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Monday, 4 June 2012

Old-growth woodlands in the Mediterranean: the role of religion

In ancient Greek culture, the term “tree” referred by definition to oak trees, thus recognizing the great utilitarian and spiritual value of oak woods. Nowadays, small churches and small chapels dispersed in Greek nature are always surrounded by ancient oak woodlands. These sacred groves still remain in Greek culture holly sites, respected by people due to Orthodox religion and hence left out of common forest woodcutting practices. As a result, biotopic islands of old growth uncut woodlands have been formed, which have a great ecological value, hosting a great diversity of forest-dwelling organisms. They are usually open woodlands of small-size (1-2ha), periodically grazed. A multi-disciplinary research project under the title “conservation through religion: the sacred groves of Epirus”, was initiated by the University of Ioannina (J. M. Halley – project coordinator), under the scope to explore the comparative ecological value of sacred groves vis-à-vis managed oakwoods (biological component), as well as the cultural value of those woodlands (social component).

My research team (biodiversity group) will record the diversity of birds, vascular plants, lichens and bats in both forest types, while another research team (National Institute of Agricultural Research –Forest Research Institute) will study the diversity of fungi and wood-eating insects in both forest types. To this end, we have selected a set of 20 sacred groves in the area of Epirus (NW Greece) and an equal number of managed oakwoods in vicinal area, using a random choice algorithm. The first results of our project are promising. A highly significant difference is recorded (p<0.001) for the woodpecker diversity and abundance between sacred groves and managed oakwoods.  I currently undertake fieldwork on the passerine diversity and although research is not accomplished yet, some key species such as S. europaea, C. brachydactyla, P. lugubris and P. palustris seem to have a clear preference of old growth woodlands.
However, as modern Greeks become more and more detached from tradition and Orthodox religion, they do not respect always sacred groves. Sings of illegal woodcutting are recorded in the sacred groves, which might be even more intensive nowadays, in light of the financial crisis in the country. Immediate conservation action and rising of public awareness is needed for the protection of the above old-growth islands.

Vassiliki Kati
Assistant Professor on Biodiversity Conservation
Department of Environmental & Natural Resources Management
University of Ioannina, Seferi 2, 30100, Agrinio, Greece
Tel: +26410-74193, E-mail:,

1 comment:

Hartel Tibor said...

I greatly enjoyed this post and thank you very much for this contribution. I see many parallels between your study and our research in the ancient rural landscapes of Transylvania.