Aleppo Oak woodland: a “new” European habitat

In the lead-up to Cyprus’ accession to the European Union, a number of habitat types and species were added by Cyprus to the EU Habitats Directive annexes. Perhaps one of the most important of these was a woodland habitat which was new to continental Europe and is part of the distinctive Eastern Mediterranean ecology: the woodlands of Quercus infectoria, Aleppo Oak, whose distribution spans Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan.

Oaks for the Future project Photo: Environmental Study Centre team, The Cyprus Conservation Foundation

The Cypriot form of this species is considered to be a (non-endemic) sub-species veneris (“of Venus”) found both in Cyprus and Southern Turkey. This oak is unusual as it is “semi-evergreen”: it sheds its leaves in winter only if weather conditions are cold enough. In the mountains of Cyprus it is fully deciduous, whilst close to sea level it retains its leaves all year round. It is also remarkable for its resistance to fire by virtue of its thick bark. This resistance is best shown by the astonishing sight of fresh green shoots sprouting phoenix-like from the blackened branches of an apparently incinerated tree just a few months after a fire has passed.

In 2010 a team from the Cyprus Conservation Foundation, Terra Cypria (an IUCN Member) and the Society for International Development (a Turkish-Cypriot NGO) used European Union Civil Society funding to carry out an island-wide survey of Aleppo Oak woodland in Cyprus. The use of satellite imagery was combined with extensive fieldwork to cover all the parts of Cyprus where the species was known to exist, plotting over 780 patches of natural habitat containing Aleppo Oaks and over 3,000 individual trees. In total around 8 km2 of woodland or open-woodland (with more than 10% oak) were found, although this is highly fragmented, often being reduced to stands within ravines, on steep slopes or even in narrow strips along field banks. 

Aleppo Oak woodland has been reduced to only around 5% of its original range in Cyprus, largely due to its preference for deep, moist and fertile soils that were also prime areas for human cultivation and settlement. They are still targets for occasional illegal felling due to the high quality of their wood as fuel-wood. In addition, the species is naturally very slow to colonise away due to the absence at lower altitudes of the once more widespread Cyprus Jay (Garrulus garrulus ssp. glazneri), a bird whose habit of burying acorns as a food store (and then forgetting them) greatly helped the spread of oaks in ancient times.

The survey is one of the few systematic habitat-mapping efforts to have taken place in Cyprus. It helps the government to be better and more fully informed on designating this unique European habitat type, which is currently underprotected. What’s more, around 12 km2 of relatively degraded Oak habitat areas (with only 10% or less cover of oaks) were identified – some of which in relatively large blocks – that raise the exciting prospect of large-scale habitat restoration through direct planting of seeds. In this way the hope is that one day Aleppo Oak woodland will be back on the map of Cyprus as a significant and distinctive European forest type.

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