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LONGWOOD tells the story of human influence over Moravian forests from various scientific perspectives

Knowing the evolution of European forests’ composition over the past few centuries or even millennia could prove highly valuable in shaping present management strategies. The LONGWOOD project brought experts and knowledge from various disciplines together to create common databases and prepare guidelines for better woodland management, with a focus on the Moravian Region in Central Europe.
LONGWOOD tells the story of human influence over Moravian forests from various scientific perspectives
How did humans’ management strategies influence Central Europe’s vegetation over time? How come we know so little about this process and how can this gap be filled? These questions were at the centre of the LONGWOOD (Long-term woodland dynamics in Central Europe: from estimations to a realistic model) project.

A few months before its completion, Prof. Péter Szabó, coordinator of LONGWOOD, sheds light on the work done so far and discusses its potential for influencing future conservation schemes.

How do you explain that we knew so little about the evolution of forest composition before your project started?

In fact we knew a lot, but I found that the scientific disciplines generating this knowledge did not communicate with each other much. Each discipline has its own set of sources and tools and produces specific kinds of results. For example, pollen analysis can reconstruct forest composition in high detail but its geographical scope is limited.

In some respects, cooperation is indeed difficult because the temporal and spatial scales offered by various sources differ. However, in many other respects I saw no reason why the disciplines involved should not work together towards answering what appeared to be common questions. I felt that the moment was right to try to bring different methods together in a region that was large enough to be representative of Central Europe at least and at the same time available for analysis in high resolution.

How did you proceed to find past information on Central European forests’ composition?

We planned the research together with colleagues from various disciplines. This was a key stage in the project, because we all knew we could do our own stuff but we had to find a spatio-temporal scale at which we could meaningfully cooperate along with a platform that would hold all the various kinds of data together. For me it was also important to find top-notch experts in each field, because outdated methods in one field would have discredited the whole project.

There are four types of data involved in our research: fossil pollen, archival documents, current vegetation and archaeological data. All these different kinds of data are kept in ‘Geographic information systems’ (GIS) databases, which makes them compatible and comparable. Precisely because in our view there was a gap between detailed local studies and somewhat speculative large-scale models, we decided to gather as much data for a larger region (Moravia in the eastern Czech Republic, ca. 27 000 km2) as we felt was humanly possible.

Nearing the end of the project, we have thousands of permanent and resurveyed semi-permanent vegetation plots, dozens of palynological profiles, tens of thousands of historical records on tree species composition and forest management in addition to a complete database of all archaeological findings ever recorded in the area. This gives us a unique opportunity to look at forest development and the role of humans in a complex manner since the end of the latest Ice Age.

What have you learned with regards to the evolution of forest composition in Central Europe?

We are actually in the middle of final analyses and syntheses, but I think first of all we learnt to be suspicious towards received wisdom.

For example, it appears that the most important 20th century process that influenced those forests which are highly valued nowadays for their biodiversity was, at least in our region, the abandonment of traditional management. Nitrogen deposition and other factors also play a role of course, but if you stop managing a forest the way it has been managed for hundreds or maybe thousands of years, that changes practically everything from flowers to butterflies. Our historical data proved that no forest was left unmanaged even in the Middle Ages and also that the ecologically most important factors are not necessarily the best documented. For example, litter raking in forests, which was earlier sidelined as a ‘minor use’, was practised almost everywhere and could remove as much nutrient from forests as tree cutting.

Another important finding is that it is often impossible to separate human impact from natural processes in ecosystem development. The floristically most valuable oakwood in southern Moravia turned out to have few oaks before people changed its management in the 14th century. Does that make it less ‘natural’ in the eyes of nature conservation?

On the other hand, not everything is about change. We also found elements of remarkable stability. In a combined palynological, archaeological and palaeoclimatological model we found that open land covered a large part of the lowlands through the entire Holocene period, but again it is impossible to tell exactly to what extent this was caused by people and how much by climate.

One main project outcome is a spatio-temporal forest landscape model. What would be typical uses for this model by stakeholders?

The main sectors that can benefit from our results are nature conservation and forestry. Our results provide an opportunity to follow long-term changes and put current changes, including those triggered by climate change, into a millennial context. On a more concrete level, our databases are intended to be open, so for example if a forestry unit wants to find out about tree species composition in their area in the past few hundred years to develop a better management plan, they will be able to get this information from us.

We are also trying to reassess existing models of tree species’ native ranges. Furthermore, we cooperate with nature conservation authorities in several places, where the consequences of the reintroduction of traditional forest management — partly guided by our research — will be monitored by us and also evaluated in the context of overall changes in the 20th century. In an ideal case, our results could contribute to a renewal of Czech forestry policy in terms of desirable tree species composition and the role of traditional forest management, most of which is currently banned outside specially designated areas.

You also prepared guidelines for more congruous woodland conservation. What are your main recommendations?

I would advise against grand conservation schemes. It is all too easy to rely on a pre-existing classification to fit your local woodland into, but by doing so you run the risk of overlooking what makes your site special. For me, the interesting thing about a forest is not how it is similar to other forests but how it is different from any other forest.

Furthermore, and this is something we are engaged in through our research, overarching conservation schemes and principles tend to turn into dogma and lose their ability to incorporate new knowledge. I would like to see site history much more involved in woodland conservation. Forests are not only natural but also cultural monuments, and as I mentioned above, it is often impossible to say where culture ends and nature begins. I do not see this as a problem but rather something we, especially in Europe, should embrace. Woods are extremely complex, so we should look at them in a complex manner rather than through a list of desirable species.

Your work focused on the Moravia region. Do you hope that your methodology will help similar initiatives in other regions of Europe?

I do hope so. I would be happy if others found our work inspiring in the sense that the combination of different sources and methods can create synergetic results, more than the simple sum of individual components.

LONGWOOD
Funded under FP7-IDEAS-ERC
project website

Source: Interview from research*eu results magazine n. 54 p.11-13

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