Hundred-year-old forests in Hungary
The older a forest is, the more it is expected to be rich in flora and fauna. Aged forests’ touristic attraction should not be undervalued. Who would not prefer visiting romantic landscapes during their trips; landscapes whose most colourful scenes are old forests with their trees sized and shaped just as in a fable? Concerning our international project that supports the conservation of oak forests, we hereby report on Hungary’s “hundred-year-old” forests.
Ancient woodlands, aged and young forests
Ancient woodlands have almost totally disappeared in Europe due to forestry. Since trees at the age of 100-120 – in the case of oak trees approximately 150 – are not so valuable of an industrial point of view, as practice shows, those forests that consist of trees over such ages are rarely preserved by their owners or managers. This is the reason why in most parts of Europe – even including protected areas – one cannot find lands where there are forests that are beyond the age of 100 years.
Forests that are older than 150 years are extremely rare to find. However, from a conservational point of view, this is the age from which forests gradually become systems of truly valuable habitats. There appear old trees with dead branches, some of them even lay down on the ground to, as a slowly decaying deadwood, provide habitat for more and more plants, animals and fungi. The canopy opens; gaps are formed, and due to the inpouring light, the forest begins to reconstruct itself from their own seeds. The forest grows rich in microhabitats, such as hollows, thick and dry branches, and root plates of trees twisted by the wind. It is also home to different species, such as the white-backed woodpecker, the black stork and the European rhinoceros beetle. These species do not find their proper living conditions in younger forests. As the forest becomes more and more varied and “wilderness-like”, its colourful structure evolves, which makes eager nature photographers set on a long journey to take a shot of it.
Our project entitled Life4Oak Forests, which was launched in 2017 and to be carried out in co-operation between Hungarian and Italian partner organisations, aims to form microhabitats typical of aged forests with forestry and other special tools, as part of the nature conservation management. We openly aim to transform some of our oak forests into areas of wild beauty, by which we would like to augment their conservation value and touristic attraction. In order to get a clear picture of the heritage we work with, on the basis of the National Forestry Database, we surveyed the information one could get about Hungary’s hundred-year-old, or even older forests.
Property, protection, naturalness
In Hungary, there are 120 000 ha forests that are hundred years old or older. It is approximately a tenth of all forest of natural origin. This measure meets the expectations based on conventional shelterwood silviculture system where age groups should be balanced for the sake of yield management, or else, the amount of exploitable tree may be missing. Beyond this age, however, a drastical decrease can be witnessed. There are only one fourth left of 120-year-old forests, and there are only a few thousand ha of 150-year-old ones, as we have already demonstrated it in one of our previous reports. Five sixth of the forests that are older than 120 years are state-owned and one sixth of them are privately owned. More than half of these older forests are under protection, yet one sixth of them are not even part of the Natura 2000 network. On the basis of their naturalness indicators, more than 90% of hundred-year-old forests belong to the first three categories of naturlaness defined by the forest law. These are: natural, semi-natural and secondary forests. Unfortunately, the modification of the forest law in 2017 narrowed down the opportunities of conservational restrictions regarding secondary forests, which, from a conservational point of view, sometimes happen to be really valuable. As a consequence, hundred-year-old forests’ protection has become more fragile than before.
In forests that are 100 years old or older, we find different oaks as principal species. There are four types of oak trees typical of these forests: the sessile oak, the common oak, the Turkey oak and the pubescent oak. Altogether there are 70 000 ha of territory in the country that is covered by aged oak forests, from plains to lower highlands. Due to deforestation, the greatest shortage of aged forests manifests itself on plains. Regions in upper highlands were spared throughout history, so beech forests typical of these areas were also saved: we have a territory of 30 000 ha of aged beech forests. Of course, most of our native trees easily reach the age of 100. Let us think of lindens, which also live for several hundred years and as such, various towns are often pride of them. However, they are not principal species, thus hundred-year-old forests that consist of other trees, for example hornbeams, Scots pines or exotic species, inevitably cover smaller territories and they are typically formed due to human influences.
Where can we find hundred-year-old forests?
More than half of the aged forests belong to conservation areas, for example national parks or landscape parks. Both the Duna-Ipoly National Park and the Bükk National Park have more than 10 000 ha of forests older than 100 years. 4000-5000 ha can be found in Zemplén Mountains, the Vértes and the Mecsek, and 2000-3000 ha of aged forests thrive in Buda Hills, the Őrség, the Mátra and the Bakony. Many smaller pieces of lands, sized several hundred or ten ha, can be found dispersedly in other protected areas of the country.
It is important to highlight that near many cities, for example, Miskolc, Pécs, Esztergom or Kőszeg, there are smaller forests whose size is beyond 500 ha and in these forests there is an opportunity to go on an excursion. In districts II, III and XII of Budapest, we find more than 600 ha of forests beyond the age of 100, and the most popular ones are centered around Normafa. The famous City Park of Debrecen, the first 200-ha area under protection in our country, comprises rare and aged forests consisting of common oaks of the Hungarian Great Plain. Smaller cities, like Visegrád, Csákvár or Oroszlány, also can be “owners” and beneficiaries of hundred-year-old forests, as well as towns that serve as starting points of excursions, and whose names are appealing to tourists, for instance, Felsőtárkány, Gánt, Nagybörzsöny or Diósjenő. On the border of Kemence and Perőcsény, there lay our country’s biggest, specially protected unmanaged forest, the Csarna valley, where we find widely extended groups of oak and beech trees.
Sylviculture, conservational forestry
In most hundred-year-old forests, there is traditional (clearcutting, regular shelterwood) forestry going on. In other words, regarding the normal age when they are to be cut, in one or two decades they will be cut out. By this, however, they will cease existing as extremely rich habitats. It takes another hundred years for the before mentioned microhabitats and structural elements to reborn and make sensitive species with special needs return. More than half of the forests beyond the age of 100 are clearcut or temporarily treated. This means 80 000 ha of territory and almost half of it belongs to protected areas. Only 3000 ha are treated as permanent forests, with semi-natural forestry tools, although in protected areas, sustainable use of wood could be best assured by these methods. In case of selection cutting or group selection, the structure of the forest remains the same. There are however 30 000 ha of hundred-year-old forests that do not serve logging, including several special forest reserves, which were formed in the area of aged and unspoilt forests. These stocks are often the remains of baronial hunting-grounds. Out of these eight, for example, the Kékes, the primeval forest of Szalafő, and the Kunpeszéri Tilos-erdő Forest Reserve are remarkable at a European level, as they reflect original, primeval forest-like states. However, only the Kékes can be regarded as a real primeval forest out of the ancient woodland-like forests in our country.
What can we do for forests that are more than hundred years old?
Obviously, aged forests’ “romantic” traits are truly important from a conservational point of view. They are the ultimate shelters for forestal flora and fauna, especially in those lands where forests rarely occur. In protected areas, especially in the core areas of national parks, the rate of unspoilt, aging forests should be increased. However, natural forest structures should be formed in younger forests, as well, in order to help Mother Nature hamper that only forests left here and there should assure wildlife survival. Due to the dangers threatening forests – climate change, for instance – the key is protecting all elements of forestal ecosystems. This begins with the development of proper tools and methods of forestry. Within the framework of the project, participating organisations work on this.