September 5, 2014

European Wood-Pastures as Cultural Landscapes

Tibor Hartel, Sapientia University, Romania Tobias Plieninger, University of Copenhagen

European landscapes are shaped by long-lasting, intensive and complex interactions between people and nature. This interaction has generated values that are appreciated by society, nowadays called “landscape values” or “ecosystem services,” but many of these cultural landscape values are in decline.

Wood-pastures—combinations of grazing lands with scattered trees—are in many regards archetypical cultural landscapes and indicative of their fate. They cover several millions of hectares of European farmland in a variety of expressions, from the cork oak and holm oak dehesas and montados of the Iberian Peninsula to traditional orchards in Central Europe and ancient oak and beech pastures in Southeast Europe. Wood-pastures host extraordinarily high levels of biodiversity and provide a multitude of ecosystem services. But, just like many other cultural landscapes, they are extremely vulnerable to environmental and socioeconomic change. Few adequate policies exist to maintain and preserve wood-pastures, as they are in the “grey zone” between agriculture, forest, conservation, rural development and other sectors and policies.

European wood pastures. Photo by Tobias Plieninger.

European wood pastures. Photo by Tobias Plieninger.

In our recently published volume “European Wood-pastures in Transition,” we join 28 contributors to trace the trajectories of different types of wood-pastures in Northwestern, Southern and Eastern Europe. We offer a Pan-European synthesis about the diverse types of wood-pastures, their histories, social and ecological values, governing institutions, threats and conservation approaches. We explore the major drivers of decline, which are related to rapid cultural, institutional and developmental changes. An ironic finding—thoughtfully elaborated by Guy Beaufoy—is that the recent reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is proving harmful to European wood-pastures despite it’s suggested “greening.” However, we also find signs for a positive societal revaluation of wood-pastures. In the UK, volunteers have mapped more than 100,000 ancient, veteran and notable trees (usually located in wood-pastures) and thus have laid the base for conservation efforts. In Southern Germany, commonly managed wood-pastures have become an asset for local gastronomy, tourism and regional development. Also, academic interest in wood-pastures has clearly been growing across Europe.

From case studies, it becomes clear that European wood-pastures are changing rapidly and that analyzing and managing the nature of these changes is a challenge that requires the integration of a multitude of knowledge. Thus, we frame the book around social-ecological concepts and derive some principles of wood-pastures from a resilience perspective. For example, we find that diversity, ecological variability and modularity generate much of the values and the resilience of wood-pastures. Among the key problems of many wood-pastures is the loosening of feedback loops between the social and ecological realms, a loss of social capital and a general lack of innovation, novelty and experimentation in wood-pasture management.

Where does that leave us? The contributors point to a wide diversity of issues that must be considered in order to understand, value and protect the wood-pastures of Europe. For example, they highlight that land-use practices matter; that patterns and processes matter; that timescales matter; that involving stakeholders matters; that monitoring matters; that knowledge matters; that grazing matters; that biodiversity matters; that institutional transformation matters; that economic profitability matters; and that tourism, protected areas and new institutional structures matter. Given this cloud of issues, a narrow disciplinary research or sectoral policy agenda has limited capacity to provide solutions for these multifunctional landscapes. Rather, we need a holistic vision of wood-pastures that generates and integrates information about the ecology, ecosystem services and institutions around wood-pastures as well as their historical interactions.

Click here to read more about the book.

Tibor Hartel is associate professor of ecology at Sapientia University and has a PhD on amphibian ecology and conservation in Southern Transylvania. Tobias Plieninger is an associate professor in countryside planning at the University of Copenhagen. He holds a degree in forestry and a PhD in forest and environmental sciences from the University of Göttingen and the University of Freiburg.

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