July 13, 2015, by Emma Thorne

Europe’s changing woods and forests — putting modern concerns into historical context

A new book co-written and edited by a University of Nottingham professor tells the story of European woods and forests and how our forest landscapes have changed over the last 10,000 years.

The book, Europe’s Changing Woods and Forests: From Wildwood to Managed Landscapes is written by Charles Watkins, Professor of Rural Geography in the University’s School of Geography, in collaboration with Dr Keith Kirby, a visiting researcher in the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University.

The book is based on a wealth of new research in the last few decades from experts across Europe, involving historical archives — from analysis of landscape paintings to looking at DNA patterns. It highlights a number of good news stories, while placing current threats to our woodland into a historical context.

Professor Watkins said: “To prepare for the future we must first understand the past. We cannot ignore the impact that our ancestors have had on our forests and wooded landscapes.  This is as true for the great ‘primeval’ forest of Bialowieza in Poland as it is more obviously for the spruce plantations created in Britain and Ireland, or places such as Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire and Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Rather we must recognise those effects and choose how we can carry forward the best of the past into what is inevitably a somewhat uncertain future.”

The book, recently published by CABI, reveals a number of serious challenges ahead, some familiar and some taking new forms:

  • woods and individual old trees are still cleared for development or at risk from pollution;
  • new woods will take many decades, in some cases centuries before they are colonised by ancient woodland plants such as herb paris;
  • across Europe deer populations threaten tree regeneration and change the nature of the ground vegetation;
  • more and more tree species are threatened by pests and diseases, for example Ash Dieback;
  • climate change raises questions as to what species will be able to survive in our forests in future.

However, it also uncovers some positive ecological stories:

  • our woodland cover is increasing and more of it is protected;
  • the fashion for large-scale clear-fells is being replaced in many places by more varied and smaller scale forestry practices;
  • traditional forms of woodland management found in wood-pastures and coppices are increasingly recognised as important for biodiversity but also as having a place in the modern world;
  • keystone species such as the wolf and beaver have been spread through natural recolonization and re-introductions.

The book shows that there are many common themes running through the histories of European woods, but also highlights the particular differences in the situation for example between those in Italy, from those in France or Sweden. Even within a small country such as Britain there can be striking variations between the history of woods in East Anglia from those in the Scottish Highlands.  Amongst different groups of species the past and future for the beetles that live in old trees in parks are not the same as for birds such as nightingales that prefer dense young thickets.

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