More than 50% of Europe’s forest coverage has vanished over a period of 6,000 years due to agricultural demands and the burning of wood as fuel sources suggests study.
A pollen analysis of 1000 sites was led by researchers from the University of Plymouth and reveals that Central and Northern Europe’s tree coverage was more than two thirds.
Presently the same areas have a coverage of around 1/3, with the decline in the UK dropping as low as 10%.
Professor Neil Roberts from the University of Plymouth said: : “Most countries go through a forest transition and the UK and Ireland reached their forest minimum around 200 years ago. Other countries in Europe have yet to reach that point, and some parts of Scandinavia – where there is not such a reliance on agriculture – are still predominantly forest. But generally, forest loss has been a dominant feature of Europe’s landscape ecology in the second half of the current interglacial, with consequences for carbon cycling, ecosystem functioning and biodiversity.”
The study also sought to establish how the nature of forests across Europe has changes over the past 11,000 years. The introduction of farming practices during the Neolithic and through the Bronze Age caused a sharp decline that has continued to present day.
Professor Neil Robert said: “This was one of the more surprising elements of the research because while forest clearance might be assumed to be a relatively recent phenomena, 20% of Britain’s forests had actually gone by the end of the Bronze Age 3,000 years ago.
“Around 8,000 years ago, a squirrel could have swung tree to tree from Lisbon to Moscow without touching the ground. Some may see that loss as a negative but some of our most valued habitats have come about through forests being opened up to create grass and heathland. Up until around 1940, a lot of traditional farming practices were also wildlife friendly and created habitats many of our most loved creatures. This data could then potentially be used to understand how future forestry initiatives might also influence habitat change.”