New paper: Reviving wood-pastures for biodiversity and people: A case study from western Estonia

It has been a while since wood-pastures last featured in this blog, so I would like to take the opportunity to present our latest paper (Roellig et al. 2015) on this topic.


All over Europe, wood-pastures are facing problems with their support under the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) e.g. in Sweden (Jakobsson & Lindborg 2015) and Romania (Hartel et al. 2013). In Estonia, wood-pastures are not eligible for Single Area Payments (SAP) due to their high tree density. To stop the abandonment of wood-pastures, the Estonian government has implemented two different schemes of financial support for wood-pastures (together with other semi-natural habitats). In an agri-environmental scheme (AES) under the second pillar of the CAP, farmers get support for managing their wood-pastures. However as a lot of wood-pastures are already abandoned or grazed only very lightly, a second scheme using only national funds supports the restoration of semi-natural habitats, which includes opening up wood-pastures, fencing and in some cases even purchasing livestock.

In this study, our first goal was to look at the structure of wood-pastures and the effects of the schemes. We found that almost all restored wood-pastures tend to be similar to old wood-pastures. The farmers are doing a good job to fulfill guidelines and open up their pastures up to have a balance of canopy cover and open grassy patches. In contrast, abandoned wood-pastures are similar to forest in their structure, even after only five years of abandonment. Without consistent management, Estonian wood-pastures rapidly lose their semi-open character.

Our second goal was to look at the motivations of farmers to manage or restore wood-pastures. We identified several types of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, and we defined three groups of farmers based on their combinations of motivations. Almost all the interviewed farmers were dependent on the financial support to manage their wood-pasture and would probably not have started to restore their wood-pasture without it. On the other hand, most farmers had a clear passion for managing their land and were proud of maintaining their wood-pastures following local traditions. Some told about the landscapes in their childhood, other just felt responsible to keep pastures “in order”. One groups of farmers we named “profitable stewards” because they tried to connect profitable farming with ecological guidelines and traditional management of the landscapes. Also animal health and biodiversity played a role in the motivations. Most farmers believed their animals thrive better in a more “natural” environment. They gave less medication and the cows often give birth outside. A lot of farmers were really proud of hosting a lot of different species – from elks and badger to special trees and orchids.

In general, supporting wood-pastures in Estonia means not only supporting biodiversity due to preserving semi-open habitats, but also keeping a tradition alive, which might otherwise disappear.

IMG_7764 IMG_7683

I loved the time in Estonia, seeing all this lovely wood-pastures (see pictures) and meeting all the farmers doing a great job. They deserve our respect for actively conserving these beautiful habitats.



If you are interested in the topic of wood pastures, I would like to mention two important events coming up:

  1. A policy seminar in Brussels this November: “Europe’s wood pastures: condemned to a slow death by the CAP? A test case for EU agriculture and biodiversity policy”. With examples from EU member states: Romania – Tibor HARTEL, Sapientia University Cluj Napoca and Pogány-havas Association, Sweden – Peter EINARSSON, Farmer and Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Spain – Álvaro PICARDO, Technical Advisor to General Director in Natural Environment, Regional Government of Castilla y León (17 November 2015, 14.30-16.30, room ASP 3E2, European Parliament, Brussels), Deadline to register on the 10th of November
  1. A conference on wood-pastures (or silvopastoral systems) in Portugal next year. Themes and key note speaker you can find here. Deadline for submitting abstracts is the 30th of November.


Hartel T.R., Dorresteijn I., Klein C., Máthé O., Moga C.I., Öllerer K., Roellig M., von Wehrden H., & Fischer J. (2013) Wood-pastures in a traditional rural region of Eastern Europe: Characteristics, management and status. Biological Conservation, 166, 267–275.

Jakobsson S. & Lindborg R. (2015) Governing nature by numbers — EU subsidy regulations do not capture the unique values of woody pastures. Biological Conservation, 191, 1–9.

Roellig M., Sutcliffe L.M.E., Sammul M., von Wehrden H., Newig J., & Fischer J. (2015) Reviving wood-pastures for biodiversity and people: A case study from western Estonia. Ambio, DOI: 10.1007/s13280-015-0719-8.

