European Landscapes: Examining the Paradigms

The cultural importance of traditional agriculture landscapes has been widely recognized in Europe and the world. As of 2011, 76 of the 936 UNESCO world heritage sites are in the “cultural landscapes” category (, and 29 of those because of traditional or symbolical agricultural practices. Examples include the “Causses and Cevennes Mediterranean agro-pastoral cultural landscape” in France or the “Mont Perdu” in the Pyrénées. As much as 15–25 % of the European farmland can be classified as High Nature Value farmland (EEA 2004).

Of the 231 habitat types listed in the European Habitats Directive, 41 are associated with low-intensity agricultural management, including semi-natural grasslands and hay meadows (Halada et al. 2011).

This has lead to a generalized push towards policies embracing the protection of extensive farming systems with the dual-role of protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services. Here we argue that not all socio-ecological aspects of the maintenance of these landscapes have been taken into account because our perceptions of these landscapes have been biased by our own cultural experiences. We question three ideas associated with current policies: (1) the idea that traditional agriculture practices were environmentally friendly; (2) the idea that traditional rural populations lived well; (3) the idea that traditional landscapes can be kept despite the context of recent rural exodus and future socioeconomic trends.

Were Traditional Agricultural Practices Environmentally Friendly?

In Europe, pre-Neolithic Holocene landscapes can most likely be described as a mosaic of old-growth forest, scrubland, and grasslands, maintained by the grazing of large herbivores and by fire (Svenning 2002; Vera 2000, Vera 2009), although the relative amount of open area is debated (for example, Hodder et al. 2009). Later on, and much before the onset of modern agriculture, European inhabitants destroyed most of Europe's forests on usable land. Europe is now the continent with the least original forest cover (Kaplan et al. 2009).

The process of forest clearing might be as old as human's making of tools (Williams 2000). It started in the Neolithic with the use of fire to open areas for grazing and hunting (Pereira et al. 2012). Forest loss was accelerated during Antiquity, when the rise of classical civilizations led to large-scale deforestation (Williams 2000; Kaplan et al. 2009). After a brief interruption caused by the breakdown of the Roman society, the deforestation trend continued in the Middle Ages (interrupted only by the Black Death), with an estimated loss of 50–70 % of the European forest during this period. Hence humans amplified the disturbance regime of European ecosystems and expanded the open area considerably (Pereira et al. 2012, see Chap. 8), creating and maintaining “traditional” landscapes such as the alpine grasslands (Laiolo et al. 2004), and the agro-silvo-pastoral systems of Mediterranean regions (Blondel 2006). These extensive farming systems have higher species diversity than intensive farming systems (Batáry et al. 2012; Tscharntke et al. 2005), and, at the local scale, often have higher species diversity than non-managed ecosystems and natural forests (Blondel 2006; Höchtl et al. 2005; Lindborg et al. 2008). Therefore, it has been suggested that biodiversity peaks for low levels of land use associated with these extensive farming systems (Fig. 1.2), following the intermediate disturbance principle (Wilkinson 1999).
This pattern has been used as an argument to maintain the active management of extensive farmland and halt ecological succession. However at regional scales, this relationship is likely to exhibit a different pattern (Fig. 1.2). The habitat turnover of wild landscapes can be a mosaic of closed forest and open areas, which should

Fig. 1.2  Conceptual representation of the response of current species diversity to land-use intensity at the local and regional scales, and of the hypothetical regional response if Holocene extinctions had not occurred. The response at the local scale is adapted from EEA (2004), whereas the current and historical responses at the regional scale are discussed in the text

accommodate many of the species that can usually be found in extensive farmland habitats. In the early Holocene, the regional diversity of wild landscapes would have been even higher (Fig. 1.2). Several species have now disappeared due to the expansion of human activities, including the auroch ( Bos primeginius), the Tarpan ( Equus ferus ferus), or became extinct in most of their former ranges (for example, wisent, Bison bonasus).

Deforestation also had important impacts on ecosystem services. In the Mediterranean basin, deforestation is thought to have caused desiccation and soil erosion (McNeely 1994; Blondel 2006). In the Middle Ages, timber shortage is likely to have played a role on the impulse to conquer new territories (Farrell et al. 2000). To build naval fleets, countries such as Portugal and Spain had to resort to importing wood from colonies from the sixteenth century on (Devy-Vareta and Alves 2007). By the end of the nineteenth century, the dimension of the erosion problems in mountain slopes and associated silting in rivers and floods downstream led to large state sponsored afforestation programs in Portugal and Spain.

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