Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trends in land use and attitudes regarding the same in Europe

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.

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