The Physical Geography of Western Europe

By Eduard A. Koster | Go to book overview

17 Forests and Forest Environments
Josef Fanta
Introduction
North-western Europe has on various counts a very heterogeneous character. Crystalline and metamorphic bedrocks of various ages and Tertiary and Quaternary deposits define its geology and geomorphological features. The area belongs to several climatic zones and parts of it went through quite different processes during their Quaternary development. All these aspects were of essential importance for forests—their origin, development, species composition, structural features, and the character of their environments. During the postglacial period favourable climatic conditions enabled trees to migrate from the refuges in the south and south-east of Europe to the north and north-west. With the exception of extreme conditions all the dry land of north-western Europe was covered with forests whose species composition varied, depending on local conditions of the physical environment. Natural woods and forests, both closed and open and continuously changing in time, contributed greatly to natural landscape diversity. Since the Neolithic and especially in the Middle Ages, human influence becomes the crucial factor of forest development, the impact being superimposed on natural conditions and evolutionary processes. Man not only drastically reduced the forested area in Europe, but the use of forests over several millennia also strongly changed the conditions for the functioning of forests as natural ecosystems. As a result, the man-made forests of today often have little in common with natural forest communities, which once covered the European continent. Nevertheless, even these man-made forests have important functions: they greatly influence the local climate and the hydrological regime of the landscape; they protect steep slopes against erosion and are an important source of biodiversity; and they contribute strongly to the variety of landscape structure as well as to the protection of the environment.This chapter provides a general survey of the phytogeographical, palaeoecological, and environmental aspects of forests in north-western Europe. For a proper insight the following components are taken into consideration:
the abiotic component (the physical environment: topography, climate);
the phytogeographical component (horizontal distribution and altitudinal zonation);
the historical component (postglacial development, early impact of humans on forests);
the ecological component (distribution and ecological properties of trees, main forest types);
the forest use component (organized forestry and its development and the present situation of forests and forestry.

Topography and Climate
The significance of topographical and climatic features for forests and their environment is shortly summarized. The main topographical feature of Europe is its west– east running mountain ranges giving rise to a distinct NW–SE altitudinal gradient. This involves extended lowlands in north-western regions, uplands (Mittelgebirge) in the central part of the area, and a chain of high mountains in the south and south-east. This specific topography has a threefold effect for forests (Jahn 1991):
the influence of the warm Mediterranean climate is obstructed by high mountains in the south;

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