BES Forest Ecology Group

A British Ecological Society Special Interest Group

New book: Europe’s Changing Woods and Forests

From Keith Kirby

Europe’s Changing Woods and Forests – putting recent concerns into an historical perspective.kirbybook

Edited by Keith J. Kirby & Charles Watkins

CABI, June 2015, 384pp.

In the light of recent concerns about our woods and forests, this new book provides an overview of how our forest landscapes have changed during the last 10,000 years. It is based on a wealth of new research in the last few decades from experts across Europe, involving historical archives, through analysis of landscape paintings to looking at DNA patterns. There are positive stories to tell:

  • our woodland cover is increasing and more of it is protected;
  • the fashion for large-scale clear-fells is being replaced in many places by more varied and smaller scale forestry practices;
  • traditional forms of woodland management found in wood-pastures and coppices are increasingly recognised as important for biodiversity but also as having a place in the modern world;
  • keystone species such as the wolf and beaver have been spread through natural recolonization and re-introductions.

However there are serious challenges ahead, some familiar, some taking new forms:

  • woods and individual old trees are still cleared for development or at risk from pollution;
  • new woods will take many decades, in some cases centuries before they are colonised by ancient woodland plants such as herb paris;
  • across Europe deer populations threaten tree regeneration and change the nature of the ground vegetation;
  • more and more tree species are threatened by pests and diseases, for example Ash Dieback;
  • climate change raises questions as to what species will be able to survive in our forests in future.

The book shows that there are many common themes running through the histories of European woods, but also highlights the particular differences in the situation for example between those in Italy, from those in France or Sweden. Even within a small country such as Britain there can be striking variations between the history of woods in East Anglia from those in the Scottish Highlands. Amongst different groups of species the past and future for the beetles that live in live in old trees in parks are not the same as for birds such as nightingales that prefer dense young thickets.

To prepare for the future we must first understand the past. We cannot ignore the impact that our ancestors have had on our forests and wooded landscapes. This is as true for the great ‘primeval’ forest of Bialowieza in Poland as it is more obviously for the spruce plantations created in Britain and Ireland, or places such as Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire and Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Rather we must recognise those effects and choose what how we can carry forward the best of the past into what is inevitably a somewhat uncertain future.


Kirby K J & Watkins, C (editors) (2015) Europe’s changing woods and forests: from wildwood to managed landscapes. CABI, Wallingford, UK. ISBN-13:978 1 78064 337 3

Keith Kirby is a visiting researcher in the Department of Plant Sciences in Oxford, before which he had thirty years as a woodland ecologist with Natural England and its predecessors. He has a particular interest in the history and ecology of Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire.

Charles Watkins is professor of geography at Nottingham University, specialising in woodland and landscape history. He has worked particularly on the landscape change in Italy and closer to home on Sherwood Forest.

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This entry was posted on July 16, 2015 by in Books and tagged , , , .

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