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2 February 2018
Study shows Europe's forests halved over 6,000 years

Farming practices during the Neolithic period initiated a gradual decline in European forests which accelerated towards the end of the Bronze Age and has largely continued until the present day.
     Using pollen analysis from more than 1,000 sites, researchers have shown that more than two thirds of central and northern Europe would once have been covered by trees - suggesting that increased demand for agricultural land and the use of wood as a source of fuel has eliminated more than half of those woodlands over the past 6,000 years.
     In more western and coastal regions, including the UK and Republic of Ireland, the decline has been far greater with forest coverage in some areas dropping below 10 percent, but the discovery of new types of fuel and building techniques, as well as ecological initiatives, have begun to reverse the downward trend.
     Lead author Neil Roberts, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Plymouth, says: "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."
     Combining three methods of analysing data from the European Pollen Database, the research sought to establish precisely how the nature of Europe's forests has changed over the past 11,000 years, and shows that forest coverage actually increased from around 60 percent 11,000 years ago up to as much as 80 percent 6,000 years ago.
     Professor Roberts says this was one of the more surprising findings of the research, because 20 percent of Britain's forests had 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."
     The data could reveal how future forestry initiatives might influence habitat change.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (16 January 2018)

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