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Transformation and the management of HIStorical foresT. Landscapes of the Eugaean Hill (Padua, Italy). Fresh perspectives through spatial analyses and dendro-anthracology

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - THISTLE (Transformation and the management of HIStorical foresT. Landscapes of the Eugaean Hill (Padua, Italy). Fresh perspectives through spatial analyses and dendro-anthracology)

Reporting period: 2016-04-01 to 2018-03-31

This project focuses especially on forests that played a crucial role in the evolution of human societies. Forested landscapes represent the ecological inheritance of forest management across the centuries. We particularly study the evolution of historical forests in the Euganean Hills (Padua, Italy) with a multidisciplinary approach (history, archaeology, geography, archaeobotany). No intensive research has been carried out on forest history in the territory so far.
THISTLE programme was designed to better understand the place these forests occupy in the lives of the users while taking stock of the local knowledge on the forest history. At the same time, thanks to a regressive and pluridisciplinary approach, the aim of THISTLE programme is to examine the centuries-old relations between local people and forests.
This dual approach has brought to light the virtual absence of local memory relating to forest history. Indeed, many inhabitants of this area ignore the ancient existence of ancient forests on the Euganean Hills. Thanks to historical cartography (Austrian land registers 1840) and the study of archaeological charcoal kilns we can attest of the ancientness of the forest, from the end of the 13th century. In addition, the comparison between archaeobotanical data (studies of charcoal) and current botanical inventories reinforce this hypothesis. Indeed, only the maintenance of these spaces in the forest allows the conservation of its large botanical biodiversity.
The THISTLE project, which was carried out in close collaboration with the Park has highlighted the presence of ancient forests hitherto unknown. One of the main points of this project is to raise awareness of the strong heritage value of these forests and, thus, to better manage them in the future.
This work is based on a regressive approach, starting from the composition and structure of current forests and going back in time from different documentary collections (historical documents, ancient maps, archaeological and archaeobotanical remains).
The current forest inventory was first drawn up on the basis of regional data and then refined during field surveys. It showed a high level of forest biodiversity in the area of Euganean Hills, with a clear dominance of Robinia and chestnut stands (Fig 1).
The omnipresent Robinia stands in the territory correspond to a very recent history of spontaneous reforestation of old agricultural plots by an exotic taxon for the territory (imported in the 17th century).
The chestnut coppices, located on the slopes of volcanic hills, are ageing and often sick. This type of forestry training bears witness to a much older history (very large strains indicate a coppices management for several generations).
Through a sociological survey, we aim to understand how the population perceives these forests. This study shows a lack of knowledge of local forest history and that the attachment to these forest areas is mainly based on sports activities or other nature-communing activities.
The sociological and ecological results emphasise certain contradictions. The local population speaks of recent forests, but the local biodiversity and forest structure bear witness to a long-standing forest history.
Thanks to historical mapping the extension of the forest massifs has been restored (Fig 1). It has revealed a wide dominance of coppices in 19th century forests. Only two forest areas were managed in high forests to provide timber for the Venetian arsenal.
A forest archaeology approach has also been used in order to complete these data. Walking and LIDAR surveys were carried out on the Monte Venda and Monte della Madonna massifs. Through this approach we identified vestiges witnessing forest presence in the past (charcoal platforms), and attesting to an opening of the environment (for example, agricultural terraces and habitats). Each vestige has been mapped to show whether the study area presented forest continuity. To date nearly 40 platforms of charcoal production have been identified (Fig 2). 10 platforms have been analysed. The six radiocarbon dates received date this charcoal production at least in the 14th century, and bear witness to an activity that continues over time, since some charcoal platforms date back to the 15th, 16th, 17th and 19th centuries. Only the depth horizons have been dated so far. Future analyses will focus on testing whether stratigraphy is still conserved on these remains and whether vegetation dynamics over time can be studied from the same platform (Fig 2).
These studies show a very good correspondence between current and past vegetation. Species identified in anthracological assemblages are still present near the sampling sites (Fig 3). These observations attest to the forest continuity in these areas. However, some charcoal production places show some discrepancies between current and past vegetation (dominance of beech in the past and quasi absent today, evolution of wood diameters).
"This study was carried out in collaboration with the forest managers of the Regional Park and local associations. This approach is fundamental to better manage forest areas in a particularly complex context linked to the fragmentation of forest property. Part of this research has focused on a better understanding of the issues surrounding these forest areas, by proposing a survey not only on forest owners and managers, but also on the local population as a whole and the occasional users of these areas. This analysis, which is still ongoing, highlights some interesting results. The example of the Robinia tree illustrates the complexity of the situation. Indeed, while botanists, ecologists and forest managers consider this taxon as an invasive and endangering type of local biodiversity, on the contrary, a part of the local population appreciates this tree for the quality of its wood and for its aesthetic aspect.
Our work on the history of this forest provides valuable elements for discussion on forest policies to be implemented in the coming years. In addition, the actions initiated in collaboration with the local associations and the inhabitants of the Regional Park seem especially promising to raise awareness of the current forest landscape origin and to care for these areas, which are too often considered as ""natural"". While making an experimental charcoal kiln in October 2017, the processes of transformation of forest areas by past human activities were explained to more than 150 people. The positive feedback from those in charge of the Park and local associations suggests that these areas should be better taken into account in the territorial policies. The conference led to the end of the THISTLE project and the dissemination of the video made during the experimental charcoal kiln highlighted the importance of a profession which is almost forgotten today, though being crucial in the forest history of the territory.
Radiocarbone and anthracological results
forest evolution of the part North of the Euganean Hills
localisation and images of archaeological charcoal kilns