Book review: European wood-pastures in transition

Wood pastures have existed alongside man for many centuries, and have therefore followed man faithfully through various transitions: economic, social, spiritual, and technological, to name but four (of certainly a larger list). Unfortunately, and for a great number of reasons (associated with the transitions noted above), this faithfulness has not been mirrored by man, and wood pastures across Europe have progressively become abandoned, neglected, or over-managed. Evidently, this is a huge problem, that is perhaps only more recently being fully understood.

In response to this problem, research has been commissioned, over the last few decades, in landscapes across Europe, to ascertain and understand the drivers behind the decline in wood pastures, why this decline is an issue (in the cultural, ecological, and historical sense), and what can be done to reverse this decline. This book, edited by Tibor Hartel and Tobias Plieninger, and supported by a great number of contributors who are certainly well-known to many (including Jill Butler and Keith Kirby, from the UK), does a wonderful job at delving into these topics, and providing the reader with a great primer for why we need to care.

Granted, it would certainly be of benefit for the reader to understand what a wood pasture is prior to reading this book, and in some respects I doubt this is a book that a layperson would come across unwillingly, though let’s assume for a second that this does in fact happen. Could it be understood by the reader, and could they finish the book with an invigorated perspective on nature conservation and the need to conserve important European cultural practice? Yes – without a shadow of a doubt. The editors do a stellar job in this regard, by really laying the table for the more technical chapters that follow the introductory one, which in their totality serve to construct a diverse frameowork to which further knowledge can be attached to. The construction of this framework is undoubtedly aided by the structure of the book, which sees chapters segmented into six principal sections (including sections of history and culture, biodiversity, and social values). Never, however, in spite of the holistic assessment of wood pastures, is the reader overburdened with information from any given area – all sections are presented in equal extents, and thus there is little risk of the book being biased towards a specific agenda (of course, asides from the agenda of promoting the importance of wood pastures, which is hardly a bad thing!).

European wood pastures in transition Hartel & Plieninger
A photo of the book.

Speaking personally, I must admit that I enjoyed the ecological section the most. I’d say this is probably because of my educational background, having studied environmental conservation at university. Understanding just how rich and diverse these ecosystems are was very enlightening, and being provided with specific examples specific to local areas (including Hatfield Forest, which isn’t much more than a stone’s throw away from me) absolutely helps with conveying the message. After all, without focussing on certain areas with the use of case studies, there’s a real risk of the message being conveyed lacking the intricate touch that can be so crucially importanr, and particularly when dealing with wood pastures (which vary so greatly, even on a regional scale, in terms of their characteristics).

Of course, that doesn’t mean the other sectons aren’t enjoyable – they are (massively). The section on governance institutions, which I honestly thought would be somewhat arduous to read, was filled with three glorious chapters (I was most fond of the chapter on Germany’s Black Forest, written by Bieling and Konold). Information about the personal opinions and values of farmers and herders from Greece and Hungary was also something I enjoyed getting from this book, and particular kudos goes to Varga and Molnar for giving the book an almost emotional edge by including many exerpts from interviews with rural herders in Hungary. It is a huge shame that these interviewed individuals are a dying breed, as the younger generations are simply not taking up wood pasture management in the necessary numbers. The question here is why, and how can we change this? Certainly, a European identity is being lost, alongside the loss of wood pasture. And what are we without identity?

It’s really hard not to genuinely like wood pastures. I find that, as I read more about them and understand how important they have been for so many generations across so many countries in Europe, there is an ever-growing heartache in seeing these landscapes neglected – either through ignorance, a lack of necessary funding, a lack of human desire to maintain the systems, or a mixture of some / all of the aforementioned. It was particularly galling to learn about how the Common Agricultural Policy was responsible for the destruction or many wood pastures (due to the sheer stupidity of those involved in forming and enforcing the Policy), as was it equally as galling to see governmental intervention on the national scale seek to take these wood pastures from their knowledgeable owners and enforce unrealistic and naive principles of management upon the landscapes (such as with the Saxons losing control of their Romanian wood pastures, after the rise of communism). Perhaps some things will never change.

You can buy this book here (directly from the publisher). If you do purchase it, I hope you find it as enlightening as I did. It is well worth the investment.

Book review: European wood-pastures in transition

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