While no substantial changes in the field of forest fire management can be reported from Germany (see forest fire statistics update in Table 1), some recent developments in nature conservation are shaking the foundations of German landscape management. Interestingly enough, this is happening at the time of the publication of Stephen J. Pyne’s comprehensive analysis of the cultural history of European fire “Vestal Fire” in which he states:
“Europe’s peculiar geography and dense demographics, and the intensity of its agricultural reclamation, gave European fire a special character. Europe’s temperate core – not shaped by well-defined fire season – granted humans an unusual degree of control over fire, and encouraged the belief that fire was, in principle, a strictly human agency, that it was a convenient tool but not an essential process. If fire’s importance was instrumental and ceremonial, it could be replaced by less volatile technologies and more modern rites, much as wheat replaced weedy brome and draft oxen replaced wild aurochs. Fire was, so the saying went, a good servant but a bad master.”
“The keepers of Europe’s flame accepted this condition as normative. They distrusted free-burning fire and sought to cultivate it from landscape and ultimately replace it with the industrial combustion of fossil fuels. Europe came itself to resemble a fire in which a burned-out core smoldered, aglow with random embers, while flames propagated along its perimeter, not only the margins of western Eurasia but the colonial periphery to which Europe carried the torch. The geography and dynamics of fire on the contemporary Earth is largely a consequence of European expansion, the impact of an imperial Europe and an industrial Europe. Europe’s fire became as much a standard of reference for fire practices as Greenwich mean time for the world’s watches or SI units for global physics.”
“Germany is a controlled landscape. It has to be, given its population pressures. The German nature reserves constitute only 1.1 percent of the national landmass, with 200 of them less than 5 hectares in size, other restricted landscapes amount to 18 percent. None tolerate fire. Even outside theses zones, agricultural burning is rigorously proscribed to specific seasons. The burning of hedges, in particular, has aroused strong condemnation over the centuries because it breaks down the careful borders of political and propertied world, another illustration of fire as manifestation of social disorder. That perception describes perfectly the difference between landscape organized as a house instead of an ecosystem. Behind these fears lay the memory of the war’s fire catastrophe.”
His statements are right. In the very geographical centre of Europe – in Germany – the post-World War II development continued to perfectly eradicate some key factors which are vital elements of the cultural heritage of landscapes and biodiversity. The cultural landscapes and vegetation patterns of Central Europe are the result of hundreds of years of intensive utilization of the land. Cutting, mowing, grazing and burning were the methods used for harvesting timber and fuelwood, improving site conditions, growing domestic livestock by stimulating and regenerating desirable grasses, herbs and bushes, and by removing non-desirable, moribund and dead plant biomass. Like elsewhere in the world, our ancestors practised slash-and-burn methods which had a similar physiognomy all over Europe and followed principles similar to the swidden agricultural systems of the tropics.
In Germany, systems of rotating swidden agriculture were part of a forest utilization cycle, known as Reuteberge (Rüttibrennen), Birkenberg– and Haubergwirtschaft, which created a mosaic of forest, open grazing and agricultural lands, with all the successional stages in between. Within the Black Forest region (Southwest Germany) swidden agriculture was practised on ca. 70,000 ha by the middle of the 19th Century. After World War II – around 1950 – this system was still alive on ca. 10,000 ha.
Regular burning of juniper grasslands in South Germany and on heathlands (Calluna) in North Germany was quite common until the late 19th century. The intensive utilization of heathland by sheep grazing and the use of raw humus for stables and fuel supply resulted in the creation of nutrient-poor sites. These sites, however, provided ecological niches – habitats – for a variety of plant and animal species.
Ignoring the fact that Central Europe’s face has been shaped by traditional practices in agriculture, pastoralism and forestry over hundreds of years, nature conservationists and landscape planners attempted to preserve this heritage by excluding land-use methods. The creation of completely protected refugia for nature, embedded in a rapidly growing post-modern industrial society, was built on the vision that the preservation of nature and biodiversity could be reached only with the exclusion of all disturbances. This policy soon turned out to be a misconception. The heathlands of North Germany, rich in biodiversity and popularity, as mediated by the romantic writer Hermann Löns, began to change: With every hectare abandoned by sheep and shepherds’ fires the forest reconquered the terrain. Monotonous pine forests began to replace the flowering heathlands.
