The future of the world's woodlands and forests is one of the greatest problems we face. During the last 10 000 years humans have greatly changed the world's vegetation. Many distinct plant and animal communities have been lost and others greatly modified, while the majority of the really large marsupial and placental mammals have been eliminated. When the Polynesian ancestors of the Maoris first came to New Zealand, the last major forested area to be reached by humans, around AD 1200 they found a landscape dominated by birds. Many were ground-living and some, the giant moas, extremely large. The top carnivore was the fast-flying and deadly Haast eagle which, with a wingspan of 3 m, struck fear into the Polynesians who imported rats and dogs as well as a number of food plants which failed to flourish in the much colder climate. Within a relatively short period many of the native birds perished. The giant moas were eaten by the Maoris, so the Haast eagle lost its prey, while rats consumed the eggs and young of other species. Irreversible changes like this have occurred throughout the world; the challenge is to maintain at least some of the remaining forests and other vegetation in as natural a state as possible.
Is it possible to facilitate the development of more natural forests even in highly populated regions like western Europe? It might seem very far-fetched, but the Dutch are considering the creation of mega-fauna corridors whose forested landscape would enable bison to move west from Poland to Holland as they could do earlier in the Holocene.
There are almost certainly other unusual species still awaiting discovery, particularly on unexplored and densely forested islands. At a more fundamental level, as Fitter (2005) has demonstrated so clearly, there is still much to learn about the nature and population processes of the micro-organisms that inhabit the soils of woodlands, forests and other ecosystems, and which exert a profound influence on the plants rooted in them. This would be difficult enough if climatic and other environmental conditions were to stay relatively stable, which will certainly not be the case. The major economies of the world seem to be ignoring both the implications of global warming and the importance of dwindling oil, gas and coal reserves as raw materials rather than energy sources. Not only does the human population of the world now expect a much higher standard of living, it is also increasing at an alarming rate. Under these circumstances the maintenance of at least some major examples of all the natural ecosystems, particularly of woodlands and forests, though not impossible, will demand a great deal of determination.
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