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Human interactions with the mountain birch forest ecosystem: Implications for sustainable development

Mountain birch (Betula pubescens ssp.czerepanovii) is the dominant tree species in northern Fennoscandia and in the North Atlantic region in Europe, and has been used for centuries in agroforestry practices. Previous studies suggest that the mountain birch ecosystem has been under pressure through intensive grazing by herbivores, and ever-increasing human use. However, even domestic grazers and humans are part of the mountain birch ecosystem and contribute to its maintenance and restoration through sustainable management. The consortium wants to study these problems in an interdisciplinary manner, combining productivity, herbivory and socio-economic studies using an integrative approach. During the last year of the study the plan is to invite those involved in administration and applied forestry policy at national and regional levels, and to work out alternative strategies for the future sustainable management of northern birch forests.

The proposal will focus on the human dimensions and natural conditions of the mountain birch forest ecosystem, and will formulate management scenarios and development plans to ensure the future sustainability of these ecosystems. Specifically, it will study:
1) human interaction with the birch forest ecosystem and natural conditions; assessment and estimation of human impact and the potential of the ecosystem for future sustainable use
2) birch forest productivity; estimation of its potential and impact on enhancing the biodiversity of the ecosystem for sustainable management
3) herbivory; evaluation of the impact of domestic ungulates and common insect species in relation to sustainable forest management under changing anthropogenic and climatic scenarios
4) integrative scenarios and alternatives for future sustainable management; modelling of the limits and possibilities for economic development securing both biodiversity and sustainability, while also enhancing the wellbeing and quality of the life of local populations, through management alternatives.
The objectives will be achieved by combining productivity, herbivory and socio-economics in an interdisciplinary manner. This will lead to a better understanding of the importance of the mountain birch forests in Europe for:
a) the protection of the areas concerned against environmental hazards
b) the development of sustainable rural communities.

Progress to Date
Six extensive 100 km2 study sites were selected. Three of these areas are within the Sami reindeer herding districts of northern Finland and Norway, two are within districts in northern Norway and Sweden with mixed population and land use, and the last area is located in Iceland where sheep grazing is the dominant land use category. One hundred and forty interviews were carried out in each study area, using a questionnaire on past and present use of the birch forest resources.
Studies on regeneration and birch regrowth after disturbance (grazing, trampling, insect outbreak) and simulated grazing were carried out at established sites in Greenland, Scotland and northern Fennoscandia. Data on site characteristics for grazing and herbivore interaction studies were collected, as well as information on previous and contemporary land use and insect outbreaks from the six study areas, based on earlier land use surveys and remote sensing data. These data have been used for biomass estimation and verification, and a risk assessment model for insect outbreaks has been worked out. The outbreak history and population dynamics of defoliating insects and their responses to climate have been further studied. Survival and growth in birch provenance have been monitored along a coast-inland gradient in transplant garden experiments, and micropropagated plants are being investigated for studies on genetic adaptation. The growth process in natural birch stands has been examined and experiments on dormancy breaking and frost hardiness have been completed. The effects of summer grazing by reindeer on birch regeneration after heavy insect attacks have been studied at the Finnish sites.
Finally, a birch production model has been developed to include climate as well as land use responses, and the effects of different kinds of disturbance (grazing, logging, insect outbreaks).
The limits for sheep and reindeer production and the related cost-efficiency has been investigated from the collected data on birch biomass and herbivore x birch relationships, and will be used to work out alternatives for future sustainable land use under different climate scenarios.

Five of the six milestones listed in the technical annex have been completed, and 34 deliverables have been submitted with the three completed progress reports (2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03).
An implementation plan will be submitted with the final report. There have been four symposium meetings associated with the project in Akureyri (2000), Aberdeen (2001), Narsassuaq (2002) and Abisko (2003), where HIBECO participants and invited lecturers have presented results from their research on different aspects of birch use and ecology. The project was granted an extension from 36 to 42 months due to its late start.


Scientist responsible for the project

Botanical Gardens, University of Oulu Box 333
FIN-90571 Oulu
Finland - FI

Phone: +358 85531571
Fax: +358 85531584


Project ID QLRT-1999-01515
Organisation University of Oulu
Area 5.3.1
Start date 01 February 2000
Duration (months) 42
Total cost 2 064 150 €
Total EC contribution   1 650 751 €
Status Ongoing
Web address of the project

The partners

  • Icelandic Institute of Natural History, Iceland - IS

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