This misconception became visible at a large scale with the changing socio-economic conditions of post-war Europe and the increasing influence of European and global markets on the national agricultural sector. High production costs – as compared to the competitive international economies and markets – and incompatibility with the demands of a modern industrial society led to a dramatic decrease in the utilization of vegetative matter. While a similar process in the Mediterranean countries provided the fuels for more and more intensive wildland fires, afforestation of abandoned farm lands became a regular practice in rural Germany. Only a restrictive practice of issuing afforestation permits halted the tendency of steadily growing forest cover and the loss of variety in traditional landscape patterns. Abandoned sites which landscape architects wanted to keep open, e.g. for recreation reasons (hiking, skiing), had to be treated through subsidies by the government. Mowing, mulching and grazing in accordance with landscape plans, however, soon became prohibitively expensive.
Ironically, all this became most visible at the end of the Cold War. The reduction of military stationed on German territory set free a tremendous amount of military surplus. Large military exercise areas in former East and West Germany were abandoned and put under nature protection laws. With the retreat of the military exercise gunfire and manoeuvres the disturbances disappeared. Soon it was recognized that the impact of fire and heavy vehicles had been most important in continuously halting and creating new succession opportunities for a rich subclimax species variety. In other words: With increasing protection and the exclusion of disturbances, diversity began to decline.
Increasing costs for large-scale landscape gardening all over Germany, the dramatic challenges of vegetation utilization on former military areas, on marginal sites and steep terrain, on extremely small patches, e.g. hedge strips, between intensively used agricultural and viticultural sites – important refugia for species that could not survive in the chemo-technical environment of industrial agriculture, created new discussions about maintaining the cultural heritage.
Fig.1. Prescribed fire in the Kaiserstuhl viticulture area, Southwest Germany: First experiments in January 1998. Photo: Fire Ecology Research Group.
It was only about two years ago that ecologists and nature conservationists in Germany began to think about restoring the use of fire in those landscapes that had been treated with fire historically and which were threatened by the exclusion of all disturbance. Within 1996-97 a fire revolution swept over the offices of the public administrations and the media. While the public is concerned by seeing the threatening smoke come out of Southeast Asia and local farmers are still punished for the illegal use of fire, fire scientists began to sort out the pros and cons of restoring fire in maintaining biodiversity and landscape aesthetics. Within less than a year four scientific workshops were held at the State Academies for Nature Conservation in Lower Saxony, Hesse, and Baden-Württemberg, and finally, in August 1997, the Federal German Nature Conservation Academy held a workshop on “Restoration of Dynamic Processes in Nature Conservation”, in which fire played a key issue. In 1997 the first large prescribed burning research program began in the State of Baden-Württemberg, aiming to investigate the use of prescribed burning in the management of hedge and slope terrain in the viticulture region of Southwest Germany (Fig.1). The use of fire to maintain or restore grass cover, a habitat for endangered flora and fauna, is the objective of a program which is driven by the dramatically increasing costs for subsidized landscape gardening and the fact that many of the vulnerable sites have been lost to the succession towards bush and tree cover.
The changing paradigm in nature conservation in Germany is clearly visible. The signals emitted by nature conservation fires clearly show that the fire ban imposed on German landscapes in the mid-1970s cannot be kept any longer. The solutions, however, must consider the manifold sensitivities of an industrial society, in which a high awareness on environmental issues determines day-to-day politics.
Tab.1. Forest fire statistics of Germany 1977-96: Causes,number of fires, area burned, and economic damage. Source: Federal German Ministry for Agriculture and Food.
Area burned (ha)
Area burned (ha)
Area burned (ha)
Area burned (ha)
Area burned (ha)
Area burned (ha)
Area burned (ha)
% Change in 1996 as compared to 1995: 22 37 61 108 233 1552 -69 -93 34 122 41 133 184 21
* Only former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany)