Friday March 11 - Mark in western Macedonia
I woke up at what I thought was 7:45, leaving myself a few minutes to prepare before Ljupcho came to pick me up around the corner at 8. I found Ilija in the kitchen where he offered to make me coffee. I gladly obliged, though steadily saw the clock ticking away, growing closer to 8. A minute or so before, I told him I was probably going to have to hurry as I should probably head outside to meet my ride. He looked at me surprised and said, ‘I thought you were getting picked up at 8’. This is when it finally hit me - I’d been an hour early for everything for the last three days. It was so relieving to realize that I’d suddenly gained an hour of life - and a most relaxing hour at that.
Ilija ran out to pick up some breakfast - burek - a delicious, flaky, coiled, cheese (or meat or spinach) filled pastry that I’ve learned to absolutely love. He talked a bit about his work as a lawyer and he shared some very interesting insights into the history of the Republic of Macedonia and the relatively recent transition from Communism to Democracy. This entire region is highly complex with a long-ranging, dynamic and varied history. Disputes over borders, centuries of occupation, a wide diversity of languages, cultures and religions all contribute to the dynamism of this ecologically rich region.
At 8, I went out to meet Ljupcho and we headed across town to pick up Pande for our day trip to the western side of Macedonia. This was somewhat familiar territory for me. Almost a year ago I’d spent a few days there at the end of a trip to Greece that was sparked by a an opportunity to teach a natural building class there. We left Skopje and soon approached some of the highest mountains in the country, heading south along the foothills until we had no choice but to climb.
Our first stop was a place called Mavrovo - a mountain town and more recently, a national park. At these high elevations, most of the forests consist of either beech or coniferous species. As we reached the entry of the park, we pulled over to examine an extensive beech stand. Apparently human pressure on this landscape was significant up until the development of the national park. Fuelwood harvest and large sheep populations kept the forests in a largely stunted state. At this point, the wood-pasture-type stand featured beech pollards that were about 10’ high, 3-4' dimeter and had a very low quality stem - basically useless for lumber. The forest management plan sought to convert this degraded wood pasture into a high forest over the course of 100 years. They first cut the trees between 1965-70, allowing the beech to coppice. Five years ago, they went through the stand, thinning the stools down to single stems with the long-term vision of converting the stand to a seed-originated forest. Because the forest lies within the boundaries of a national park, the scope of their management is limited.
Mavrovo National Park covers 73,000 hectares, has 400 km worth of trails, and 70 employees. The park’s forestry office oversees forest management, hunting, wildlife management and tourism. They harvest 18,000 to 20,000 m3 fuelwood per year, marketing it to locals, log companies and retail outlets in the town of Gostivar. Because of the access and management challenges due to the snowpack, they carry out felling operations fro May-November (and because they aren’t managing for coppice growth).
We spent a half hour exploring the park, stopping to enjoy some majestic views out towards Albania, just beyond the ridge of the highest peak in Macedonia. The snowpack made the roads and trails relatively difficult to traverse this time of year, and there really wasn’t any coppice to see, so we turned around and headed south.
It was very interesting to me to re-explore this landscape with two well-trained locals. When I’d visited western Macedonia in 2010, I was completely oblivious of the fact that the vast majority of the forests I was looking at were managed as coppice. The longer rotation lengths and the expansive extent of the stands helped them blend into the mountainside. This time, I understood that most of the mountains were blanketed in coppice cover and likely had been for the past few centuries. About 10 miles down the road, we pulled off to examine a large clearcut of a nearby oak stand as well as some of the more recent regrowth in the stands adjacent to it.
The first area Pande and I looked at was a four year old sessile oak (Quercus petraea) stand. The stems were 1-2 meters in height (3.5-7’) averaging about 1.5 m. Stools contained between 6-12 quality stems that were approximately .8” diameter (ranging from .5-1.3”). Pande explained that oak coppice typically produces a considerable number of stump sprouts at an early age (10 or more), but by the age of 15-20, they’ve typically died back to one or two.
As we examined the stools in the stand, we noticed that some were markedly larger than others and the smaller ones tended not to display much in the way of remnant stumps around the stool. As we examined these smaller stools more closely, it appeared as if they were actually root sprouts - not stump sprouts. The more we looked, the more common this pattern seemed to be. The healthiest, most vigorous sprouts all emerged from a clear stool base where several stumps still remained - they were easily twice the size of those clumps emerging from root sprouts. This seemed to be an observation new to Pande as well.
Several other coppice compartments bordered this stand so we could compare their respective rates of growth and stocking quite easily. In a stand close to the road that was probably closer to 20 years old we found clear evidence of locals having cut and removed the sprouts from entire stools interspersed relatively randomly within the coppice. The deleterious effects of this was plainly visible - stuck in the shadows of a near-closed canopy, these poor oak stools showed little more than a few sickly, near-dead sprouts, and at this point were likely dead and lost.
