What did Czech forests originally look like before the intervention of human hands? The answer to that question is important not only for today’s conservationists, but for practically everyone whose work involves forests. As part of the LONGWOOD Project, Petr Kuneš and his team from our Department of Botany are helping to find the answer.
The spruce is presently the most quantitatively represented tree species in the Czech Republic. Photo: Radim Hédl
The majority of forests in our country today consist of conifers, with the spruce being the dominant species. 1800 has long been considered the pivotal year for the spread of spruce in our lands. Since the spruce is the most desirable tree species in a number of ways, spruce gradually began to supplant other, slower-growing trees after this date, which is considered to be the beginning of systematic forest management. This fondness for spruce has resulted in today’s monoculture tracts of trees the same age, which in addition to undeniable benefits are also associated with some major drawbacks. Setting aside decreased biodiversity (especially in terms of flora), then the greatest disadvantages are that this significantly contributes to the landscape’s reduced retention capacity. Combined with changing rainfall patterns and total rainfall, this may be considered a contributing factor to the devastating floods we have witnessed several times during the past two decades.
According to the prevailing opinion of conservationists today, post-glacial Czech forests were dominated by broad-leaved deciduous trees, especially beech and hornbeam. Photo: Petr Kuneš
The current predominance of spruce over other trees has traditionally been considered “unnatural” among conservationists. It was assumed that the original composition of post-glacial forests in the lower and middle elevations in our country was much more oriented towards deciduous forests, dominated primarily by beech. But is this assumption, so important with respect to conservation, actually well founded? This is precisely the question examined in an article in the trade journal Conservation Biology that was recently highlighted in Nature magazine and is one of the results of the LONGWOOD Project. “The project is financed by the European Research Council. This is an ERC Starting grant, the primary recipient of which is the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Science, specifically historical ecologist Mgr. Péter Szabó, Ph.D. at the Institute’s Department of Vegetation Ecology. Grant funding will end this year. The eighteen-member team from very diverse fields examines the historical development and management of forests in the Central European region.
The team includes historians, historical ecologists, experts in remote sensing, archeologists, botanists, who study the diversity of present day forests, and finally us, the paleoecologists,” says Associate Prof. Petr Kuneš, Ph.D. of the CU Department of Botany and CAS Institute of Botany and leader of one of the project’s research groups, the paleoecology group.
The image shows the location of studied pollen profiles in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, and the significant difference in the anticipated composition of natural vegetation and composition of forests around 1780. Credit: Jana Müllerová
The most recent article of the research team focuses on the specific areas of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. It combines two methods: historical-ecological and paleoecological. The historical ecologists gathered information on forest management in the past. This source of information showed that the forests around 1800 that were still relatively natural were dominated by spruce and fir. Other information was obtained by paleoecological sources, especially peat profiles that served as the basis for palynological analysis.
Peat profiles are not anything new – many such profiles have been analyzed in the past. The problem, however, was that until relatively recently it has not been possible to clearly quantify palynological data. “It’s not difficult to determine the types of species present. The problem is determining their percentual representation in the vegetation because different plants produce different amounts of pollen. Today, we now have quantitative models available that enable us to convert pollen records into quantitative representations of individual species. By employing this approach, we are now revising previous conceptions that were based solely on the detection of certain pollen. The method takes into account how far pollen is transported and how much is produced by plants. It was proposed roughly ten years ago by Shinya Sugita, a Japanese scientist working in North America and Europe. Our team is continually working on improving it,” describes Petr Kuneš.
By using this method it has been possible to reconstruct the dominant species of past forests. According to our conclusions, spruce and other conifers, notably fir, have been the dominant vegetation for the past 7,000 years. But can these conclusions be generalized? The second article that we recently prepared for the magazine Preslia (lead author RNDr. Vojtěch Abraham, Ph.D.) focuses on the same issue but in different locations in the Czech Republic at similar altitudes, i.e. medium elevations and up. There as well, the paleoecological data for all practical purposes show the same fact: that conifers have been the dominant component of forests for the past several thousand years.