Managed woodlands and evolving Cultural Landscapes
Without man’s impact, the more or less determining factors for the type of natural forest to develop at any place are climate, dispersion capacity and substratum. The forest types that correspond to the ruling climate are called climatic formations, the types that depend more on soil conditions are so-called edapho-climatic formations. E.g. most of the oak forests belong to the former, the riparian alder and ash woods to the latter.
Initially man was a hunter and gatherer. He had a large choice, because the earth supports hundreds of thousands of plant species but also many animal species. The forest was his "major shopping centre". He gained experience using plants both for food and medicine. In addition plants were used for "handicrafts" and for ornamental reasons.
By learning how to domesticate animals like sheep, goats, cattle and cultivate plant species like wheat, rye, maize and rice, man ensured his survival. Once the sylvo- and agro-pastoral system started working, the landscape changed dramatically.
More than 5000 years ago human activity increased to such an extent that at least, in some areas , it became the dominant factor in the forest dynamics. The first serious deforestation that lead to a semi-forested cultural landscape must have taken place some 3000 years ago. Since those days cutting, burning and grazing caused a radical change in the vegetation: virgin forests disappeared, and mainly replaced by shrubby formations.
The forests were cut down and burnt in order to use their timber and to develop the agro-pastoral system. Lowlands and plateaus and some terraced slopes close to the settlements were preferred as arable lands. The rest of the area was mainly for grazing; year round grazing at low altitudes, summer grazing at high altitudes. The quasi disappearance of mostly alluvial and riparian forests was mainly the consequence of the richness and moisture of the soils, which made them suitable for hay meadows or horticultural exploitation.
The selection forest system is perhaps the oldest form of forest management, in Germany known as ‘Plenterwald’, in France as "futaie jardinée". It includes the cutting of one or a few stems from a stand of trees of different species and size, while leaving the empty space open for spontaneous regeneration. Forests were also used for coppicing and for gathering firewood.
Starting from the Middle-Ages after the discovery of the new continents , new species including tree species were introduced. Forests often belonged to the aristocracy .Some of the forest areas were used as common land. Here people gathered firewood, building stones, etc., but most of all, the commons were used as pastures and arable lands.
After the collapse of the agro-pastoral system, heathlands were changed into forest plantations all over Europe. This started in the second half of the 19th century. A large number of non-local or exotic species were introduced mainly in order to produce faster and/or better timber. Since those days the areas with so-called waste land (mainly shrubby pasture areas of the outfields) have been afforestated as a result of the forestry policy. In general allochtonous tree species, alien tree species were used for new plantations or to improve the remains of the original climax forests.
With the new developments, old forest management techniques lost terrain to new techniques like clear felling and the production of monospecific trees of same age (and size) starting from bare land. Simultaneous felling of all trees means short-term optimisaton of costs, but what about the costs of erosion and loss of biodiversity?