The impact of contemporary agriculture on Danish lakes is acknowledged to be extreme. In particular, high loading of nutrients from agricultural soils contributes to the eutrophic conditions found in many of Denmark’s lakes. Palaeolimnological studies have shown that human disturbance of the Danish landscape since the introduction of agriculture around 6,000 years ago has had a major impact on lake ecosystems. The European Union’s Water Framework Directive requires an evaluation of reference conditions for lakes, the conditions expected with only minimal human impact. Monitoring data and palaeolimnological studies of Danish lakes demonstrate that many of the most detrimental effects of eutrophication have been experienced in recent decades. A new study has suggested that the reference status for Danish lakes may be set to the status in ad 1850–1900, probably providing attainable, realistic restoration targets for many sites. The aims of this study were to explore the impacts of past and contemporary land-use on Danish lakes, and to consider how appropriate the use of 1850 as a date to define reference status is for these sites. Catchment land-cover data for ad 1800, taken from historical maps, and sedimentary diatom assemblages of the same age, from dated sediment cores, were used to assess the impact of pre-industrial land-use on 20 Danish lakes. Analysis of contemporary land-cover data and surface-sediment diatom assemblages for the 20 sites was also made. In-lake total phosphorus (TP) concentrations were estimated using the sedimentary diatom assemblages and an existing calibration dataset for Danish lakes. The percentage of the lake catchment that was agricultural land in ad 1800 explained 8.8% of the total variation in the diatom data. The land-cover variables ‘built-up areas’ and ‘plantations’, together explained 16.9% of the variation in the diatom data for the modern samples. Diatom-inferred TP concentrations were high for both ad 1800 (mean 112 μg TP L−1) and the present (mean 122 μg TP L−1), the latter estimates reflecting efforts in recent decades to reduce nutrient loading to Danish lakes following very high levels of nutrient enrichment post-1950. The data presented highlight the impact that human activities 200 years ago, particularly agriculture, had on Danish lake systems. The long cultural history and major anthropogenic disturbance of the Danish landscape mean that true reference conditions for lakes (or ‘baseline’ conditions, those found prior to human impacts) can be found only by considering century to millennial timescales.
Keywords: Palaeolimnology - Land-use - Eutrophication - Water Framework Directive - Reference conditions