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Forest continuity and conservation value in Western Europe

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Abstract

Long forest continuity has often been linked with high conservation value in western European Quercus and Fagus woodlands, but this assumption of long continuity has rarely been tested. Birks discussed the antiquity of bryophyte-rich Quercus woodland in western United Kingdom, presenting evidence that the modern plant communities developed during the late Holocene influenced by human activities. We use pollen data from forest hollows to show that the modern communities within ancient woodlands are all significantly influenced by recent human disturbance. A short period of deforestation in Johnny’s Wood, Cumbria, UK dates from the late 19th century and is not of Viking age as previously thought. The brief opening of the forest is associated with the local loss of Tilia cordata and Taxus baccata, but a rich bryophyte community exists today. Rich lichen floras of high conservation interest growing on Fagus sylvatica in south-western Sweden occur despite a recent history of human disturbance and local immigration of Fagus as recently as the 9th century ad. Wistman’s Wood, Cornwall, UK had a diverse tree flora until the 11th century ad and then experienced heavy browsing and grazing until ad 1850, after which time the present Quercus woodland developed with its associated flora of high conservation value. Most western European forests today have long and diverse histories of anthropogenic disturbance and current conservation values incorporate both natural and cultural features. Pollen studies with high spatial resolution demonstrate that simple temporal concepts like ‘natural baselines’ and the continuity of forest cover underestimate the complexity of the past. Long forest continuity may be of importance for the local survival of higher plants, but for the insects, fungi, lichens and bryophytes that are so valued in contemporary European temperate and boreal forests, habitat diversity maintained by dynamic processes would appear to be of greater significance.

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Bradshaw, R. H. W., Jones, C. S., Edwards, S. J., & Hannon, G. E. (2015). Forest continuity and conservation value in Western Europe. Holocene, 25(1), 194–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959683614556378

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