What long-term effects did the Second World War have on Europe's wildlife and environment?
February 10, 2008 3:48 AM   Subscribe

What long-term effects did the Second World War have on Europe's wildlife and environment?

I was leafing through the first few pages of Absolute War yesterday and read that a wave of rabies which spread across western Europe in the 1960s had started when wolves and other animals had fled west, escaping the Soviet advance in the last years of the war, but had been halted somewhat by the descent of the Iron Curtain.

What other effects did the war have on flora and fauna? Did the scale of destruction in some areas pave the way for a rearrangement of the species and environment in the area? How much of a problem was leftover ordinance? And what, if any, effects can still be seen today?
posted by mdonley to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'd hoped that someone with more expertise might contribute, but I'll pitch in what little I know from some biodiversity work done in years gone by.

The effect of war and fighting on wildlife have been documented, although not to my knowledge in a single place. More of the cases I recall are from more modern conflicts: including memorably a group of wild donkeys that was released in Israel to repopulate an area and got wiped out when they hit a minefield. I'd hazard a guess that the leftover ordinance is a more problem recently than with WWII, due to tendencies to scatter munitions (air drops of mines) and long simmering conflicts.

As far as regards a rearrangement of species in Western Europe, this might to difficult to disentangle from other effects or even ask sensibly. Little of Western Europe can be regarded as natural or wild anymore, due to habitat shrinkage and fragmentation and the invasion of alien species. This was a process well-started by the 20th century and WWII may have only hastened it. A conservation book of some years back asserted that the issue was no longer how to preserve habitats for species but how to allow species to co-exist along with humans.

I fancy therefore that any rearrangement of species due to combat would have continued the pre-existing and typical trend. Large and/or specialised animals would have been driven out (e.g. wolves, boar, eagles), while smaller, rapidly breeding survivor forms could have bounced back and repopulated (e.g. rodents).

wolves and other animals had fled west, escaping the Soviet advance in the last years of the war, but had been halted somewhat by the descent of the Iron Curtain.

I'm sceptical about this idea, although it may be true. I just can't see the Iron Curtain would have affected wildlife movement.
posted by outlier at 6:48 AM on February 10, 2008

Some protection programs like for the bison continued during the war. The bison in poland being almost totally killed off by germans in WW1 received active protection from all sides so for at least those animals not much happened during the war
posted by uandt at 7:01 AM on February 10, 2008

Operation Barbarossa wiped out the Soviet Union's dog population. The Red Army trained dogs to look for food under vehicles, then attached bombs to their backs and sent them trotting out towards Nazi lines; in response, the Wehrmacht started shooting every dog they saw.
posted by WPW at 8:07 AM on February 10, 2008

I have no facts directly relevant to WW2. But this is a cool question and I wanted to respond.

It's been several years since I read it, but one thing I remember from Aftermath: The Remnants of War was that farmers in France are still ruining saw blades because of the shrapnel encased in the trees in some areas from the First World War. And that people there still occasionally die from bombs from that war, meaning the casualty count is (technically) still climbing nearly a century later. I don't remember how much the book addresses World War II and wildlife in particular (there are chapters on several different conflicts and locales), but it was excellent in the sense of looking at the consequences of war (social and environmental) which are often overlooked except by those who live there.

Also, The World Without Us is, again, not a direct take on your subject, but a fascinating look at how nature reclaims territory or adapts to it after we mess it up. There is a chapter, for instance, on the wildlife which is thriving in the DMZ between North and South Korea--sort of the opposite of what you would expect, given the fact that the area is lethal for humans.

Lastly, this website is an amazing first-person tour of the aftermath of Chernobyl, with some observations made as to the impact of radiation on the wildlife there and in surrounding areas.
posted by roombythelake at 2:04 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

By the Second World War, Europe's continental shelf had effectively been cleared of fish. During the war, nearly all commercial fishing vessels were commandeered for use by the military; the four or five years during which the fish were left alone allowed for a significant re-population. They were quickly fished out again once the vessels were returned to their owners. This is discussed in Mark Kurlansky's book Cod.
posted by earlofgrey at 4:05 PM on February 11, 2008

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