iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry

iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry

Small forest parcels, management diversity and valuable coppice habitats: an 18th century political compromise in the Osnabrück region (NW Germany) and its long-lasting legacy

iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry, Volume 9, Issue 4, Pages 518-528 (2016)
doi: https://doi.org/10.3832/ifor1834-009
Published: Mar 17, 2016 - Copyright © 2016 SISEF

Research Articles

Collection/Special Issue: IUFRO division 8.02 - Mendel University Brno (Czech Republic) 2015
Coppice forests: past, present and future
Guest Editors: Tomas Vrska, Renzo Motta, Alex Mosseler

This study underlines the often under-estimated importance of forest ownership and land tenure in European forest biodiversity studies which are crucial for the management, structure, and tree species composition of woodland. In particular it is assumed that, in regions with both state-owned forests and smaller private forests, the latter contain more relict habitats shaped by historical woodland management practices. A government decree of 1721, a political compromise, was crucial to the present-day woodland ownership pattern and distribution of woodland habitats in the Osnabrück region (northwest Germany). It resulted in the privatization of woodlands held in common for centuries and created a huge number of small, private forest parcels in the 18th century. These developments are discussed in relation to Europe-wide processes in forest affairs. Mainly due to the low economic importance of these forest parcels, as well as the individualism of the forest owners, coppice structures providing valuable habitats have persisted until today. For instance, over-aged coppice stands provide important habitat conditions for saproxylic species and unique herbaceous layers. These valuable habitats must be protected while creating new coppice stands to eventually take their place in future decades. Management plans for Natura 2000 sites in the Osnabrück region should address this problem while reconciling any conflict of interests between private owners and nature conservation organizations. Researchers are encouraged to give more consideration to the important relationship between current woodland biodiversity and the history of forest ownership patterns.

Biodiversity Conservation, Forest History, Forest Ownership, Forest Policy, Historical Ecology, Land Tenure, Nature Conservation, Silviculture


In Europe, the current distribution patterns of woodland biotopes in the cultural landscape are the result of century-long human impact. Even woodland areas commonly regarded as “ancient”, “virgin” or “old-growth” forests feature a high density of remnants of human settlement and activity ([13], [56], [5]). Of particular interest are historical woodland management practices such as coppicing, coppicing with standards and wood-pasture, which have resulted in woodland habitats that are nowadays highly valued by nature conservation due to their rich biodiversity ([9], [18], [46]). However, the cessation of forest management, which is frequently demanded by conservationists, diminishes the relevant structures of culturally modified woodlands. Consequently, there is a conflict of interest in nature conservation ([35], [29], [46]).

On the regional scale, the structure of forest ownership and land tenure was frequently the main factor influencing the management, structure, and tree species composition of woodland ([71], [59], [47]). However, the relationship between forest ownership patterns and woodland biodiversity is an often underestimated factor in European forest studies ([34], [63], [3]). Especially from the late 18th century onwards, state-run forest management and management by large land owners frequently led to highly effective, profit-oriented forest use ([15], [68], [43]). In contrast, the management in smaller private or communal forests frequently kept historical practices up and was less intensive ([83], [68], [80]). Throughout Europe, small private forests with a size up to 5 ha are very common ([65]). It is assumed that in regions with both state-owned forests and smaller private forests the latter nowadays contain more relict species bound to habitats shaped by less intensive and historical woodland management practices ([63]).

But which kind of political decisions in the past led to the land tenure structures which are obviously so important for biodiversity patterns? Were there particular political events in the past that are still of importance for current woodland management and habitat conditions? How were these decisions justified, and what was their motivation and background?

To answer these questions, research was conducted in the Osnabrück region, which is part of the German federal state of Lower Saxony. This region is a very suitable study area due to a wealth of historical and ecological information and a mixture of smaller private and larger state-owned forests.

  Study area and material 

Study area: the Osnabrück region

The Osnabrück region is situated in the south-western part of the German federal state of Lower Saxony and corresponds to the administrative district Landkreis Osnabrück with an area of 2121 km² (Fig. 1). In large parts, the Osnabrück region matches the former Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, which emerged in the Middle Ages and lost its autonomy when it became part of the Electorate of Hanover in 1802 ([73], [2], [31]). Natural woodlands would be dominated by deciduous tree species, especially European beech (Fagus sylvatica) ([40]). The present-day forest cover of the Osnabrück region is 20% (42 878 ha), and the state forest area amounts to 6266 ha ([31], [44]).

Fig. 1 - The Osnabrück region. Woodland that has been continuously wooded since at least AD 1800 is considered as ancient. The ancient woodland data set was provided by the Lower Saxon Forest Planning Agency (NFP). Basic geodata: BKG ([4]).

