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Thursday, 2 August 2012

Do wood-pastures still occur in the Czech Republic?

Fig. 1. Grazing in Romanian Banat near the 
Czech village Svatá Helena. Grazed orchards
 (in the foreground) are important habitats similar
 to the wood-pastures (in the background).

Wood pastures were formerly common in the Czech Republic. They are depicted on old cadastral maps, and they can also be seen on old paintings. We can find plenty examples of park-like habitats across our country when looking just on the pre-war aerial photographs. Nowadays we can hardly find any wood-pasture in which management persisted. Indeed, probably all the old pastures were infilled by either planted or naturally established trees. Therefore, we can simply conclude that the ancient wood-pastures disappeared in the modern history. However, traditional form of pastoralism is still practised by small community of Czechs that live in several small villages in multi-ethnical region of Romanian Banat. These people settled in the region in the middle of 19th century, and transformed the forests to arable land, pastures and meadows in order to use the land in a similar manner as in Bohemia.  They have kept their language, and they have still kept also many of old traditions and farming methods. Therefore, the landscape there resembles the former landscape in the Czech Republic.
How do the pastures in Banat look like? The most important thing is that there is no sharp boundary between forests and pastures. Most of the pastures are wooded, but there are no large trees (fig 1). There are only shrubby beeches and hornbeams and frequently there are only relatively short-living shrubs (e.g. hawthorns). The wood-pastures in Banat do not correspond to the romantic idea of wood pastures as pasturelands with large old trees. Instead, most of them are rather „shrub-pastures“. However, these habitats are still unusually species rich and feature high spatial variability.
Fig. 2. Park-like landscape of Doupovské hory
Experienced this we are able to see similar habitats also in the Czech Republic. They are not particularly common but they occur in Central Bohemia (Bohemian Karst), Western and Northern Bohemia and Southern Moravia. The origin of these shrubby pastures is diverse. Probably most of them are pastures that were abandoned for some decades. They have been partly overgrown by shrubs, and the grazing has been introduced again, sometimes as tool of conservation. Some of them are pastures on formerly arable land which was abandoned some decades ago and are currently used for grazing.
A special case of the new wood-pastures represent park-like habitats in abandoned landscape of Doupovské hory. The cultural landscape of Doupovské hory was abandoned when large military area was established there in 1952. After several decades of succession the landscape inside the military area resembles the wood-pastures very strongly (fig. 2, fig. 3), and it is also very species rich. The landscape there is significantly influenced by grazing of wild herbivores, such as Red deer, Sika Deer, wild pigs.
Fig. 3. The fate of wood-pastures in Doupovské hory.
The former wood-pastures often changed
to dense forests while the former tree-less landscape changed
 to shrublands grazed by wild herbivores.
New wood-pastures grazed either by cattle or by wild animals could be very valuable for nature conservation but could be also endangered by conservation itself. For example, farmers were motivated by Czech legislative to eliminate shrubs and solitary trees from their pastures to obtain subsidies. Fortunately, this was changed in 2010.
However, conservation management is often planned without considering the value of scattered shrubs. The problem is that there is little information on the species richness and variability of new wood-pastures. Particularly the effects of interactions between shrubs and grazing on the small scale vegetation variability are often overlooked. Therefore, we have started several small projects which aim to i) investigate the relationships between shrub cover, grazing intensity, and species diversity (both alpha and beta diversity), ii) compare the diversity of traditional wood-pastures in Banat and new wood-pastures in the Czech Republic and iii) investigate the role of wild animals in forming and maintaining the abandoned landscape.

Jaroslav Vojta

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