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Long-term woodland dynamics in Central Europe:
from estimations to a realistic model (2012–2016)

Project description

LONGWOOD was a five-year project financed by the European Research Council (link: erc.europa.eu) in its Starting Grant scheme. The mission of ERC is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-initiated frontier research. The principal investigator of the LONGWOOD project is Péter Szabó.

The interdisciplinary LONGWOOD project connected several disciplines that deal with past environments. Its starting point was the assumption that the vegetation of Central Europe had been directly influenced by humans for at least eight millennia; the original forests have been gradually transformed into today’s agricultural landscape. However, there is more to this landscape change than the simple disappearance of woodland. Forests have been influenced by environmental changes as well as various traditional and recent management regimes, which profoundly altered their structure and species composition. The details of this process are little known for two main reasons. The greatest obstacle is the lack of cooperation among the disciplines dealing with the subject. The second major problem is the differences in spatio-temporal scaling and resolution used by the individual disciplines. Existing studies either concern smaller territories, or cover large areas (continental to global) with the help of modelling-based generalizations rather than primary data from the past. Using an extensive range of primary sources from history, historical geography, palaeoecology, archaeology and ecology, this interdisciplinary project aimed to reconstruct the long-term (Neolithic to present) patterns of woodland cover, structure, composition and management in a larger study region (Moravia, the Czech Republic, ca. 27,000 km2) with the highest spatio-temporal resolution possible. Causes for the patterns observed were analyzed in terms of qualitative and quantitative factors, both natural and human-driven, and the patterns in the tree layer were related to those in the herb layer, which constitutes the most important part of plant biodiversity in Europe. This project introduced traditional woodland management as an equal driving force into long-term woodland dynamics, thus fostering a paradigm shift in ecology towards construing humans as an internal, constitutive element of ecosystems. By integrating sources and methods from the natural sciences and the humanities, the project tried to contribute to a more reliable methodology for woodland management and conservation in Central Europe.





Vegetation ecology



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Project implementation

We proceeded in four phases:
  • the creation of a geodatabase of woodland cover, tree and herb species, woodland management, archaeological finds and settlement expansion in Moravia in the past 7500 years.
  • the analysis of the results in relation to i) environmental factors (such as soil conditions, climate or elevation) and ii) archaeological and social historical data in order to establish the main drivers of stability and change.
  • the creation of a spatio-temporal forest landscape model to assess the patterns of stability and change in woodland tree and herb vegetation and the role of humans in forest dynamics.
  • the comparison of the analytical results and the model to approaches currently employed in forestry and nature conservation and the preparation of guidelines for more congruous woodland conservation and management in the future.
Study area

The project focused on Moravia (and the small part of historical Silesia that is now in the Czech Republic), the eastern part of the Czech Republic, which covers ca. 27,000 km2 with ca. 3500 settlements. Moravia is a well-defined geographical unit. Most of the area is the watershed of the river Morava. From three sides it is surrounded by mountains (on the north and west by the Hercynian Mts., on the east by the Carpathians), while on the fourth side by the rivers Morava and Dyje. Elevation ranges between ca. 180 m–1492 m a.s.l. Average yearly temperatures vary between 0–10°C, precipitation 500–1500 mm. The climate is subatlantic to subcontinental. The main vegetation types include thermophilous oakwoods in the south, oak-hornbeam woods at lower and beechwoods at higher elevations and natural spruce forests from above 1000 m a.s.l. Two main reasons make Moravia an excellent study area 1) Moravia is a historical region, which existed as a geographical unit from ca. the 11th century to the 20th century. Its historical sources are therefore reasonably unified and kept in one archive (www.mza.cz). Most Silesian historical sources are also stored in a single archive (http://www.archives.cz/zao). 2) Moravia includes a great variety of natural conditions and forests types, thus the results will offer relevant comparative material for most of Central Europe.