New paper: Brown bear activity in traditional wood-pastures in Southern Transylvania, Romania

Marlene Roellig, Ine Dorresteijn, Henrik von Wehrden, Tibor Hartel, Joern Fischer, URSUS 25(1): 34-52

In Romania two things have survived that are otherwise quite rare in Europe nowadays. The first is a stable – and Europe’s biggest – bear population and the second a traditional way of extensive farming. Among this traditional farming practice we can find wood-pastures. Wood-pastures combine a semi-natural and a semi-open character due to the combination of extensive grazing, no fertilizer and woody vegetation such as scattered trees or groups of trees. In Southern Transylvania we have, thanks to Tibor Hartel other colleagues, a very detailed description of these wood-pastures

(Paper led by Tibor Hartel you can find here)


Wood-pastures are well known for supporting biodiversity. This includes diverse communities of plants due to the mixture of shade and light, mosses and lichen on old trees, all kinds of invertebrates which are dependent on the occurrence of dead wood and also birds feeding on these insects or using veteran (hollowed) or free standing trees to nest. Nevertheless, there is only little knowledge of the use of wood-pastures by large mammals, especially large carnivores. It is know that in Spain the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) uses the Dehesas as habitat, but otherwise there is no existing literature about wood-pastures and large carnivores.

Therefore we were interested in how bears are using wood-pastures in Southern Transylvania and if this usage also depends on other environmental variables.

We used a method developed to detect bear activity by the mammal conservation working group of the Milvus group, based in Transylvania. As an index of bear activity, we measured the proportion of anthills that were destroyed by bears during foraging. Therefore we were able to assess the level of activity of brown bears (Ursus arctos) in 54 wood-pastures in Southern Transylvania in summer 2012. We were also interested on which scale the variables might have an influence on bear activity, therefore the variables were combined in 3 groups (anthropogenic effects, local variables, and landscape context) to test which group most strongly influenced bear activity.

We found bear activity in almost all wood-pastures (87%), showing the use of wood-pastures by bears. Within the pastures (local scale) it made no difference how far away the anthills were placed to the nearest forest edge or how many ant hills were present. Also the anthropogenic effects such as distance to roads and settlements seem not to influence bear activity in wood-pastures. Nevertheless the landscape scale (distance to the Carpathian Mountains, terrain ruggedness, and amount of surrounding woody vegetation) positively related to bear activity.

Our findings show, even though bears need large and undisturbed areas (such as the Carpathian Mountains), they can also use cultural landscapes. Therefore in Romania, bear conservation is also facilitated by protecting traditional farmed habitats such as wood-pastures. But for this wood-pastures need to be considered in national nature conservation policies and in major European Union (EU) policies such as the EU Habitats Directive.

You can find the full paper here


Doing research in Estonia: 10 out of 10

Last summer I did my research on wood-pastures in western Estonia (counties Saaremaa and Läänemaa)[1] as visiting PhD student at the Eestii Maaülikool (Estonian University of Life Science) in Tartu. As the 2014 field season begins, I was looking back and discussing with colleagues about the advantages and disadvantages of different countries in the way they can support or hamper your research. Of course it’s highly subjective, but I recognized I was quite lucky being in Estonia, and on a scale of 10 points I would give 10. Here is why:

