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Friday, 10 August 2012

European wood-pastures: closing words for the thematic series

It was a pleasure for us to publish this beautiful bouquet of papers about European wood-pastures. The papers originated from Scotland, England, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Greece (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The countries where the wood-pasture papers originate from. Whenever it was possible the point was placed in a region mentioned in the wood-pasture paper. In the case of Finland the point was put in the centre of the country. 

Below I try to integrate the main messages of these posts.
First, wood-pastures are important components of the European cultural and natural heritage and they have high ecological value. Wood-pastures tend to gather an increasing interest from ecologists and conservationists. Ecological research on wood-pastures is on-going in many European countries such as e.g. Greece, Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, Spain. These studies provide important evidences about the ecological value of wood-pastures and also suggest management interventions for their conservation.

Second, wood-pastures are in decline and / or vulnerable to change all over Europe. Our understanding about the various threats to the European wood-pastures is increasing but there is much more to understand. The abandonment of the traditional grazing, agricultural intensification, land conversion, industrialization, urban and infrastructural development, cutting- (e.g. for firewood or injuring them) and burning the trees, disrupting traditional links between people and wood-pastures seem to be general threats to European wood-pastures. The magnitude of these threats can differ in different parts of Europe. Figure 2 presents a hypothesis regarding two main underlying forces shaping the status of the wood-pastures in Europe: the productivity of the land and the economic status of the country (expressed as GDP). It would be timely to assess the complex socio-economic issues around the maintenance and change of wood-pastures across Europe in order to develop better, and more context placed conservation policies for them.
Figure 2. Hypothetical representation of different environmental and economic contexts affecting wood-pastures across Europe. These contexts likely are drivers of the various changes in the status of wood-pastures and the attitude of people to these habitats mentioned in this entry. Economically rich countries with productive lands have expectedly less wood-pastures and less extent of ‘wood-pasture friendly’ management. The traditional ecological knowledge and links between people and nature tend to be weaker in such countries. The remaining wood-pastures may have high aesthetic value for people. In economically poor countries the management tends to be traditional, and the systems of people and wood-pastures are tightly linked. In such areas / countries people may value more the provisioning services of wood-pastures while the other services may be less valued.

Third, wood-pastures and people seem to be inherently linked. These links can sometimes be traced back to centuries. These links make wood-pastures excellent arenas for a holistic, social-ecological approach to understand the dynamics of systems of nature and people. What is their history? What was the nature of these links in the past, how they changed in present times, in which way and how should we shape the nature of these links in the future? Biodiversity and ecological research alone, although important to ‘ecological health’ diagnosis, may not be enough for answering such questions. To address these problems a more holistic research agenda is needed with inter- and transdisciplinary teams and approaches. Research from Greece shows that philosophical (e.g. belief) systems matter: a departure from traditional religions can have deep consequences for ancient wood-pastures and their biodiversity. The example from Hungary shows that the nature of knowledge is important determinant of how people perceive the wood-pastures. While the traditional herders perceive wood-pastures as organic, inseparable units of pasture and trees, professional managers perceive wood-pastures as important determinants of biodiversity and landscape complexity. The example from Romania suggest that sharp cultural/ethnic turnover is an important threat for the traditional ‘cultural skeleton’ including ancient wood-pastures while the example from Spain highlight the possibility that ancient wood-pastures may not be ‘built to last’ and further efforts should be allocated to maintain them and create new wood-pastures for future. At the other end of the spectrum is the modern society. Wood-pastures and ancient trees get increasing attention from non-academic naturalists in England (e.g. the Ancient Tree Hunt group of the Woodland Trust and the Ancient Trees forum). These groups and people make a huge difference by their work, inventorying and mapping thousands of trees therefore contributing to their knowledge and conservation. These ideas and attitudes could be adopted by other regions of Europe where the wood-pastures are still common.

