Forest Plants Have Found Shelter in Manor Parks

Many Estonian manor parks are protected by conservation laws. The main reason for this is the variety of different species of trees in the parks.

Manor gardeners disappeared from the parks along with the estate owners a little less than a hundred years ago. After that, maintaining the parks became more random and many have become forest-like as a result.

Jaan Liira, senior researcher of plant ecology at the University of Tartu, doctoral candidate Kertu Lõhmus, and Epp Tuisk from the UT Pärnu College studied 40 old manor parks in southern and central Estonia and discovered that while becoming more like forests, the parks have acquired new values – the more remote, shadowy areas of the parks have started to resemble the broad-leafed forests more common to the middle latitudes.

According to Liira, the furthest reaches of the manor parks at Heimtali, Krüüdneri and Riidaja should be considered especially valuable. The same has happened to the parks that have always been maintained, but in moderation, such as at Luua, Luunja and Alatskivi.

The ecologists turned to old maps in their study to discover that the landscapes around manor parks have largely remained unchanged since the 17th century. In the 18th century, the fronts of mansions were modeled as French parks, where openness, orderliness and steady systems prevailed.

The next century’s fashion was the English park style that allowed for freer design with bowery spots where one could rest from the sun. The rear part of a park had an even more unhampered design – half woodland, half forest. Grand, leafy trees have grown high back there, and a shadowy environment has sprung up beneath them, thus offering a shelter for the plants of coniferous forests that have become rare in the woods.

Riidaja Manor park

The rear part of Riidaja Manor park. Photo by Kertu Lõhmus

Thus, liverworts and anemones moved in, likely transported in the hair of dogs, horses or rabbits, and now cover large areas with their blossoms in the spring. Also, one can find plants that estate owners surely hadn’t sown in their domains – many species of grasses and carexes, but also Oxalis, wild ginger and Paris quadrifolia.

Estonian broad-leafed forests have historically suffered the most, because they grow on fertile soil, and to obtain more land for farming, they were chopped down first. Coniferous forests with sandy soil and the forests of wetlands remained.

Presently, about half of Estonia is covered with forests, but broad-leafed woods constitute only 4–5 per cent of it. As there are not many broad-leafed forests left, the flora has found a new home in manor parks.

In the renewal of parks performed in recent years, the old trees have been chopped down and young ones have been planted instead. The plants, used to the shadowy presence of these trees, cannot survive the new situation.

Trimmers and lawnmowers cause harm as well: Mowing starts too early in the spring, is too frequent and cuts too low.

“As a result, we have parks that look like city parks, where there’s almost black ground beneath the trees,” Liria said. “People should see the broader picture and preserve the natural environments of the parks that have evolved over many centuries.” Liira, J., Lõhmus, K., & Tuisk, E. (2012). Old manor parks as potential habitats for forest flora in agricultural landscapes of Estonia Biological Conservation, 146 (1), 144-154 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2011.11.034

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