On the other side of the highway, I took 15 minutes or so to explore the regrowth of a ten year old oak-hazel stand. It was great to see a mixed stand, as most of the coppice systems I’ve seen to date were relatively monocultural. The hazel had come up very strong but it was hard for me to imagine what useful ends the state forestry department would have for this oh-so-useful craft material. The oak stools were spaced about 4-6’ from one another, with scattered hazel mixed in throughout. The oaks featured between 2 and 6 stems per stool and were about 15-18’ tall. Average diameter was about 2.25”. Individual hazel stools had far more stems - between 11 and 16 on average - and average about 1” dbh. Long and straight, they would be a very high value product if there were a market for woven hazel crafts.
We got back in the car and continued to head south towards the town of Kichevo. Soon enough we had descended from the mountains, reaching a spreading valley just before the town. We pulled into a parking lot at the northern end of town where we met the directors of the local Forest Enterprise Unit. After exchanging greetings, the five of us crammed into a Lada 4x4 and continued along to the mountains southwest of the settlement.
It was a beautiful bright sunny day and after about 20 minutes we reached our destination. Our first stop came along the low slopes of the hillside where we found a southeast-facing (25-30% slope)twenty year old mixed stand that featured an impressive diversity of species. While oak dominated the stand, ash, alder, lime/linden, hazel, apple, wild cherry and Cornus mas all could be found within a radius of 50 meters. The oak stools possessed between one and four stems per stool with stem diameters averaging about 3-3.5” with the largest reaching 4.6”. Ash stools tended to have more stems - 4 or 5 - while their diameter averaged about 4”, ranging from 3.7-4.35.
At two different points, I found stand densities of 90 and 120 square feet of basal area per acre. Though the stand wasn’t particularly photogenic, and it wasn’t the prettiest woodland to the eye, I was delighted to have had an opportunity to see such a diverse and mixed stand. One of my personal reservations about many of the coppice systems I’d seen in the UK was their ‘monoculturality’. While I can appreciate this structure from a ease of management perspective, ecologically speaking it makes for a bland, simplistic ecology. As I’ve read, most coppice stands were developed from what were once diverse, mixed woodlands, gradually converted towards an even-aged coppice structure. I imagine that many of the systems I’d previously seen were either the result of planting initiatives or generations of selection with the intention of creating a more pure stand. It’s great to see that there are examples of working multi-species stands.
We then continued on up the hillside to explore a ‘reconstructed’ (converted) turkey oak (Quercus cerris) high forest. Our hosts began working to convert this stand about 7 years ago. Covering about 150 hectares, the ‘singled’ standard oak trees are now about 60 years old. The management plan calls for harvest of the ‘mature’ oaks on a 100 year cycle.
At another mixed stand occupying a steep, southeast facing slope (42% grade), lime/linden, hazel, wild cherry, ash and Cornus mas all comprised the forest understory. The singled oak trees were about 15’ from one another and measured 10.5-13.5” dbh. I measured a stand density of 90 square feet of basal area per acre. While a clever observer would make out the swoop at the base of the oak trees that indicated their former management as coppice stools, without that partially hidden clue, it would be hard to recognize the history of this stand as anything other than a natural, uneven-aged, seed-originated forest.
We explored the woods for a half hour or so, walking downslope to a log landing adjacent to the lower section of the road we’d arrived on. Examining the leaf litter and organic layer of the soil, I found a healthy mycorrhizal fungi mat. It seemed like this forest was well on it’s way to adding more structural diversity to a hillside that had been managed solely as coppice for the past few centuries.
We drove back to Kichevo and sat down for a late lunch at a local taverna. I’d become accustomed to this pattern by this point and settled into a comfortable seat where we shared food and drink for a couple of hours. Our hosts recommended I try a local specialty for which I’m grateful. Deliciously spiced house-made sausage and a massive hamburger-like ground beef patty. Following a lovely first course of fresh salad, the food was amazing as usual.
The afternoon had grown late and we dropped off our local forester hosts before making our way back to Skopje. Ljupcho and I carried on an impassioned conversation about our respective views on the economics of forestry systems and my reflections on the management strategies I’d seen during my trip. While we didn’t see eye to eye on everything, I’m hoping our personal philosophies may have influenced each other to view the practice with a more comprehensive eye.
As we arrived back in the city, I did my best to express heartfelt gratitude to Ljupcho and Pande for their gracious guidance, freely shared insights and remarkable generosity. The past three days literally felt like weeks, and I knew I’d continue to revel in the light they’d helped shine on our project for quite some time.