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Friday, 6 July 2012

Tracing Cattle Tracks from the Past – Vanishing Traditional Pastures of Finland

The agriculture in Finland was quite extensive as late as in the 1950s. The amount of small cattle farms was still growing, in contrast to other European countries. It was usual that cattle grazed freely, and fences were not built to keep cattle within, but to protect the scarce and small arable fields from grazing. This combined with the slash-and-burn farming method used vastly in the 19th century transformed Finnish landscape strongly, and diverse habitats nowadays described as traditional rural biotopes covered vast areas of Finland.

Without cattle grazing valuable
 landscapes become overgrown.
Modern beef breeds are suitable grazers
also for traditional rural biotopes.

( K. Raatikainen)
After 1960s, national political decisions have strongly supported the intensification of farming. The amount of farms have since been decreasing, and the size of farms increasing. Grazing cattle has become a rare sight. Wood pastures and meadows that once were so abundant are either transformed to arable fields or silvicultural forests, or simply abandoned as the cattle grazes on cultivated pastures.

Only less than one percent of the area once grazed or mowed traditionally is left when compared to the estimated situation 100 years ago. The development is alarming: the number of valuable sites has continued decreasing drastically. At the moment, only half of the inventoried sites in Finland are managed, and for many of them the management is carried out in a way that no longer maintains the characteristics of the sites. The persistence of these valuable habitats and the specialist species dependent on them seems very unsure.

At the moment, several partly EU-funded projects are aiming at increasing the amount of managed sites, and improving the quality of management. The management is usually planned to maintain both the cultural landscape and the diverse species composition of individual habitat sites. This work has confronted several questions, which need scientific answers. For example, what is the motivational basis for site management and conservation? The cultural values and social aspects related to wood pastures are of great importance when management is reintroduced to an abandoned site, but we lack general information of the underlying values concerning traditional rural biotopes. Furthermore, many biological factors related to managing these sites are not clear. How should the past and present spatial connectivity of pasture habitat patches be considered? How deep is the extinction dept of the variety of specialist species of these habitats?

Wooded pastures are important habitats
for a variety of species.
 In Finland, they are the most common
– and perhaps the most versatile –
traditional rural biotope type.

K. Raatikainen)

Answering these questions, and applying the answers, need a holistic approach. The aim of my research is to examine the management of traditional rural biotopes in Finland as an entity which is influenced by ecological, social, and economical factors.

Kaisa Raatikainen
Project Manager
Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment for Central Finland


Peter Quelch said...

Kaisa, this is an interesting but perhaps depressing picture of the decline of traditional cultural management, and the inevitable loss of biodiversity associated with that old way of life. But that is the story of wood pastures everywhere in Europe it seems. In 2002 I visited wooded pastures in central Sweden around Klovsjo with a group looking at examples of Biocultural Heritage in Sweden and France. The tradition at Klovsjo was described and a book has been written about it by Lars Kardell and Mats Olofsson. But the feeling was that the old ways were dying, mainly because young people were not prepared to continue the hard work and poor financial rewards. So the visit was informative but rather sad. These habitats have developed over many centuries, but their biological values can be lost very quickly, within decades, and the loss of traditional knowledge is to me the most worrying aspect (as also discussed in the Hungarian article). Certainly the economic and social aspects must be given equal weight in any studies alongside the ecological and cultural history aspects. Peter Quelch

Kaisa Raatikainen said...

Thank you, Peter, for your comment. It really seems that the loss of traditionally managed rural landscapes covers the whole Europe. This is worrying, and the change has been fast. Reading this blog gives a good review to the current situation. But some hope is in the air: we have a new generation of farmers who are interested in managing valuable sites. It is very important to create a link between these people and the experts who study biological background factors affecting traditional rural biotopes. I think it is possible to manage the best sites with high quality if we work together with local farmers and landowners. Also, the EU subsidy system offers some economical support for site management, and we should be very active in developing subsidy policies. After all, managing is costly and money is attractive.
Kaisa Raatikainen