Breaking out of business as usual in Serbian forestry

On 23 November 2023, the second stakeholder workshop focusing on the SUPERB demo Coppice Forests in Serbia took place at the Monastery Vujan, in Prislonica. Engaging conversations around the ongoing restoration activities in the demo area were held with five participants, mostly coming from private forestry companies. This was also an excellent opportunity for the demo team to collect in-depth feedback from the participants.

The workshop started with a presentation on the work that has been done since the beginning of the project, followed by an overview of the ongoing and planned restoration activities. Particularly, all participants were very pleased to see the number of different noble tree species’ seedlings that were used in the restoration activities, such as Prunus avium L., Pyrus pyraster L., Acer platanoides L., Acer pseudoplatanus L., Corylus colurna L. They emphasised that SUPERB’s approach greatly differs from business-as-usual in Serbian forestry and appreciated how biodiversity preservation is well considered in the restoration activities.

After a short coffee break, the demo team opened the next session by presenting activities conducted in the past two years and upcoming plans. Two highlights of these past activities are the restoration of an area of 50ha and the planting of 16.920 seedlings during 2022-23! As for this year, the plan is to start the restoration on an area of 80ha using seedlings and natural regeneration where possible. While this session was mainly prepared for forest landowners and managers, participants expressed their interest in how the SUPERB project’s practical approach is backed by science. One of the participants was very interested in the remote sensing activities such as the use of LiDAR remote sensing (implemented by SUPERB colleagues from Bangor University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) and was curious about who would come to perform this work and when. The session ended with playing the acoustic recording of the Žiča site, through which participants were able to enjoy different birds’ chirping.

Birds’ chirping recording of the Žiča site

After a wrap up session, the demo team led the participants through a walk in the forest. They visited areas where restoration had already taken place and saw first-hand what had been presented to them during the workshop. Some of the participants had already attended the first stakeholder workshop (also organised by the demo team) and were impressed to see how many of the previously planned activities are now taking shape!

Next steps: bringing more people on board!

Even though the participants expressed their full support to the restoration plans for the demo, there were no private and institutional landowners joining the workshop, and it is very important to have them onboard. Additionally, for the stakeholder engagement strategy, the demo team plans to actively participate in discussions about forest restoration, and to establish links with local communities, including primary schools and recreational forest users. It is of crucial importance to acknowledge the necessity of starting an extended dialogue with a wide range of local stakeholders to increase awareness about the importance of forest restoration and by this, secure their participation and support in the activities of the SUPERB project.

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

#Restoration Story by Ajdin Starcevic, Wageningen University and Research

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

Meet the managers of the SUPERB demos in Spain, Sweden and Croatia!

Promoting peaceful coexistence between bears and humans, reconciling indigenous and industrial forest uses, and creating climate-change adapted forests in a former war zone: these are some of the challenges faced by our SUPERB demo areas in Spain, Sweden and Croatia.

At the SUPERB Governance Innovation Lab, the managers of the SUPERB demos in these three locations introduced their approaches to forest restoration and worked on solutions to their governance challenges together with a panel of experts.

Do you want to find out more about their work and meet the faces behind our restoration case studies? Then watch the video interviews below, recorded at the Lab:

Interview with Judit Torres (CESEFOR), SUPERB demo area in Spain

Interview with Anders Esselin (Man & Nature), SUPERB demo area in Sweden

Interview with Martina Đodan (Croatian Forest Research Institute), SUPERB demo area in Croatia/Serbia