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The landscape of the most southern part of the Osnabrück region is dominated by the northwest-southeast oriented Teutoburg Forest hill range reaching an altitude of 331 m a.s.l. (Fig. 1). About 20 km north of the Teutoburg forest, beyond a varied cultural landscape and the city of Osnabrück, the hill ranges of the Wiehengebirge (also northwest-southeast oriented) reach an altitude of 211 m a.s.l. While the low-lying parts of the surrounding landscape have been widely cleared for agriculture and settlements, the hill ranges feature a long continuity of woodland cover ([20], [40]). In the northern lowlands of the Osnabrück region, ancient woodlands are scattered and embedded within an agricultural landscape. Many forest stands developed from 18th and 19th century (conifer) afforestation of poor quality sites ([20], [22]).

Material: literature and historical sources

In order to obtain information on past woodland conditions, forest management, historical developments, and political decisions, the relevant literature for the Osnabrück region was thoroughly reviewed. In addition to the works of the jurist, historian and politician Johann Carl Bertram Stüve (1798-1872 - [73], [74]), those of the jurist Johann Aegidius Klöntrup (1755-1830 - [26], [27], [28]) appeared to be of special importance. The same is true for Rudolf Middendorff’s excellent dissertation on the decline and division of the commons in the Osnabrück region from 1927. More recently, Hans-Joachim Behr and Stefan Brakensiek published relevant papers ([2], [7], [8]).

In the Osnabrück branch of the Lower Saxony State Archive, documents from the 18th century forestry administration were obtained, in particular forest descriptions and detailed forest maps (indicated by “Rep” or “K” in Box S1 in the Supplementary material). Forest maps have been georeferenced and evaluated using QGIS 2.6 ([55]).

  Previous history: the management of common property resources 

Rise and height of the Markgenossenschaften

Origins in the High Middle Ages

During the High Middle Ages, when the population grew and natural resources became increasingly scarce in north-western Germany, institutional regulations of the usage of common land (Mark or Allmende in German) turned out to be inevitable. From the 12th century onwards, the formation of so called Markgenossenschaften (cooperatives of the users of common land) was the usual solution ([38], [8]). Along with the establishment of the self-governing Markgenossenschaften, a complex legal system developed, determining the usage rights of the cooperative members and aimed at preventing the depletion and devastation of the land. Local courts (Hölting or Markengericht) were regularly held and visited by peasants and lords. The judges were lay judges (Holzgraf or Holzrichter, literally “wood judge”). These lay judges, as well as other persons who were granted privileged use of the common land (Erbexen), normally stemmed from the nobility. The local courts examined infringements of regulations and, since not all commoners had the same specific rights, controlled the graduated rights of usufruct. Offences were punished by fines ([26], [74], [38], [8]). Several legal relationships existed between the lords and the peasants, whereby the peasants were not personally free (Eigenbehörigkeit), but were provided with secure land usage rights and had access to legal institutions ([27]).

From the Middle Ages until the middle of the 16th century

Until the early 16th century, each Markgenossenschaft was a closed economic system and all goods derived from the Mark remained with the commoners. The regulations of the cooperative and the decisions of the periodic local courts were respected ([38], [8]). Most of the open land in the Osnabrück region was pasture, that was often carefully managed, e.g., by irrigation or the planting of trees for shadow ([73], [74], [38], [77]). Intensive wood-pasture seemed to be unusual, while pannage was very important. Of all the types of common land, woodland was subject to the strictest regulations, most probably due to the importance of pannage. This implies that there were sufficient mature oak (Quercus robur, Q. petraea) and beech trees in the woods. The cutting of wood for use as domestic timber or firewood was limited by the specific rights of the commoners and Erbexen. The woodlands were further used for grass cutting and litter collection ([26], [73], [74], [38]).

However, after being relatively stable until the 1450’s, the population grew during the late 15th and the 16th century. The descendants of the long-established peasants (i.e., peasants being commoners since the establishment of the Markgenossenschaften) were frequently allowed to found homesteads in the still extensive common land.

Decline and crisis of the Markgenossenschaften

Decades of war and overexploitation

From the 1550’s onwards, armies marching through its territory placed economic and social burdens on the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück. Bad harvests, famines and plague outbreaks added to these problems, so that the economic conditions for the Markgenossenschaften worsened ([74], [38], [77]). During this period the population was still growing and a new class of small peasants (called Heuerlinge) developed, who rented a small piece of land from the long-established peasants and who were hired for agricultural work. Although they had no official rights to use the common land, their activities in the Mark were condoned ([28], [38], [64], [8]).

At the same time, due to currency devaluation, the fines imposed by the local courts became negligible and lost their regulative power. The woodland was exploited through increasing wood utilization by the commoners, Heuerlinge, landlords and even by state authorities. Wood theft also occurred. Open land for pasture became scarce due to an increase in the arable land area and wood-pasture had to fill this gap. However, despite recurring complaints of woodland devastation in the 16th century, large irregular coppice-like woodland areas still existed around 1600 ([74], [38], [67]).

During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the Markgenossenschaften and municipalities had to shoulder enormous financial and tangible burdens. In order to raise the necessary money, land from the Mark was sold, as well as large amounts of wood from the forest. The woodlands were also plundered by soldiers ([74], [38], [84], [22], [2], [8]).

Pax optima rerum” - etiam pro silva?

The Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed in Osnabrück and Münster, ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. In accordance with the provisions of the Peace Treaty of Osnabrück (Article XIII) and the rulings of the Diet of Nuremberg in 1650, the “perpetual capitulation” (Capitulatio Perpetua Osnabrugensis) was installed. Henceforth, the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück was alternately reigned by Catholic and Lutheran prince bishops. All Lutheran prince bishops (strictly speaking, they were diocesean administrators) had to be descended from the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg. This “alternative succession” was kept until the Prince-Bishopric lost its autonomy in 1802 ([62], [72] - Tab. 1).

Tab. 1 - Prince-bishops of Osnabrück between 1625 and 1802 and major events in forest affairs.

Reign Prince Bishop /
Diocesean Administrator
Confession Year Event
1625-1661 Franz Wilhelm von Wartenberg Catholic 1648 Peace of Westphalia
1650 Commencement of the Capitulatio Perpetua Osnabrugensis
1662-1698 Ernest Augustus I Lutheran 1671 The draft of a forest decree is presented, the estates prevent its enactment
1697 The estates prevent the enactment of a forest decree
1698-1715 Charles Joseph of Lorraine Catholic 1699 The estates prevent the enactment of a forest decree
1716-1728 Ernest Augustus II Lutheran 1716 The estates prevent the enactment of a forest decree
1717 The estates present a report listing the reasons for woodland deterioration
1721 21 April: The division of the commons is proposed in a Landtag (diet) proposition
1721 14 July: Decree regarding the division of the commons
1728-1761 Clemens August of Bavaria Catholic - Conduction of several “open divisions” of common woodland
1764-1802 Frederick Augustus,
Duke of York and Albany
Lutheran 1765 Justus Möser writes a pro memoria on the improvement of forestry and forest registers
1766 Appointment of a central forest administrator (Oberförster)
1760’s Spruce and Scots pine are introduced
1777/1778 Description of the state-owned forests
1780’s The government begins to hand out seeds of spruce and pine to the peasants
1778 A premium is awarded for the first two Markgenossenschaften that decide to completely privatize their common land
1785 4 June: Decree on the procedure of the complete dissolution of the commons

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Although the Capitulatio Perpetua Osnabrugensis included a paragraph on forest protection, conditions in the woodlands worsened in the postwar period. As a consequence of an economic upturn, the population grew further. This development was welcomed by the state, since the tax revenues increased and economic strength grew ([84], [64]). Although the woodlands were exposed to increasing overexploitation, the government took no regulatory action until 1671. In this year, the first Lutheran prince bishop, Ernest Augustus I (reign 1662-1698), presented the draft of a forest decree ([28], [38], [84], [69]).

This forest decree aimed at restoring the undermined Markgenossenschaften system. The prescriptions concerned the regulation of the local courts, the designation of boundaries, the protection of woodland, afforestation, the enhancement of governmental control, and the reduction of the Erbexen’s rights. The area of application were those Markgenossenschaften, where the Prince Bishop held the Holzgraf position. The enactment of this decree was observed in the Marken of the Iburg district, but failed in most areas due to the opposition of the estates ([28], [38], [69]). The estates (Landstände) consisted of representatives from the nobility, the cathedral chapter, and four cities ([60]). In the year 1697, Ernest Augustus I tried again to establish a forest decree. His successor, the Catholic prince bishop Charles Joseph of Lorraine (reign 1698-1715) had a similar intention in 1699. Both attempts failed, again due to the opposition of the estates ([38], [2]).

  Division and privatization of the common woodland 

The “Decree regarding the division of the commons” from 1721

In 1716, the second Lutheran prince-bishop Ernest Augustus II (1674-1728) failed to establish a forest decree, too (Tab. 1). The estates objected to restrictions of the Erbexen’s rights and to any strengthening of the rights of the Holzgraf ([38], [2]). In 1717, the estates presented a report that listed the reasons for woodland deterioration ([38]): “[…] sod-cutting and mowing of heath and litter raking between the trees, which withdraws nutrition from the roots, changes the moisture conditions”, and means that the cattle are forced to “browse any young trees that haven’t already been cut”. The small peasants were also mentioned, who “take their fuelwood per fas et nefas from the woods. The Marken have deteriorated with an increase in their number […]”.

Since he was not able to stop the decline of both the Markgenossenschaften and their woodlands by administrative measures, Ernest Augustus II looked for alternative solutions. The privatization of the common woodlands appeared to be a feasible approach ([38], [2]). During these years, the Markgenossenschaften of Iburg and Laer in the Iburg district already aspired to “open divisions” (see below) of their common woodland ([38], [62]). Hence, in a Landtag (diet) proposition from 21 April 1721, it is stated ([33], [38]): “Since a division of the commons prevents several hitherto commonly noticed inconveniences and quarrels, particularly the worrying and almost daily worsening wood shortage, His Royal Highness has no doubt that Your faithful estates will agree to, and bring together and establish whatever is appropriate to institute this intention.” The estates welcomed the idea of dividing the common woodlands, but they demanded survey reports on this project from the Holzgrafen. Thereupon Ernest Augustus II issued a “Decree regarding the division of the commons and the projects, which the Holzgrafen have to send concerning this matter” on 14 July 1721 ([33], [38]). This decree states that “We have, upon the advice of Our faithful estates […], graciously resolved that the division of the commons should be accomplished in such a manner that nobody is disadvantaged in his authorities and servitudes which are connected to the common land. We command all Holzgrafen of Our princedom, in order to support this work of common public interest, to present a survey report that describes the suitable implementation of this beneficial work taking into account the local conditions […]”.

“Open divisions” of common woodland

However, the reports of the Holzgrafen were not positive. A systematic division of the common woodlands appeared to be unrealistic, particularly due to the estates’ opposition against any governmental force ([38], [2]). But, as Middendorff ([38]) states, both the need for changes in the invidious conditions and the “pressing wood shortage” led to “open divisions” of the common woodlands. In the case of an “open division”, the legal system and the instructions of the Markgenossenschaften remained intact and only the forest stands (including wood harvesting, pannage, sod cutting, and litter raking) were privatized. Wood-pasture remained common, thus the peasants, Erbexen and even the state were not allowed to fence their new private forest property. Only one quarter of each parcel could be enclosed by a fence for four years to protect young tree plantings ([28], [38], [2], [62]).

Since there were no special instructions for the division of the common woodlands until 1785, the government determined the necessary instructions from case to case. Generally, the dividing process was as follows: the basic calculation unit off the dividing process was the Erbteil (literally “inherited share”), where 1 Erbteil corresponded to 1 Ware. The extent of a Ware expressed the extent of (usage) rights which each farmstead and the indwelling peasants had in a Markgenossenschaft. Normally, the long-established farmsteads held 1 Ware (Vollerben) or 5/6 - 1/2 Ware (Halberben), while younger farmsteads owned 1/2 - 1/3 Ware (Erbkötter) or 1/3 - 1/4 Ware (Markkötter). The small peasants (Heuerlinge) held no Ware at all ([27], [28], [20], [64]). During the dividing process, the total woodland area of a Mark was divided by the total number of the full Erbteile in order to calculate the area equivalent of an Erbteil. To achieve equality of the privatized forest stands with regard to stand and site quality, the respective woodlands were classified into good and bad parts and every commoner received both good and bad quality forest parcels (Fig. 2). How much woodland property every commoner got, was dependent on the extent of his Ware. The woodland parcels were frequently allocated by lot. In the Mark of Glane in the Iburg district the lots were drawn by a child ([26], [38], [62]). To pay the costs of the dividing process, parts of the common land were sold. In the Marken of the southern Osnabrück region, where the Prince Bishop held the Holzgraf position, the state normally received 12 Erbteile per woodland division. Since the government was able to select the future state forest areas without restrictions, either existing state forests were enlarged or the new property was pooled along the borderlines of neighboring Marken. In this way, large blocks of state forest were created ([38], [20], [2] - Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - The Spannbrink area in the Teutoburg Forest. The woodlands of the Markgenossenschaft of Hilter have been divided in 1735. Please note the small-scale mixture of coniferous and broadleaved woodland in the private forests (see also Fig. S2 in Supplementary Material). The map was provided by the Landesamt für Geoinformation und Landesvermessung Niedersachsen (LGLN, © 2015), the historical information was derived from K 73 Nr. 108 H (Box S1 in Supplementary material).

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During the long reign (1728-1761) of the Catholic prince-bishop Clemens August of Bavaria, forest affairs were widely neglected in the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück. However, before 1778, 17 “open divisions” were conducted. Due to these woodland privatizations, the state-owned woodland area increased from ca. 470 ha to ca. 1275 ha ([2], Rep 110 II Nr. 219 - Box S1 in Supplemetary Material).

Complete divisions of common woodlands and dissolution of the Markgenossenschaften

Under the reign (1764-1802) of the third Lutheran Prince-Bishop Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827), forestry issues were again regarded as important by the government (Tab. 1). The key personality behind this development was the lawyer and statesman Justus Möser (1720-1794). Möser had a strong, conciliatory influence both on the estates and the state administration under the custodial government of George III (1738-1820), prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg and King of Great Britain and Ireland. The latter led the government in the place of his underage son Frederick Augustus ([60]). Due to the initiative of Möser, the state-owned woodlands were charted, described and marked with boundary stones and ditches (Fig. 3). These measures, together with the establishment of a proper forest administration in 1766, made it possible to implement the principles of modern forest management in the state forests ([38], [2], [79], [44], Rep 110 I Nr. 334 - Box S1 in Supplementary Material). In the 1760’s, spruce (Picea abies) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) were introduced and in the following years increasingly cultivated ([20], [22]). Surveys in 1777/1778 and 1788-1790 showed that the condition of the state-owned woodlands was not as bad as feared. However, due to the “open divisions” of the common woodland, most of the state forests were still used as wood-pasture ([2], K 73 Nr. 108 H, K 73 Nr. 110 H, Rep 110 II Nr. 219 - see Box S1 in Supplementary Material).

