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The land use history (1278–1990) of a mixed hardwood forest in western Belgium and its relationship with chemical soil characteristics


K. Verheyen, Fax: ++32 16 329760; e-mail: kris.


Aim During the last decades, an increasing number of studies have stressed the importance of historical human influence on the ecology of forests and on the characteristics of forest soils. Therefore, the objectives of this study are (1) the quantification of the land use history of Ename Wood from 1278 to 1990 and (2) to find out whether the former land use of the forest has long-lasting effects on present-day chemical soil properties.

Location The 62-ha present-day Ename Wood is situated in western Belgium and is the remainder of the 145-ha historical Ename Wood.

Methods We disposed of eighteen land-use maps for the period between 1278 and 1990 which were digitized using a geographic information system (GIS). Transition between the different land uses and Shannon–Wiener diversity indices were calculated to quantify the history of changing land use. Mixed soil samples were taken in lots delimited on the basis of the historical data. Next, the soil properties were combined with the land-use variables using redundancy analysis and ANOVA.

Results The quantification of the land use changes showed that the present Ename Wood is the result of several forest regression and progression phases, with a complete clearance in the nineteenth century. Diversity in land use was maximal between the fourteenth and the sixteenth century due a variety of transitional forms between forest and pasture. A positive correlation between the duration of arable land use since the 19th century clearance and soil pH, calcium and phosphate content was observed and a negative correlation was found with the carbon content, the total nitrogen content and the C:N ratio. These correlations are probably caused by a combination of acidification processes and the accumulation of organic matter under forest in combination with manuring practices in the twentieth century. Present-day forest lots which have been pastured for some time between 1278 and nineteenth-century clearance still had a significantly lower pH and degree of base saturation, which is probably caused by the export of nutrient rich plant material at that time.

Discussion and conclusions The results demonstrate that the developed methodology is successful and confirm that historical land use, even in the distant past, can still influence present-day soil characteristics. For this reason, long-term historical land use should always be considered in forest ecological research.

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