By Tibor Hartel, Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Department of Environmental Science and Art, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Wood-pastures are probably the most important ecological and cultural identity bearing landscapes of the European continent. These are grazed landscapes with trees and shrubs—similar landscapes evolved in prehistoric times under natural phenomena, including grazing by large wild herbivores and wildfires. After human colonization of Europe, wood-pastures were most typically grazed with livestock, while trees and shrubs were integral components of the multifunctional silvopastoral system and served as sources for timber, fruit, shade, microclimates for the grassland and their role against soil erosion. Iconic elements of traditional wood-pastures are the large, old, hollowing trees. Recent studies also show that these trees are keystone habitat structures.
Nowadays, wood-pastures have disappeared in large regions of central and western Europe. Their decline started in the past three centuries. Drastic changes in the human demography and related industrial, urban and infrastructural developments increased the demands for timber and agricultural products and triggered major land use changes, with fundamental consequences on wood-pastures. The traditional silvopastoral systems were not able to meet these increased societal demands. Many of these lands were shifted towards modern forestry and intensive grazing systems, where the grazing is excluded from forests. Still more of these pastures were converted into other land use types (e.g. arable fields, built areas).
Wood-pastures still persist in some regions of Europe, such is Romania. Our study targeted the Saxon region of Southern Transylvania. A combination in the increased timber value of oak and the removal of trees to increase pasture lands in closed forests in the past three centuries resulted in the present day wood-pastures of this region. Traditionally, Transylvanian Saxons valued oak woodlands (including those with closed canopy) for the acorn, which was grazed by pigs.
In a recent study, we documented the existence of over 40 traditional wood-pastures (TWP) across an area of over 6,000 hectares. We compared them with closed forest sites that are managed for timber production. TWP were typically dominated by oak and fruit trees (especially pear), while the closed forests contained more balanced proportions of hornbeam, beech and oak and lacked pear and apple trees. Wood-pastures had larger trees than the closed forests, due to the differences in past and recent management histories. The largest living trees were on pastures, or on former wood-pastures. The largest oak (Quercus robur) had an over 900 centimeter trunk circumference and the largest hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) was over 430 centimeters.
Closed forests and wood-pastures have different tree communities and tree size (age) structures. Modified after Hartel et al. (2013)
The ecological value of these wood-pastures is very high. In the ‘Breite’ ancient wood-pasture (133 hectares), 476 species of vascular plants, 40 species of xylophagous beetles, 281 species of Lepidoptera, 27 species of nesting birds and 38 species of mammals (including wolf and bear) were found.
In the Romanian communist regime and the period after its collapse, many wood-pastures were transformed in arable fields while others were abandoned and overgrown by secondary forests. Pollarding (i.e. cutting the branches of the tree) is not applied anymore and the traditional grazing with cattle and buffalo is decreasing, while sheep grazing is sharply increasing. Trees are not regenerating and many old trees are deteriorated due to uncontrolled pasture burnings. The traditional ecological knowledge related to wood-pastures is eroding, and many large trees are cut from the wood-pastures.
Threats to the traditional wood-pastures in Southern Transylvania: the development of secondary forests, short term abandonment, lack of tree regeneration, tree cutting and uncontrolled pasture fires.
Despite these imminent threats, there are still many ancient wood-pastures in good condition in Southern Transylvania, contributing to the biological and cultural continuity for this region. Most of these wood-pastures are part of a Natura 2000 network (although not recognized as habitats in the Habitats Directive). The future persistence of wood-pasture landscapes in this region, as well as in Romania, will depend on their formal recognition, the ability of various institutions to form a common vision for their sustainable use (most importantly forestry and agricultural institutions and organizations), clever incentives to motivate their multifunctional use and the development of new paradigms and attitudes that recognize the importance of biodiversity and large (hollowing or dead) trees and protects them as such. If these urgent measures are not taken, the wood-pastures and associated biodiversity and cultural landscapes of Romania will disappear, as has already happened in other wood-pastures of Europe.
For more information, contact Tibor Hartel at email@example.com or join our conversation in the comments section below!
Photos: Tibor Hartel