Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trends in Land Use and Attitudes Regarding the Same in Europe

Guest Post by Scott Peterson

Newsweek International posted a story this summer to its website from its July 4, 2007 issue with a summary line as follows: “Economics and declining birthrates are pushing large swaths of Europe back to their primeval state, with wolves taking the place of people.” The article describes a trend in Europe’s rural areas of “ultralow birthrate(s) and continued rural flight”…to the extent that “rural flight continues to suck people into Europe's suburbs and cities.” The UN and EU are quoted to the effect that by 2030 the rural areas of the EU 25 “will lose close to a third of its population.”

The article describes some examples of changes in wildlife populations:

“In 1998, a pack of wolves crossed the shallow Neisse River on the Polish-German border. In the empty landscape of Eastern Saxony, speckled with abandoned strip mines and declining villages, the wolves found plenty of deer and rarely encountered humans. They multiplied so quickly that a second pack has since split off, colonizing a second-growth pine forest 30 kilometers further west.”

“In Swiss alpine valleys, farms have been receding and forests are growing back in. In parts of France and Germany, wildcats and ospreys have re-established their range.”

Bizarrely, some environmental groups in Europe don’t want farmland to revert to a wild state. The article claims that “The scrub brush and forest that grows on abandoned land might be good for deer and wolves, but is vastly less species-rich than traditional farming, with its pastures, ponds and hedges”, and quotes Jan-Erik Petersen, a landscape biologist at the European Environmental Agency in Copenhagen as saying that "Once shrubs cover everything, you lose the meadow habitat. All the flowers, herbs, birds and butterflies disappear…a new forest doesn't get diverse until it's a couple of hundred years old." Such ideas seem to contradict the goals of environmental groups in the US which as far as I can tell seek to allow farmland to revert to a natural state. I doubt that there is meaningful research that supports Petersen’s assertion.

The article states that ‘Keeping biodiversity up by preventing the land from going wild is one of the reasons the EU pays farmers to mow fallow land once a year. France and Germany subsidize sheep herds whose grazing keeps scenic heaths from growing in.” That seems absurd to me. The article goes on to say that “Outside the range of these subsidies—in Bulgaria, Romania or Ukraine—big tracts of land are returning to the wild.” I seriously doubt that biodiversity will be a problem in these areas.

The article describes an attitude toward the landscape such that it “is glued to the European identity, reflecting what the Germans call "Kulturlandschaft"—a landscape shaped by centuries of human care”, and says that “Many Europeans are reluctant to just let nature do its thing.” This attitude doesn’t seem to square with the seeming momentum of Europe’s Green movement, and certainly has received very little attention in the US.


Anonymous said...

These attitudes are not new. Early USFS practices
were based on the traditional German forest model, which viewed forests as a continual process of harvest and regeneration. That is achieved by cutting the older, mature, and slow-growing timber to make way for a new crop of young, fast-growing trees.

Anonymous said...

There are two competing sentimentalisms here: 'rustic charm' versus nature. For instance, southern English countryside consists almost entirely of villages, roads, fields, meadows, hedgerows and dry-stone walls - in other words an entirely artificial environment, like one vast garden. Even the vestigial forests are often only there because the medieval aristocracy wanted somewhere to hunt deer. Yet it is this landscape which English people tend to idolise, and they often seek out a warmer, drier version of it in France or Italy. It's so long since there was a truly natural landscape, that the current landscape is seen as 'natural'. I think if English people woke up one day to find that outside built-up areas, the land had magically reverted to its natural state - thick forest, mostly, with animals such as wolves and boars that haven't been seen in southern England for centuries - people would be horrified, and would probably demand someone went in and cut most of the trees down again, to replace them with more 'natural' organic farms and whatnot. And these will often be the same people who oppose new roads as being a 'blight on the landscape'! They don't want nature, they want a particular artificial landscape, one that is pre-industrial but not pre-agriculture.

Of course, there are environmentalists who really do favour a natural environment. But they lack political clout, because they can't hope to exploit the same kind of emotional response as campaigners trying to save rare mammals, say - under some circumstances, people actually feel warm and fuzzy about a *lack* of wilderness. I think it's better to see Europeans (at least in the densely populated parts) as gardeners trying to keep out weeds and pests, rather than conservationists trying to maintain biodiversity.

Anonymous said...

I would think that abandonment of farms would have more to do with agricultural prices, than with population levels, unless there were lots of European farmers remaining on uneconomic farms.