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Restoring the “European Amazon”: a journey through Serbia’s riparian forests

If I had to encapsulate my recent journey to the Serbian forest in just two words, they would undoubtedly be “pleasantly surprised”.

Our arrival in Belgrade took place on a hot late September day, amidst the warmth that characterizes the Balkans’ phenomenon known as “Miholjsko ljeto”. A period of unseasonably warm, dry weather that sometimes occurs in autumn.  It’s rather amusing, in retrospect, how serendipitous it felt as we embarked on our journey to the final destination, Novi Sad—the hometown of a renowned singer-songwriter who has a tune coincidentally named ”Miholjsko leto 95’”, which I would listen to during my teens. But let’s momentarily set aside my high school nostalgia and return to the narrative.

Our expedition to Serbia served a dual purpose, each with its distinct goal. The initial part of our journey was dedicated to the EFI Annual Conference, a commemoration of the European Forest Institute’s three-decade-long journey. En route to Serbia, we pored over the pages of “An Idea Becomes a Reality”, a book that had been published on EFI’s 10th anniversary. Our supervisor Gert-Jan Nabuurs, professor of European forest resources at Wageningen University and Research, amused us with the intricate tale of how it all commenced and evolved. By the time we touched down, my colleague Bas Lerink and I had a profound respect and a sense of honour for being able to be a part of the beautiful EFI family.

The two days of the conference flew by, filled with engaging conversations with both familiar and new faces. Each of us from the Wageningen team played a role in it; Bas participated as a panelist in one of the discussions, Gert-Jan took on the role of a managing senior, exploring new opportunities for us to make a positive impact on the European environmental scene, and I had the privilege of being a presenter in the Young Scientist Session.

The team alongside the beautiful oak trees in the first chronosequence site (Photo: Martina Zoric)

The second part of our journey offered a stark contrast to the formalities of the EFI Annual Conference – no more suits, fancy city halls, or gala dinners. Instead, we swapped that for boots and forest green pants as we met our hosts, Zoran, Martina, and Velisav from the Institute of Lowland Forestry and Environment, on an early Friday morning, with the sun rising over the Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad. Accompanied by Magda Bou Dagher-Kharrat, the SUPERB project coordinator, and Bart Muys, professor of forest ecology and forest management at KU Leuven, we set off to explore the local SUPERB demo site.

After a scenic hour-and-a-half drive northwest of Novi Sad, passing through the vast golden- coloured cornfields of the Vojvodina region, we finally reached the local office of the Special Nature Reserve “Gornje Podunavlje”. Here, we were warmly welcomed by the dedicated team implementing the SUPERB project on the ground in Serbia: Slađana, Radmila, Andrea, Peđa, Ognjen and Srđan. From there, we ventured into an enchanting oak forest that seemed taken right out of a fairy tale to visit the first chronosequence site. It teemed with biodiversity, evidenced by the wild game tracks in the mud and different types of oak galls, some of which were new to all of us. Our hosts explained that this is the legacy they aim to leave behind; the work they are doing today will ultimately result in forests like this thriving a century from now.

Adjacent to this forest, we encountered a vast clearing of approximately 30 hectares, which was once a poplar plantation. Zoran confidently declared, “This is where we will implement the SUPERB restoration measures”. I must admit that at least the Dutch members of our team were initially sceptical. We doubted the possibility of oak trees successfully establishing themselves in such a large clearing. However, as we would soon discover, we were mistaken.

Afterwards, we took a brief boat ride along one of the Danube’s channels to look at the “European Amazon” from a different perspective.

Upon returning to the shore, we hopped back into our Dusters and made our way to a site that had been previously restored 12 years ago—a crucial chronosequence for the SUPERB project. After opening a sturdy fence, we were greeted by the sight of oak trees reaching a towering height of around 8 meters, growing alongside hornbeam, ash, and black locust, all thriving naturally. This site had been sown with acorns 12 years ago and was flourishing, proving that it was indeed possible.

However, it was evident that our hosts had put in tremendous effort, involving extensive manual labour, to erect strong fences to keep out the ca. 2000 red deer and hundreds of wild boars inhabiting the area. This region is, after all, one of Serbia’s largest hunting areas. Additionally, various interventions were necessary to eliminate weeds and other competitive vegetation, allowing the oaks to grow and prosper.

The second chronosequence, an 12 year old oak stand (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

Following this, we visited another oak stand that had been established just five years ago. While it looked promising, the soil quality posed a challenge, making it hard for us to believe that these saplings would reach the impressive 8-meter height we had seen earlier in only seven years. However, Zoran assured us it would work out, and by now, we had learned to trust his expertise.

Our learning experience related to the forest restoration measures we’ve seen illustrates the importance of local knowledge and expertise in projects like SUPERB. Another crucial factor to consider is the strong partnership forged between the managers and scientists. This collaboration has been nurtured and strengthened over the years, primarily grounded on a foundation of trust. We might have dismissed such an endeavour, but local forest managers and scientists understand what is possible and what they can achieve.

The team at the third chronosequence site, 5-year old oak stand with retention trees (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)
View of the area where restoration measures are being implemented for SUPERB (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

On the second day, we were accompanied also by Christophe Orazio from the European Institute of Planted Forest, leader of SUPERB’s demo in France who specializes in plantation forestry. Together, we visited sites similar to those we had seen the day before. We also observed an area where SUPERB measures had been implemented but, unfortunately, achieved little success due to an unusually hot and dry summer that left the planted oak seedlings struggling. Here, additional work will be done, with new oak acorns to be sown in place of the earlier seedlings. Trees grown from acorns exhibit greater vigour, but during the initial campaign, there was a shortage of acorns, and time constraints forced the use of seedlings instead.

In addition to the oak forests in various stages of development, we also had the opportunity to explore poplar plantations, which are the backbone of the Public Enterprise Vojvodinašume. At one point, we observed two stands, one of oak and one of poplar, planted in the same year. The difference in size was striking (see picture below). As I took this photo, I noticed that the soybean field I stood on was perfectly divided between the two stands. The field next to the poplar plantation had already been harvested, appearing brown and dry, while the field opposite the oaks remained fresh and green. This observation perfectly encapsulated the work of these foresters. They are transitioning from a potentially dry and impoverished scenario, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change associated with poplars, toward a more climate-resilient oak forest. This oak forest is not only promising and green but also biodiverse and beautiful, reflecting their dedication to a sustainable and prosperous future.

Oak on the left, poplar on the right: difference in height of an oak and poplar stand planted at the same time (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

This is one of the key reasons why I would describe this trip as a pleasant surprise. The eagerness of the local foresters to shift from their conventional business practices towards a more climate-smart approach to forest management, all while considering the long-term effects of climate change and willingly sacrificing short-term profits for the betterment of future forests in the Vojvodina region, felt truly refreshing and makes me optimistic for the future of the European Amazon in challenging times.

SUPERB team where the Drava river meets the Danube

Ajdin Starcevic is a PhD researcher Wageningen University and Research.

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