Fig. 3 - Historical remains at the boundary between state-owned and private forests. (a) Boundary ditch and boundary bank in the Großer Freeden area, Teutoburg forest. Spruce-dominated private forest on the left hand site and a broad-leaved stand in the state-owned forest on the right hand site of the boundary. (b) Boundary stone from 1777 in the Spannbrink area, Teutoburg Forest. “F” stands for prince-bishop Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827). All photos by the author.

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In order to promote the complete division and privatization of the commons, the government awarded a respectable premium in 1778 for the first two Markgenossenschaften that decided to completely privatize their common land. To induce a division, the Erbexen, the Holzgraf, and 2/3 of the commoners had to agree, whereby the votes were weighted according to the Ware held by each commoner. Subsequently, a great number of divisions were initiated. In order to facilitate the implementation of these divisions, a decree on the procedure of the complete dissolution of the commons was issued on 4 June 1785. The proportion of commoners who had to agree was changed to a simple majority. The government refused to apply coercive measures and acted on the assumption that the commoners themselves would recognize the need to privatize the commons. Here, the good examples of successfully divided commons were regarded to be a facilitating factor ([28], [33], [38]).

The government took several measures to promote forest management in the new private woodlands. Seeds of spruce and pine were handed out free to the peasants and premiums were awarded for the largest tree nurseries. Additionally, especially in the northern parts of the Osnabrück region where drifting sand was a problem, the containment and afforestation of many areas was supported ([22], [2]).

Due to the political upheavals in the first quarter of the 19th century, the process of dividing the commons lasted for decades, and after the last Markgenossenschaft was completely dissolved in 1873 the private woodlands in the Osnabrück region consisted of countless small woodland parcels ([20]). However, the multitude of small peasants, who were once tolerated as co-users of the common land, were not considered at all when the land was divided among the long-established commoners ([64], [62]).


A political compromise from 1721 with far-reaching consequences

According to the current state of research, it appears that the Markgenossenschaften managed the common land in a relatively sustainable manner until the early modern period ([37], [57], [8], [58]). The Markgenossenschaften remained intact for hundreds of years due to functioning socio-political control mechanisms, which are now recognized as Ostrom’s design principles of stable local common pool resource management ([49], [76]). But at the latest after the Thirty Years’ War, the Markgenossenschaften were no longer viable. A causal complex of war, population growth, and ineffective regulations had resulted in a decline of the traditional system of common land use. The Markgenossenschaften faced an existential crisis and the common woodlands suffered from increasing over-utilization ([74], [38], [2], [8]). After several unsuccessful attempts were made to establish general forest decrees, woodland privatization seemed to be the only reasonable solution to ensure future wood supply. The 1721 decision to privatize the common woodland can be seen as a consequence of an intellectual current that later became known as “agrarian individualism” ([81], [38], [2], [7]).

In retrospect, the reign of Ernest Augustus II was often appreciated as beneficial for both the state and the population ([1], [62]). Ernest Augustus II was, however, an absolute ruler in the Baroque Age, and his attempts to obtain woodland properties through his rights as Holzgraf or Erbexe can also be seen as a means to establish, increase and safeguard his territorial sovereignty ([8], [15]). Unlike other sovereigns of the period though, he did not rule unopposed. The estates held strong political positions and were able to prevent the prince-bishop from abolishing their privileges, e.g., as Holzrichter or Erbexe ([60]). As a consequence, the decree from 1721, which formed the legal base for the division and privatization of the common woodlands, appears to be a compromise between the prince-bishop, the estates, and even the long-established commoners. Since the estates argued against governmental force for the division of the common woodland, the division of the woodland had to be requested by the commoners, the Holzgraf and the Erbexen ([38]).

One very problematic result of this compromise between the prince-bishop and the estates was the “open division” of common woodland. Klöntrup ([28]) stated that this ineffective method of dividing common woodlands should be forbidden. Due to the interdiction of long-term enclosure young trees were still browsed by cattle, and even motivated forest parcel owners had problems ensuring the regeneration of their forest stands ([28], [38], [2], Rep 110 II Nr. 219 - see Box S1 in Supplementary Material).

