Background: Forests have been grazed for millennia. Around the world, forest grazing by livestock became a controversial management practice, gradually restricted in many countries over the past 250 years. This was also the case in most Central and Eastern European countries, including Hungary, where forest grazing was a legally prohibited activity between 1961 and 2017. Until the 2010s, ecologists and nature conservationists considered it merely as a historical form of forest use. As a result, there is little contemporary scientific information available about the impact of forest grazing on vegetation and the traditional ecological knowledge associated with it. Our aim was to explore and summarize this type of knowledge held by herders in Hungary.
Methods: We interviewed 58 knowledgeable herders and participated in forest grazing activities in 43 study locations across the country. The results were analysed qualitatively.
Results: We revealed a living ecological knowledge tradition and practice of forest grazing in native and non-native forest stands. The impact of livestock grazing on native and non-native forests is not considerably different, in the view of the herders. For both forest types, the greatest impact of grazing was the suppression of the shrub layer, while grazing also increased the dominance and palatability ("tameness") of the grasses. Livestock could cause significant damage to seedlings during forest grazing, but if done with care, grazing could also be an integral part of forestry management.
Conclusions: Sustainability of current forest grazing practices depends on the depth of local and traditional knowledge applied and herders' stewardship. We stress the importance of collaborating with holders of local and traditional knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of the effects of livestock grazing on vegetation in temperate forests.
Keywords: Acorn feeding; Closed forest; East-Central Europe; Illegal activity; Invasive species; Leaf fodder; Local knowledge; Quercus spp.; Robinia pseudoacacia; Silvopastoral systems.