Preserving the past may not be a viable solution and strategies developed for this purpose may not be viable. Acknowledging the legacy of traditional knowledge and attitudes of people toward wood-pastures, the modern society may want to facilitate and build new types of links between people and wood-pastures. These new links should not consider only financial incentives (e.g. ‘I pay you to keep the scattered trees, and low intensity grazing on this wood-pasture’). Modern people, maybe more than the traditional people, may recognize that there are many other and increasingly vital aspects which are less directly linked to money provision, assured by wood-pastures. Examples include their heritage value, their importance in increasing adaptability of landscapes to climate changes, their value as ‘ecological memory’, their ecological / biodiversity value and so on. To value these multiple services, modern societies need to be mindful in a different way than those societies which created the wood-pastures in historical times.

Fourth, examples from Scotland and England show that the formal recognition of wood-pastures as distinct habitats is important for promoting a better understanding by research, more popularization and ultimately a better conservation status. The Eastern European experience with protected areas also suggests that the protected status of an area, especially after the adherence to the European Union is important for ‘pulling it out’ from anonymity and is an important step toward its recognition as value, research and conservation. Learning from the above examples it would be timely to make clear steps for formally introducing wood-pastures in the internationally important protected area systems and to start their inventory and assessment of their conservation status.

Figure 3 presents a short (and subjective) overview of the various issues emerging from the 12 wood-pasture entries of this thematic issue.

Figure 3. Important issues about European wood-pastures which appeared in the 12 entries.

This wood-pasture theme series was a really nice experience – thanks to the many authors. I personally believe that there is a future for wood-pastures in Europe – if we want that future. There are many good things already happening across Europe in this respect. Isolation is not an issue anymore: fast knowledge flow and learning from each other is now possible. We need to amplify and extend them to create the grounds for conservation action.

Tibor Hartel -  Ovidius University Constanta, Romania; Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. E-mail:


Peter Quelch said...

Tibor, a masterly summary of the papers and issues. I agree that further inventory is necessary to quantify what we have in Europe. But attention must be paid to definitions since there are many different types of wood and scrub pasture, also with many and distinct origins and causes. Wood pastures are generally not a stable community, and management is a delicate balance between overgrazing causing gradual loss of the trees, utilisation of the trees themselves, and undergrazing leading to scrub then forest. The Czech author refers to the romantic idea of wood pastures with scattered veteran trees in pasture. This habitat which has great aesthetic value and also 'old growth' attributes, constitutes only a fraction of the total wooded pasture resource. Clear thinking and well targeted research, along with the discipline of inventory, is needed to understand the biology and history of wood pastures better. Many thanks again for organising this blog, which is surely a landmark action for the wood pasture habitat, Peter Quelch

Hartel Tibor said...

Dear Peter - many thanks for this comment. Indeed, it was very nice/fascinating to see how different landscapes can be covered under the name 'wood-pasture'. In my mind wood-pasture was/is associated with scattered (preferably oak) trees with certain shape. Maybe because this is what we have - as really easy to distinguish landscape elements in Southern Transylvania + I may be influenced by what I read before. However, the pictures from Germany, Italy and Czech Republic clearly show: many other types of landscapes can be considered wood-pastures, with the condition to have a mosaic of scrub/tree/woodland and pasture. With my colleagues we smiled and asked: 'Ok, then what is not wood-pasture in Transylvania?'. So, indeed, a clear definition of what can be or not a wood-pasture is timely and also practical if we want to inventory and protect them.

I am really grateful to all of you for these contributions. I consider this as 'ours' even is Barbi and me facilitated this process.

Nina Sajna said...

Hi, great posts about wooded pastures! Concerning the great variety of shown examples, I too agree that the definition is slightly loose. I never considered meadow orchards and macchia to be wooded pastures. But hey, precise definition is still to be set so I'm glad to report that we have wooded meadows in Slovenia! They are developed on alluvial floodplains in riparian forest and sometimes they are grazed but mostly they are mown for fodder or litter. So it's more a human-maintained grassland in the woods. Regards, Nina Sajna

Hartel Tibor said...

Thanks Nina Sajna for your observation. Those too, indeed, seem to be wood-pastures although not always 'pastured'. There are many interesting attempts to name wood-pastures. Wood-pastures, wooded-pastures, pasture woodlands, sylvopastoral systems. Beyond the details, one thing seem to be sure: they all reflect a multifunctional landscape type, where humans use the grassland and the tree components symultaneously. The tragedy of many modern wood-pastures in Europe is that people renounce to the services / goods provided by at least one (often both) of these components.