In order to promote the complete division of the commons, and therewith the abolishment of the Markgenossenschaften, the administration awarded premiums and renounced the collection of compensation payments for the state ([28], [38], [2]). This shows that the Markgenossenschaften as organizations were still of some importance in the 18th century. In other northwest German territories they had already lost their character as self-governing co-operatives in the 16th century ([8]). For the old-established peasants private property appeared to be an instrument of power against the growing number of landless peasants (Heuerlinge), and they increasingly supported the complete abolishment of the Markgenossenschaften ([7], [58]). The division of the commons had taken a vital share of the agrarian resources away from the Heuerlinge. Together with a decrease of the protoindustrial linen production in the middle of the 19th century, this resulted in an existential crisis for the underprivileged Heuerlinge class. Riots and emigration to America were some of the consequences ([64], [62]).

Regional developments embedded in a larger context

As the analysis clearly showed, a stronger commitment to forestry issues is linked to the reign of Lutheran prince-bishops from the ducal House of Brunswick-Lüneburg. In the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially Electorate of Hanover) forestry had a high priority, mainly due to its importance for mining ([30]). As a result of the personal interconnections with the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, forestry issues were also promoted in this territory. In contrast, the Catholic prince-bishops had no interest in forestry issues, apart from hunting, a great passion of the splendor-loving prince-bishop Clemens August of Bavaria ([23]).

There is evidently a connection between the division of the common woodlands, which were initiated in the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück earlier than in the neighboring territories ([61], [7]), and the Personal Union between the Electorate of Hanover and the Kingdom of Great Britain (1714-1837). Prince-bishop Ernest Augustus II was the youngest brother of George I (1660-1727), King of Great Britain and Ireland and Elector of Hanover, and it can be assumed that the idea of dividing the commons (“enclosure movement”) came from London to Osnabrück and Hanover ([38]). As Brakensiek ([7]) states, Central European bureaucracies in the 18th century attached great hopes to the partition of common lands, since they regarded England and the success of the British “agricultural revolution” ([50]) as a model. The land reforms were expected to lead to an increase in the population, the expansion of land under cultivation, and a real estate market. However, the only area where the reforming officials registered continuous success was the population increase ([7]).

The process of dividing the common woodlands in the Osnabrück region included the use of lots in land distribution. This approach is very old and can be traced back to the Roman Republic, when sortition was used to allocate land equitably among the settlers in newly founded colonies ([12]). With regard to commons worldwide, lottery has been shown to be a widely-used method for allocating common property rights to fishing berth, pastoral commons, and common timber resources within relatively closed communities ([49], [6]). The allotment of land to European settlers in North America in the 18th and 19th century was also frequently determined by lottery ([54]).

When land reforms started in the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück in 1721, the main official justification for the division and privatization of the common woodlands was “an increasing shortage of wood”. Although there is no question that, in general, the Markgenossenschaften were in crisis in the 18th century, and that the woodlands were exposed to increasing over-utilization, it is doubtful that an alarming “wood shortage” really occurred in the Prince- Bishopric of Osnabrück. One argument against an actual “wood shortage” are official woodland descriptions for the Iburg district from the 1770’s, which not only include the original state forests, but also those forest stands that became state property after the division of the common woodlands. These descriptions stated that “the forest stock is quite good in the greater part of these woodlands”, although there were also forests in poor condition in the vicinity of roads or settlements, or on nutrient-poor sites ([20], Rep 110 II Nr. 219 - Box S1 in Supplementary Material). The various historical sources are rather inconsistent on this topic. This corresponds with the findings of Radkau ([57], [58]) and Warde ([82]), who stated that Europe-wide complaints of wood shortages were more often a political instrument than reality. Another argument is that already in the 15th century coal was being mined in the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück and mining was strongly promoted during the reign of Ernest Augustus II ([17]). Hence, an alternative to wood as a fuel was available quite early, which can be assumed to have reduced the pressure on woodland.

The long-lasting implications of common woodland privatization and parceling

Implications for forest management

In the private forests, the division of the common woodlands created a difficult situation for forest managers. The division procedure was aimed at satisfying the different demands of the commoners but disregarded the requirements of future forest management ([10], [81], [38], [20]). In contrast to the situation for arable land, a land consolidation was not conducted in the private woodlands, so that the extreme parcelling of the private forests has persisted until the present time (Fig. 2). As in other regions, this parcelling resulted in a very high diversity of management approaches, management intensities, and tree species ([80], [63], [59] - Fig. 4, Fig. S1 and Fig. S2 in Supplementary Material).

Fig. 4 - Management approaches and intensities in the Osnabrück region. (a) Unmanaged and overaged private beech coppice stand, Spannbrink area (Teutoburg Forest). (b) Recent harvesting activities in an old private beech coppice stand, Spannbrink area (Teutoburg Forest). (c) Small scale clear-cut in a private forest with replanted spruces, Kleiner Berg area (Teutoburg Forest). (d) Private former coppice stand that has been developed towards a high-forest structure by the promotion of only one sprout per coppice stool, Kellenberg area (Wiehengebirge). Photos a-c by the author, photo d by Volker Tiemeyer.

