The ecological resilience of the battlefields

The concept of resilience used by psychologist Boris Cyrulnik to describe the ability of man to cope with adversity use is also common among naturalists when applied to ecosystems. The landscapes of the Great War also underwent this “painful rebirth”…

All the ravage zones did not suffer the same lot after the war. Some were returned to agriculture at the expense of important works of sanitation, levelling and filling in. On the other hand, some were assigned to either remembrance or silviculture, and sometimes to both functions at the same time.

The national forest of Verdun is an example of this policy. If this 10.000 hectares forest is well known for its rich biodiversity today, this is thanks to decisions made after the war. The French Government bought at that time an area of 120 000 hectares of land lost for agriculture known as the Red Zone. The nine ‘lost’ villages are part of it. 300.000 soldiers died there and 80.000 remain unfound… Jean-Paul Amat, Professor of biogeography at the University Paris IV Sorbonne explains: “After long debates, the decision was made to turn the whole region into a sanctuary by covering it with trees.” Afforestation begins in 1929. Jean-Paul Amat: “At that time, hardwood was considered as high-quality wood, unable to heal places totally destroyed by war. So softwood was planted”. This lasted until 1974 when the Forest National Office (ONF) decided to change to broadleaf trees. Despite this situation, the fauna and flora developed in a very surprising manner on this territory remote from most human activities.

Around the Douaumont ossuary, large lawned parks are carefully mown to unveil the scars of the Great War for the visitors. In the springtime, orchids bloom here and there. Jacques Weimerskirsh, member of the French Society of orchidophily explains: “What is remarkable here, is that dry environment orchids are found right next to wet habitat ones.” The battlefields have turned into an area of research for the naturalists revealing some botanical curiosities. Georges Parent, a Belgian botanist, made many inventories of the flora around Verdun and discovered a few obsidional? plants - plants that were brought there because of the war – like the Blue-eyed-grass (Sisyrinchium bermudianum) that came from America along with the fodder for the horses…

The vegetation has reasserted itself all around the shell holes and trenches, but one cannot forget that the soil is still heavily polluted by the remains of war. Little is known of the impact of their degradation on plants and animals. In his studies on the zone of Verdun, Georges-Henri Parent noted colour irregularities for some flowers but was not able to make the link with mutagenic effects of the Yperite, or mustard gas. He also underlined the extinction of salamanders in the Red Zone around Verdun.

The herpetofauna of the region, which had been deeply affected by the WW1, seem however to settle in the area again. 18 species of amphibian and reptiles, such as the alpine newt or the yellow-bellied toad, live peacefully next to each other on the battlefields

The yellow-bellied toad survived scarcely during the fights in a few refuge habitats such as shell holes where the clay and marl kept the water in little ponds. “It is a very rare species, protected at European level - says Eric Bonnaire, officer of the ONF. The yellow-bellied toads also take advantage of the ruts left by the forestry machines, but we have to be very careful not to run over them.”

Other scars left by the conflict, the fortifications and tunnels of the region shelter 17 species of bats. Forts are interesting as substitute environments for bats because temperatures are very similar to caves’” explains Matthieu Gaillard, member of the Commission for the protection of Water, local Heritage, Environment, Subsoil and Chiroptera of Lorraine. The greater horseshoe bat is very typical of the Verdun battlefields. Very rare in Belgium, Luxemburg or Germany, this species seem to have found here the limits of its range of distribution. The large amounts of bats found in Verdun are due not only to the many shelters in the surroundings, but also to the availability of food… The national forest of Verdun, which is also a Natura 2000 site, offers an exceptional living environment for the bats. “But bats also have to face illegal visitors that are not always well-intentioned,” notes Matthieu Gaillard, while showing a reinforced door supposed to protect bats, but several time forced open by unwelcome visitors…

War relic hunting is a recognized fact and combining Remembrance tourism and nature preservation is a major challenge. An attempt to list the forest of Verdun as a natural park may have failed; another application is awaiting an answer from the ONF to receive the label “Forêt d’exception” (exceptional forest).

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