The analysis of spatio-temporal forest changes (1775–2000) in Flanders (northern Belgium) indicates habitat-specific levels of fragmentation and area loss
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Spatio-temporal forest changes can have a progressive negative impact on the habitat of species that need forest continuity, i.e. the continuous presence of forest. Long-term species data that demonstrate such an impact are often not available. Instead we applied a spatial analysis on maps of the historical and present-day forests, by calculating landscape indices that explain forest plant species diversity.
We digitized for this purpose, forests in Flanders (northern Belgium, ~13,500 km2) at four time slices (1775, 1850, 1904–1931, 2000) and created a map of forest continuity in 2000. The ecological relevance of the analysis was further enhanced by a site classification, using a map of potential forest habitat types based on soil–vegetation relationships.
Our results indicated that, between 1775 and 2000, forests occupied 9.7–12.2 % of the total study area. If continuity was not taken into consideration, forest fragmentation slightly increased since 1775. However, only 16 % of the forest area in 2000 remained continuously present at least since 1775 and is therefore called ancient forest (AF). Moreover, connectivity of forest that originated after 1775, called recent forest, was low and only 14 % was in physical contact with AF. The results were habitat-specific as forest on sites that are potentially suitable for a high number of slow-colonizing species, e.g. ancient forest plants, were affected most.
We discuss that a GIS analysis of this kind is essential to provide statistics for forest biodiversity conservation and restoration, in landscapes with a dynamic and heterogeneous forest cover.
KeywordsConnectivity GIS Historical ecology Historical maps Land-use change Land-use reconstruction Landscape metrics Recovery potential
We would like to thank Marc Esprit who accomplished most of the laborious digitization work, and the Nature and Forest Agency who put the forest inventory sample points to our disposal. This research was the result of project VLINA/C97/06b, funded by the Flemish Community.
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