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While the conifer proportion in the private woodlands was already increasing in the 19th century, especially on acidic and nutrient-poor sites, up to 30 % of the woodland area remained active coppice stands until the middle of the 20th century ([21] - Fig. 5). The rotation cycle was ca. 30 years in the beech-dominated coppice stands and fuelwood was an essential resource. After WW II, the interest of many forest owners in their coppice stands decreased due to low-priced fossil fuels. Many coppice stands were transformed to conifer stands in this period ([25], [75] - Fig. S1 in Supplementary Material. These developments are similar to those in other parts of Europe ([16], [46], [32]). However, many old coppice stands have persisted until the 21st century. The management intensities range from regularly harvested stands to stands that have remained unused for several decades. Some coppices have been developed towards a high-forest structure by the promotion of only one sprout per coppice stool (Fig. 4, Fig. S1 in Supplementary Material). The cultivation of valuable broadleaved tree species such as wild cherry (Prunus avium), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), and Norway maple (Acer platanoides) was also facilitated ([14], [75]). Currently, the interest of the private forest owners in their stands is increasing again, due to high wood prices and initiatives that promote the use of wood as a renewable energy source. Not only conifer stands, but also old, long unused coppice stands are being harvested again, the latter mainly for domestic firewood ([66], [25], [75]).

Fig. 5 - Share of coppice woodland in the total woodland area in the Osnabrück region in 1927. Data for the five former administrative districts (Kreise) according to Hesmer ([21]).

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Hence, the preservation of coppice woodlands in the private forests of the Osnabrück region can be regarded as a consequence of the division of the common woodland in the 18th century. The state forest, in contrast, was increasingly managed as high forest from that period on ([20], [2]).

At present time, the private forest owners in the Osnabrück region are organized into Forest Protection Associations (Waldschutzgenossenschaften), which can sell larger amounts of wood. They are advised by foresters employed by the Chamber of Agriculture (Landwirtschaftskammer). The administration and coordination of the numerous forest owners and the planning of harvesting operations and wood transportation is a complex task ([78]). Some forest owners are not aware that they own a forest parcel or have no commercial interest in their piece of woodland. The latter benefit from cultural ecosystem services such as recreation and aesthetic experience, rather than from the cutting of wood ([51]). As a consequence, the felling volume is relatively low ([78]). With regard to the federal state of Lower Saxony in total, the mean annual harvest rate in small private forests (<20 hectares) is only 3.4 m³ per hectare, while in larger forest enterprises (>20 hectares) between 5.7 m³ and 7.0 m³ are being harvested per hectare per year ([39]). Already Burckhardt ([10]) and Von Dücker ([81]) recommended the re-establishment of forest owner cooperatives to foster a more coordinated and economic forest management. However, the (once favoured) individualism of forest owners has hindered such attempts until today.

Implications for nature conservation

Due to the variety of small scale management approaches and intensities, ranging from unmanaged and overaged coppice stands to spruce stands with small clear-cuts, a diverse habitat mosaic has developed in the private woodlands of the Osnabrück region ([11], [14], [53], [75] - Fig. 4, Fig. S1 and Fig. S2 in Supplementary Material). This habitat pattern is in contrast to the larger forest units in the state forests, which are treated according to well-defined management plans ([44]). In keeping with the environmental heterogeneity hypothesis ([24]), these differences between both forest ownership types can be expected to result in a higher biodiversity in the private forests than in the state-owned forests ([63], [59]). Further studies are needed to confirm this assumption for the Osnabrück region. In the state forests, conservation measures should preserve and develop the typical diversity of semi-natural deciduous woodlands in larger spatial units. This is, for instance, done in the strict forest nature reserve “Großer Freeden”, which was established in 1972 and currently covers an area of 41 ha in the Teutoburg Forest ([42] - Fig. S1 and Fig. S2 in Supplementary Material). In the parcelled private woodlands, however, nature conservation measures should focus on the characteristic habitats shaped by the smallholder’s (traditional) woodland management practices. Tiemeyer et al. ([75]) present a constructive conservation approach that focuses on the protection of valuable structures and supports voluntary arrangements with the forest owners. This approach was implemented in the Kellenberg area in the eastern parts of the Wiehengebirge (Fig. 4, Fig. S1 in Supplementary Material), where the forest owners show a willingness to contribute stands or objects (e.g., veteran trees, cavity trees, and coarse woody debris) to a voluntary conservation network.

