructed or innate. But research shows that aesthetics underpins both environmental ethics and politics. Aesthetics shape the emotional attachments people form with species and landscapes. It propels relations of curiosity, care, and protection, as well as dislike and disgust. Landscape aesthetics also reflects the predominant social order. They express powerful ways of seeing that may serve to naturalise the status quo. These ways of seeing are contextual and contingent and are thus contested. As a consequence, past and current debates about what is natural and right for the UK countryside are strongly shaped by aesthetic, as well as ecological and economic considerations.