  1. The funding. Estonia has a funding for international PhD students (DoRa) to come to Estonia and do some research. Despite the fact that Estonia is a pretty small country, it’s really nice that it invests so much in networking with scientists from other countries.
  2. Almost everyone is fluent in English. Under 30 they are always able to talk to you in English and also older people have at least some basic knowledge. If not English, they often speak German. This makes doing research (especially interviews!) so much more rewarding, and really helped me get a better insight into my study area.
  3. Everyone is really helpful. If you need to find something or figure out something you will always get some help. This counts for my colleagues at the University, for the environmental board in my study area and also for the farmers I worked with. If I couldn’t figure out to whom my site belongs, they would not hesitate to make calls to ask every available person if they knew something, and often they gave me the phone number of the owner in the end. The environmental board was always available for my questions and also gave me the possibility to stay in one of their houses for a while.
  4. Information from the authorities is provided for everyone. For example, all GIS related stuff. All information I was used to having to pay for, or to only get it after a lot of searching, I could find online in a browser based GIS ( – of course also in English). If you are working for a university, authorities or a NGO you can get a connection from your GIS program to a server where all these information are available for you (I think it is worth giving two points for this)
  5. Telephone and internet connection is something you can rarely lose. If you have an internet stick you can be online everywhere. If not, almost everywhere because there are hotspots every two meters.
  6. The roads are just perfect (ok, in Tallinn this is not always true, but this wasn’t my study area). So even if a road is mapped as dirt road, most of the time you can be sure, everything that is mapped you can use without a four wheel drive.
  7. University is important. If you are telling people you are doing your PhD (in Estonian Doktoritöö) that means something. They are willing to talk to you, help you (see 3.) and even tell you that you are doing important things (finally somebody got it 🙂 ).
  8. The bigger supermarkets are open till 11 pm and also on Sundays. You get a lot of ready-made food (really good food) so you don’t even have to cook in the evening. And if there is nothing available close by, we come back to point 3: There are always helpful people providing you with food.
  9. People have a different attitude towards nature and nature conservation. Maybe my sample of people is a little bit biased, but all the people I met (this also includes an accidental bus acquaintance) are very connected to nature and very interested in protecting what is there (by the way, Estonia has one of the highest proportion of protected areas in Europe).

These are my ten points (remember one counts double) why Estonia gets 10 out of 10.

In addition I have to say Estonia has beautiful landscapes, what makes it even better to do your research there.


What about your study area?




[1] blog entry about this will follow soonish

Importance of grazing for conservation, insights from “Open Landscapes 2013 – Ecology, Management and Nature Conservation“

Last month some of my colleagues and I attended the Open Landscapes conference in Hildesheim (Germany). This was the first “Open Landscapes” conference ever, bringing together researchers and conservationists on the topic of conservation and restoration of open landscapes. Overall, the sessions ranged from wetland and coastal management, river restoration over grassland restoration, nitrogen deposition in open landscapes, heathland ecosystems to ecosystem and biodiversity in agricultural landscapes.

For me, doing research on wood-pastures in Europe, the highlight was the “wood-pastures in transition” session led by my colleagues Tibor Hartel and others. It was the first time wood-pastures were given an own session at a conference and the large number of wood-pasture experts attending the conference shows there was a need for it.  The talks in the session ranged from traditional knowledge to manage wood-pastures in the future (by A. Varga), different aspects of biodiversity in wood-pastures, to tree regeneration under different grazing pressures (by J. van Uytvanck ). But not only wood-pastures as semi-open habitats are dependent of grazing management. A lot of sessions on this conference were also dealing with the impact of grazing animals for conservation. Water buffalos are used to preserve wetlands and maintain habitats for the European tree frog (by B.Lysakowski), the benefits for vegetation structure from cattle foraging under year round grazing (by K. Fleischer) and seed dispersal due to ungulates (by B. Lepkova) were only a few of the topics dealing with the positive effects of grazing. Related to this, I’d like to recommend a really interesting TED talk by Allan Savory about how domestic grazing can even fight against desertification by mimicking the effects of wild herbivore herds

TED talk by Allan savory

In this context also the rewilding approach, an interesting but controversial tool for nature conservation, was discussed in the session “Rewilding as a tool and target in the management of open landscapes” at the open landscapes conference. Frans Vera (famous for his rewilding project “Oostvaardersplassen”) gave in impression of a wilderness in the heart of the Netherlands by trailer of a documentary of the project:

Overall the conference was not only packed with interesting talks and posters (you can find the abstract book and program  here), but also placed in a nice atmosphere with time to meet people and to discuss things. I hope the first conference will not have been the last.

Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS)

By Marlene Roellig

Almost three weeks ago I attended the SCCS in Cambridge, UK. It was the first time I’ve attended, encouraged by its reputation of extremely high quality talks and posters, as well as interesting keynotes and workshops. As the name suggests, the conference is aimed at students (mostly Master and PhD) from across the globe – this year, 63 countries were represented among the participants, and the projects presented ranged from China to Peru, via Sri Lanka, Iran, the Gambia  and, of course, Romania. All in all, the topics reached from Aquatic conservation, Climate Change to People and protection. It was interesting to see how many conservation research projects were looking at social aspects – for example concerning Dwindling traditional knowledge in western Himalaya or Social structures and microcredits – showing the importance of a socio-ecological framework for conservation projects.

One of the keynote speakers, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, was in fact an anthropologist, who spoke about Wearing too many hats? Anthropology, development and conservation. In her talk she was not only speaking about her work in Africa and the link between the cultural function of lion dancers to the protection of lions in the national park, but also showed an interesting evaluation of community-based conservation projects providing important lessons on why some of them fail and some do not (the paper from PNAS you can find here).

Cambridge is at the hub of the largest cluster of international conservation organisations in the world, including Birdlife, RSPB, UNEP-WCMC, Flora and Fauna International, as well of course as Cambridge University itself. This meant that representatives from these organisations were present at the conference, giving participants the opportunity to network and ask questions. A new conservation campus is also being built at the university to link up interdisciplinary conservation researchers and conservation organisations.

But what I also want to show in this blog entry is that out of 103 international posters, 4 presented research from Transylvania (see the pictures below). It was nice to see Transylvania that well represented at an international conference!

 Thanks to Laura and Edina for their input and also thanks to all for the permission to use the pictures of their posters.

Poster by Edina Mózes, (Hungary)

Bee communities in agricultural landscapes, poster by Edina Mózes

Poster by Ádám Szirák, (Hungary)

Plant-pollinater networks of Transylvania, poster by Ádám Szirák

Poster by Laura Sutcliffe was among the highly recommended posters.

Commos governance in Transylvania, poster by Laura Sutcliffe was among the highly recommended posters.

Poster by Marlene Roellig got the second poster prize on the SCCS

Bear activity in traditional wood-pastures in southern Transylvania, Romania, poster by Marlene Roellig won the second poster prize on the SCCS 2013

Who we are: Marlene Roellig

Hi everyone, I’m Marlene and I’ve just started my PhD in this working group. My PhD project is on The future of European wood-pastures, so I’m the first one in this working group who is not directly involved in the well-known Fostering sustainable development in Romania project. But of course my work will build on the Romania project, and as a country with many beautiful wood pastures I will partly do my research in Romania.

What about me?

I studied my Bachelor here at Leuphana in Lüneburg in Empirical Economics and Social Sciences. My focus was sustainability management which I really enjoyed. After my Bachelor I did a Traineeship at Volkswagen AG in a team working on Sustainability in supplier relationships. It was a great experience, working in an ambitious team on such important topics like human rights, safety at work and environmental standards. But even though the working group was kind of interdisciplinary, the focus was always on financial economics and I missed a broader view on sustainability. So I decided to study the Master program Sustainability Sciences at Leuphana, which allowed me to combine my background in economics and social sciences with ecology and nature conservation – one of my childhood dreams.  In my second semester we started an inter- and transdiciplinary research project on sustainable agriculture for the region around Lüneburg, which inspired me to look for a Masters project related to agriculture. During my third semester I met Joern in the class Conservation Biology and got the great possibility to join his team as a master student in Romania. My Master thesis was on  Bear activity in traditional wood-pastures in Transylvania  and I had the privilege of working in Romania looking for bear signs in this beautiful wood-pastures (see picture).

Marlene Roellig_Transylvania

The time in Romania was inspiring and a steep learning curve. I loved to be in the field as well as working in an interdisciplinary, highly motivated team. Above all, Romanian wood-pastures are fascinating. The combination of veteran trees and the extensive grazing with a high biodiversity is worthy of protection. But I learned fast the threats and problem for these landscapes in Romania – as well as across Europe as a whole.

Luckily I got the opportunity to apply for a position in Joern´s working group on European wood-pastures. This PhD project fits perfect for me to combine my knowledge in social science and ecology to realize this type of interdisciplinary research project. I am looking forward to work in wood-pastures as well as talk to people in the next 3 years.

So, here I am, happy to be here and willing to do my best- not only for my PhD, but also for the team.