One very valuable habitat type in the private woodlands of the Osnabrück region are the old beech-dominated coppice stands (Fig. 4, Fig. S1 in Supplementary Material), which are frequently mixed with hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), oaks, wild cherry, and maples ([11], [52], [25]). The often large coppice stools can be older than 100 years and are therefore regarded as indicators of habitat continuity ([53]). Together with dead sprouts, they provide large amounts of coarse woody debris or microhabitats such as rot-holes ([16], [75], [32]). For these reasons, over-mature coppices are frequently populated by specialized bryophytes, fungi, slugs, and saproxylic beetles ([16], [32]). Some parts of the Teutoburg Forest south of Osnabrück are mentioned by Speight ([70]) as being of “potential international importance” due to their saproxylic invertebrate fauna. Ludger Schmidt (personal communication) recently found the “Urwald relict species” Aeletes atomarius ([45]), a specialized saproxylic beetle, in this area. However, the occurrence of very specialized saproxylic beetles in currently over-aged coppices is dependent on long-time ecological continuity in the vicinity of the stands ([43]).

The beech-dominated coppice woodlands in the Osnabrück region often show a typical, diverse herbaceous vegetation, particularly on sites in the Teutoburg forest with limestone- and loess clay-derived soils. While recently harvested stands are characterized by a species-rich mixture of forest plants and light-demanding species, the herbaceous vegetation of old coppice stands is different from that of beech high forest stands in the vicinity ([11], [14], [53], [52], [41]). Floristic elements of oak-hornbeam forests (Stellario-Carpinetum) frequently occur in the coppice stands, in particular semi-shade plants such as Stellaria holostea, Vinca minor, Primula elatior, and Rumex sanguineus. The occurrence of these species can be linked to wet soil conditions and compaction resulting from coppice management, which regularly exposes the soils to reduced transpiration and increased precipitation ([53]). Some coppice stands can be assigned to the rare sedge beech forests community (Carici-Fagetum), the characteristic plants of this plant community are Cephalanthera damasonium, Viola hirta, Primula veris, and Neottia nidus-avis ([52]).

At the present time, most of the coppice stools in the over-aged coppices have lost their ability to resprout and regional techniques for creating new coppice stools have not been applied for decades. Hence, without counteractive measures, the unique coppice habitats will be replaced by high forests in the coming decades ([14], [53], [52], [25], [75]). Since considerable areas of the coppice woodlands in the Osnabrück region are part of the Natura 2000 network, the relevant management plans must address this problem ([36]). Due to the currently increasing demand for fuelwood, the reactivation of coppice management for fuelwood production can be a possible solution (see above), if the characteristic habitat features of the coppice woodlands are preserved ([18], [46]). However, changed social and environmental circumstances can complicate such attempts, as experiments on the reactivation of coppice management in the vicinity of the Osnabrück region demonstrate ([66]). Currently, there are conflicts between nature conservation organizations and private forest owners. As a result of nature conservation constraints, the forest owners feel limited in their freedom of decision ([48], [19]).


The governmental decree of 1721, which was a political compromise, is directly responsible for the present-day woodland ownership pattern and the distribution of woodland habitats in the Osnabrück region. The decree ruled that woodlands which were owned in common for centuries should be privatized fairly. As a result, a huge number of small private forest parcels were created in the 18th century. Such developments are in keeping with Europe-wide forest history. Mainly due to the low economic importance of the forest parcels and the individualism of the forest owners, coppice structures have survived until today. Consequently, a compromise made nearly 300 years ago has resulted in the conservation of valuable coppice habitats worthy of protection, although it has also created some difficulties for modern forest managers. However, these stands are now over-aged and appropriate conservation management strategies are needed.

This research supports the assumption that small private forests support a larger variety of habitats than larger forest management units and details the historical background leading to this difference. It underlines the importance of forest ownership and land tenure in shaping forest development and woodland habitats. Future researchers are encouraged to give more consideration to the important relationship between current woodland biodiversity and the history of forest ownership patterns.


This manuscript is based on a presentation at the conference “Coppice forests: past, present and future” held 9-11 April 2015 in Brno, Czech Republic. The author would like to thank the conference participants for their valuable comments that helped to improve the manuscript. I am grateful to Robert Larkin for language polishing and to Volker Tiemeyer (Foundation for Ornithology and Nature Conservation, SON) for providing photos of the woodlands in the Kellenberg area. The author is also indebted to two anonymous reviewers for suggestions that have greatly improved the paper.


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Authors’ Affiliation

Andreas Mölder
Northwest German Forest Research Institute, Department A (Forest Growth), Section Forest Conservation and Natural Forest Research, Grätzelstraße 2, D-37079 Göttingen (Germany)

Corresponding author

Andreas Mölder


Mölder A (2016). Small forest parcels, management diversity and valuable coppice habitats: an 18th century political compromise in the Osnabrück region (NW Germany) and its long-lasting legacy. iForest 9: 518-528. - doi: 10.3832/ifor1834-009

Academic Editor

Andrea Cutini

Paper history

Received: Aug 31, 2015
Accepted: Feb 22, 2016

First online: Mar 17, 2016
Publication Date: Aug 09, 2016
Publication Time: 0.80 months

© SISEF - The Italian Society of Silviculture and Forest Ecology 2016

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