An old cultural landscape had been reclaimed by forest. Well thought-out fellings and grazing help bring back the openness and species of an heritage habitat.
We climb the wooden stile over the electric fence. Somewhere close by there should be 20 cows and 120 sheep. Their job description is to feed themselves and restore a heritage habitat called a forest pasture.
Heritage habitats are landscapes shaped by old land-use patterns, such as agriculture and other human activities. These meadows and pastures host a distinctive and rich variety of species. Forest pasture is an area on which cattle have previously grazed, and it is characterized by the alternation of meadows and groups of trees.
We meet the first eastern Finncattle (kyyttö) cows just a few steps from the fence. After staring at us for a moment, they move closer to get a brief scratch and then continue feeding, dismissing us. We see no other animals despite walking around the whole pasture in search of them.
As sea retreated, people followed
The cows and sheep are grazing on 60 hectares of fenced land in Dåvits, Kirkkonummi, southern Finland. “This area has been affected by human activity since the sea began to retreat, thanks to the land upthrust after the most recent Ice Age,” explains Ms. Päivi Leikas, Planner at Metsähallitus, the Finnish state-owned forestry company.
The oldest existing map of the area dates back to 1707. Comparing it to newer ones reveals the changes in landscape caused by humans and the upthrust.
300 years ago there was a lot more water and less land. As the sea retreated, people and meadows, pastures, fields and trees followed.
After the Second World War the area was part of the land rented to the Soviet Union as a military base until 1956. During that time, forests reclaimed the fields and alluvial meadows turned into reed stands.
Birches favoured over spruces
The work to return Dåvits into a heritage habitat started in the winter and spring of 2012-13 during the Species-Rich Life Programme, funded by the EU, Leikas explains. She studied the whole area and marked the trees to be spared. The goal was to create a varied forest in which meadows, tree groups and forest alternate.
“The canopy cover should be 30 percent at the most. When we started it was 85-90 percent,” she says. Canopy cover means the share of each hectare of land that is covered by the canopies of the trees growing on it.
Stout trees were felled from an area of 12 hectares and the spruce undergrowth was cleared away from 15 hectares. The trees were felled with a harvester. Leikas is happy with the quality of work of the entrepreneurs used.
”Mainly, we removed spruces and from some places, pines and birches; no aspens or decayed trees were felled. We sold the timber and burned the spruce branches on site. Felled hardwood trees were left on the ground to decay,” Leikas explains.
Flying squirrel affected fellings
Achieving a random placement of trees was difficult. Although the most recent ditches were dug decades ago, they are still visible in the terrain, especially because the trees have sprung up along the lines of ditches.
There were fewer trees between the ditches, and this made it more difficult to choose the remaining trees so that they would stand in groups.
Flying squirrels living in the area created a challenge of their own. They must be able to glide from tree to tree when crossing open areas. If there had been no flying squirrels, more trees would have been removed.
Since the fellings, wind has caused some damage in the area. “We’ll see how the situation develops. The trees felled by the wind can be left if they do not block large areas from grazing,” Leikas says.
Animals are indispensable workmates
The goal of nature protection is usually to return an area to its natural state. In restoring a heritage habitat, the goal is to turn the clock back to the time of an old cultural environment shaped by humans. What period is aimed at depends on the case: what is possible and reasonable.
Dåvits has retained features of old meadows but also, the remains of a village date back to the Middle Ages. In addition, prehistoric remains have been found in the area. The whole area belongs to the Natura 2000 network.
Leikas says that animals are indispensable in maintaining habitats such as forest pastures. Controlling the vegetation by manpower would be laborious and expensive. The crucial thing is to determine the appropriate number of animals needed to retain and maintain the features of the forest pasture.
Grazing started in Dåvits in 2013. Metsähallitus has rented the pasture to a cattle breeder, and the agreement states the required number of animals. “A hundred more sheep are expected,” Leikas says.
A heritage habitat recovers slowly
The goal in Dåvits is that the sheep and cows also eat up the reeds, so that the plants typical of alluvial meadows have more space. Species of waders will also benefit from this. The success of the grazing is checked every year.
Restoring a heritage habitat is slow work. “We may see some results in ten years or so, but the work will never be done,” Leikas says.
We have walked around the whole pasture. 16 cows and all sheep remain unaccounted for. Maybe they have forged the fresh path to the reed stands or are ruminating under the shade of the forest.
“No matter, they really are here,” confirms leikas. The cattle breeder has put a GPS collar on one sheep and cow.
“This way it is possible to check the whereabouts of the herds from a computer or smartphone,” promises Leikas.