Researchers at the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research (CER) are working on the development of a complex forest management system focusing on approaches to nature conservation in Hungarian Natura 2000 oak habitats. The LIFE 4 Oak Forests project, in collaboration with several national park directorates and NGOs, is probably one of the most complex and extensive forest management experiments in oak habitats in the world.

Ever since the dawn of history, forests have provided mankind with building materials and fuel, and still play an important economic role today. The ecological function of forests is at least as important. Among other things, forests capture and store greenhouse carbon dioxide – which helps reduce the effects of climate change – offer flood protection, and provide people with a space for recreation and exercise. They are also home to many species of forest plants and animals, helping to increase biodiversity.

In the past, ecological and economic considerations have often clashed, because the interests of logging did not seem to be compatible with the expectations of ecologists. In general, most European forests that are managed for economic purposes still consist of tree stocks of the same age, with only one or just a few tree species, as these are expected to bring greater profits. The aim of nature conservation management, on the other hand, is to preserve natural forest habitats and restore their condition with a composition of diverse species, with trees of different ages and rich fauna.

At both a global and European level, an alternative approach to silviculture is gaining ground, based on the recognition that only forests in good natural condition can maintain their long-term productivity in the face of climate change. As this approach becomes increasingly popular, ever more forest managers are also taking natural processes into account, for example in the case of interventions for wood use.

“Fortunately, the world is moving towards the increasing integration of ecological and nature conservation aspects into commercial forest management,” says Dr. Réka Aszalós, a researcher at CER. “These two goals can only exist in unison, as we cannot give up either highly protected areas or intensively managed economic forests. However, the protective functions of forests must also be ensured during the cultivation process. With our current experiments, we are researching the best methods of nature conservation measures to help forest managers,” explains the expert.

But how can the natural state of a forest – in this case oak – be restored if the disturbances and intensive human use of the past decades have already altered it? This is what the LIFE 4 Oak Forests project seeks to explore. In addition to CER researchers, the Bükk, Balaton Uplands and Danube-Ipoly National Park Directorates, WWF Hungary, the Érmellék Multi-Purpose Association and the nature conservation staff of the Italian Ente di gestione per i Parchi e la Biodiversità-Romagna are also involved. Nature conservation interventions have already begun in experimental areas in Hungary, across 1,555 hectares of oak.

The project uses field experiments by nature conservation experts to examine how interventions affecting the structure and species composition of oak forests influence forest structure and wildlife, while also seeking to restore the biodiversity of oak forests. To this end, invasive alien plants that are aggressively spreading to the detriment of native species are being eradicated from certain areas and replaced, and in the subsequently sparse area, species essential to a healthy forest ecosystem are planted in their place.

At first sight, the restructuring of the forest does not always feel like an act of nature conservation, as it also involves the felling of trees. But the death of trees, if they are not taken out of the forest, is as much a part of the natural life cycle of the forest as the establishment of new seedlings. When an old tree dies and falls, a gap opens in the canopy, and in the place of the fallen or withered tree (even on the fallen logs themselves), young trees and other plants have the opportunity to start a new life. Forest deadwood is one of the most important structural elements of the natural forest: its presence increases diversity, and the forest becomes more resistant to the vicissitudes of a changing environment.

“The immune system and stability of ecosystems are represented by the most intertwined relationships possible between species. In other words, the more complex relationships we can establish between forest organisms, the more the habitat will look like a natural forest,” Réka Aszalós continues. “Species, including fungi, that may be considered classically enemies in practice, actually have an important role to play in this.”

“An important feature of nature conservation management is that trees felled for the purpose of enriching the forest structure are not utilized in economic terms, but are instead left there as deadwood in these areas. In addition to fallen dead trees lying on the ground, we also create standing dead trees by the process of girdling, which entails peeling their trunks in a ring-like manner. This is because a dead tree standing in the forest also has a special ecological function: it is home to extremely special living things,” says forest engineer Tamás Frank, an CER staff member. Researchers have found that interventions to create deadwood have already yielded quite fast results. The number of woodpeckers has increased in the vicinity of standing dead trees, and other nesting birds and mammals may later move into the holes they have created.

In other areas, around older trees experts are clearing other trees close to them that compete with them so that they can continue to live and grow. In other words, the interventions carried out during the project are as diverse as the ecological relationships between forest species.

As part of the LIFE 4 Oak Forests project, ecologists assessed the condition of forests before interventions. This means that they know the animal and plant species that live there, the species and structural characteristics of the forest, and the ecological characteristics of the area. Even after the interventions, the changes in the treated areas will be continuously monitored. The goal is to use the experiences gained here to contribute to the future nature conservation management of the additional 21,500 hectares of Natura 2000 oak in Hungary.

Further details can be found on the project website.