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Wood pastures and society – changing times and changing desires

Man has always had a direct link to the landscape, though that link, whilst it is always there, may not be in the form that it once was. Keeping with the wood pasture theme, which I am really enjoying learning about through books and journal articles, I thought we’d look at how the manner in which we approach the ecosystem has changed over the centuries (quite briefly). Of course, what is written below doesn’t stop just at wood pasture – it has cross-over to other ecosystems, where the reasons for interaction with the landscape have altered through space and, more pertinently, time.

Historically, wood pastures were managed for economic purposes. The grazing of animals on grasslands containing trees (and the feeding of the livestock with cuttings from pollarded trees, and a tree’s fruit crop), such as cattle and pigs, was for the direct benefit of communities, who relied upon the produce of the livestock (milk, meat, and so on) in order to make a living, and to generally therefore survive. Of course, the wood pastures needed to be conserved, so that they did not disappear, due to over-grazing. In this sense, they were actively conserved (by replanting dying and dead trees, and limiting grazing intensity), though largely because, without actively conserving them, the livelihood of many tens of thousands of people would be challenged. A by-product of this conservation of wood pastures, for the benefits created from grazing livestock, was that the sites were very rich in biodiversity – birds, fungi, insects, and plants, for example. The complex mosaic of niches within the wood pasture, ranging from open and disturbed soils through to the (perhaps sizeable) groves surrounded by the mantle and fringe vegetation, meant that a large number of organisms could viably frequent the site. However, for all of the biodiversity present as a result of the careful management and conservation of wood pastures throughout history, biodiversity was not the reason for management – until recently.

The shift, in Europe, probably begun when wood pasture became disliked (for hope of a better word), during the 19th-20th century (varies depending upon the country). Foresters wanted to maximise output from the trees (coppice – sometimes with standards), and farmers wanted to maximise agricultural output. Therefore, the two practices, initially married, were divorced from one another (somtimes farmers were forced to stop grazing their livestock in wood pasture!). Wood pastures were thus either cleared of trees entirely, or alowed to regenerate into forest. With this came a decline in the richness of biodiversity and, eventually, this loss of biodiversity caused a rather evident of panic amongst conservationists. Ironically, therefore, the rationale behind creating and maintaining wood pasture became largely ecologically-driven, in place of economically-driven (though, particularly in Spain and Romania, wood pastures remain, are these are generally economically viable). Regardless of reason however, the status of wood pastures essentially went full-circle.

wood-pasture-estonia.jpg?w=660&h=440

A fantastic wood pasture in Estonia. Source: Ideas for Sustainability.

Of course, this new found love for wood pastures does not necessarily mean that they can ever exist in the manner in which they did before. First and foremost, wood pastures are extensively grazed, and thus, for operations to be self-supporting financially, they must cover large expanses of land (unless the wood pasture is maintained for subsistence purposes, or grants are provided as a means of financial support). As farmers in Europe are generally in ‘the game’ for profit (they must make a living), managing livestock in wood pastures is probably not going to be all too popular, as it’d probably signal a marked drop in profits and / or a marked increase in labour input (at least, initially). Scope does exist to harvest edible mycorrhizal mushrooms from the wood pasture, such as truffles, though this is a specialised pursuit that is far from the current farming status quo of Europe.

Furthermore, European culture has changed. Gone are the days of communities being self-sufficient, and instead many Europeans now work a job (that they may even hate) and buy their food from the supermarket (or even order it online). Therefore, is there even the desire to re-introduce wood pastures, for anything other than ecological reasons, or to supply the market with a niche animal product (such as Iberian ham from the black Iberian pig, in the holm oak dehesas of Spain). With this change in culture there has also been a change in learning priorities, and unfortunately many today seem to be fixated with knowing pointless facts about sports teams and celebrities. Functional and practical knowledge is largely gone. As a consequence, the management of wood pastures will be left to an expert few, where knowledge has either been gained academically, or via being passed-down through the generations (usually limited to rural areas where grazing still takes place). However, as more people now live in cities than in rural areas, and this trend will likely continue as rural areas are swallowed up by urban sprawl, or people move into cities for economic reasons, this tradition of passing practical knowledge on and keeping up the family tradition of extensive livestock grazing within wood pasture may very well become ever more the stuff of legend.

black iberian pig dehesa

The black Iberian pig grazing amongst a landscape of holm oak, in a Spanish dehesa. Source: Andrew Petcher.

Society is simply in a different place than it once was. For this reason, the conservation of wood pasture is to be far from mainstream. People are certainly aware of nature (of which wood pastures feature), though more and more awareness comes from watching on the television and less from direct experience, and with this comes a discord. There is less emotional and cultural attachment to nature, and as a result, less of an impetus to associate with nature. Why help with the recreation of wood pasture when you can watch about its conservation on television, utter some lamentations, and then switch the channel and soon relegate it to a mere memory? That’s even assuming people watch such programs, in large numbers, in the first place.

This probably turned out far more dystopian than I ever intended for it to come out as, though hopefully this illustrates how social changes have led to landscape management changes, with specific focus upon wood pastures in Europe. This is obviously applicable to other landscape types as well, of course. The principle generally carries across.

Source (of inspiration): Hartel, T. & Plieninger, T. (2014) The social and ecological dimensions of wood-pastures. In Hartel, T. & Plieninger, T. (eds.) European wood-pastures in transition: A social-ecological approach. UK: Earthscan.

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