Book review: Grazing Ecology and Forest History

In a world that is being so markedly impacted by human activity, it is of little wonder that ecosystems are collapsing. In response to such a collapse however, conservationists have sprung up to safeguard remaining ecosystems (or at least try to), and create the conditions to improve them and enable them to expand in size. With regards to trees within landscapes, which oft (but not always) form a basis (wholly, or in part) of landscapes, the general understanding, historically, has been that high forest was the norm, and man’s activities in the arable and pastoral sense have facilitated in the enrichment of the landscapes, which has been of huge benefit to many organisms. For example, the grazing of livestock in wood pastures is seen to have been important for maintaining high species diversity, since the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. The cultivation of land for crops is also considered to have improved the landscape, with regards to creating conditions suitable for many wild flowers and insects. This is, of course, in spite of the glaring problem in that modern agricultural systems are generally monocultures; even on a genetic level. Curiously, prior to man’s working of the land, the outlook had not been that wild grazing ungulates (auroch, bison, deer, tarpan, wild boar, and so on) could have achieved the same sort of landscape, with the same sort of outcomes for biodiversity. Vera remarks that this is odd, because of the fact that both species of oak (Quercus robur and Quercus petraea), as well as hazel (Corylus avellana), feature rather readily within historical pollen records. These species do not successfully regenerate under closed canopies, as the seedlings are readily out-competed by more shade-tolerant species such as that of – but not exclusively – ash (Fraxinus excelsior), beech (Fagus sylvatica), field maple (Acer campestre), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), and lime (Tilia cordata and Tilia platyphyllos).

Attempting to deconstruct this outlook, Vera lays out a very well-formed and well-presented argument, that is easily understood. Vera’s arguments stem from many origins, and there are chapters focussing on palynology (pollen studies), the use of the wilderness in the middle ages and how such a wilderness was defined by those around at the time who wrote literature and laws, case studies from across Europe exploring the regeneration of trees within old wood pastures and closed canopy stands (now forest reserves), and also a chapter on many species of tree found in Europe, and what conditions they require to be able to successfully regenerate from seed (or, in the case of species such as blackthorn, also from sucker). Vera rounds up with a short conclusion, and an even shorter still thought-provoking epilogue.

Throughout, I remained captivated by the book, and readily digested the information within. I constantly found myself able to relate what Vera was saying to my own personal experiences from exploring the landscape in the South East of England, and the use of case studies by Vera within the fifth chapter helped to paint this picture beyond my own realm of exploration. It is certainly clear, from what is presented in this chapter, that both oak and hazel are unable to regenerate successfully within the closed canopy situation, and their featuring within the landscapes is as a relic of the times of old, from when grazing (natural and human-induced) still occurred within the area. The loss in abundance of other tree species, namely both species of lime aforementioned, though also other species, is explained as well, and I found myself adding significantly to my understanding of woodland dynamics and history.

The fourth chapter, which focussed on the use of the wilderness from the middle ages through to 1900, improved my understanding further. Vera delves into old texts, sometimes via sources that cite much earlier texts (so second-hand referencing), and gives a convicing arguement as to why, in spite of what is generally considered today, the medieval landscape was not entirely high forest, but instead a mosaic of habitats including small grasslands and expansive steppes, park-like landscapes complete with mantle and fringe vegetation, groves, and forests (usually at higher altitudes, beyond wheere wild ungulates could access; generally due to less than ideal terrain). Vera remarks that old texts, in essence, had different interpretations of words that we now use to describe a forest, and this was because of how land was managed at the time, and the culture, amongst other reasons. For instance, the term ‘wald’, which is now generally considered to mean ‘forest’, once meant ‘wilderness’ (which may have been grassland, a park-like landscape, groves, or an actual forest). It was only more recently – around the 18th-19th century – that the meaning of such a word changed, to reflect the divorcing of pasture and woodland. At this time, foresters were pushing to remove grazing animals from where trees resided, in order to increase timber production.

Vera also makes, within this fourth chapter, the distinction between vegetative regeneration and regenerative regeneration. The former is via the re-sprouting of, for example, a coppice stool, whereas the latter is regeneration from seed. Old texts that refer to oak regenerating well within woodlands, Vera comments, actually refer to the vegetative regenerative capacity of oak, subsequent to harvesting oak stems and leaving a stool, from which new sprouts can rapidly form from. From seed, oaks will not be able to compete with other seedlings, and are out-competed (with lime being the most shade tolerant of all European trees). This also transfers into later life, where Vera states that oak is not out-competed because of its own age and decline, but because of the long-term ability for shade tolerant species of tree to catch up and overtake the oak. For instance, the beech, if growing alongside oak, and in light conditions, will initially lose out in the competition to oak, though after a period of around 100 years, it will catch up with the oak (in terms of height), grow above it, shade the oak out, and cause the oak to die from a lack of light. In this sense, we can see that the out-competing of oak is not isolated to the species’ infancy.

Of course, one cannot expect to take Vera’s word as gospel. As always, there are differing views, of which Vera presents one side of a multi-angled argument (a spectrum, if you will). The book has not been without its critics, just like how Vera criticised those who suggested the European landscape has always been covered, largely, with high forest. Nonetheless, I hugely enjoyed this book, and massively welcomed what Vera had to say. Having a broad horizon, and drawing in knowledge from an array of sources adopting various approaches to an argument, is important for any self-respecting indivual pursuing a better understanding of something – even if it doesn’t align with personal ideals. Else, there’d just be a world of ignorant bigots.

Without wanting to spoil the book any more, and without going into a bit of a tirade as to why absolute free speech must be safeguarded and also embraced (which would be a huge tangent to go off into during a book review on grazing ecology!), I heartedly recommend that you give serious consideration into buying this book. It’s not cheap, being nearly £100, though is genuinely worth it. It’s wonderfully enriching, and certainly ignites passion for wanting to explore the history of the landscape, and how we can approach modern day conservation, in an attempt to recreate the landscapes of the past for the benefit of biodiversity. If our baseline is wrong, and the landscapes weren’t historically mainly a closed canopy forest across Europe (and the east of the USA), then why is grazing prohibited from forest reserves? We know where Vera sits on the arguemnt, and it’s time for more people to get involved and form their own opinions as well. Buy (and then read!) this book.

Grazing Ecology and Forest History Vera
The book, upon my window sill.
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Book review: Grazing Ecology and Forest History

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