Today, I’ll make an unusual post – a bit of ecology and a look at the struggling natural balance in the present time, as well as a look into the past and how it can be used in fiction.
The struggling woods
The title of this post was, in fact, used in a local newspaper. I’ve mentioned the state of forests in central Europe a few times – one dry year after another over the last two decades combined with the dominant spruce forests, more frequent storms, and bark beetle overpopulation had sent spruces on a downward spiral.
And ever since spruce forests started being leveled by the abovementioned factors, reforestation was a problem: along with those issues, overpopulation of deer and wild boars means those animals eat the tree saplings (in addition to their usual diet).
And despite the growing quotas for hunting of both deer and wild boars, they’re still a major threat to the forests. One of the reason is low demand for the meat: there are limitations when it comes to hunters selling it to the point the few buyers are specialized restaurants. If the restrictions were loosened well enough, deer and wild boars could become a source of relatively cheap, bio-quality meat.
A natural diet of the past
It is the last bit of the previous paragraph, voiced in said local newspaper, that led me to think about the balance of diet when it comes to past times, especially medieval period – and how it could tie to writing fantasy (though this might be, with further research, applicable to historical fiction).
The main difference is that the apex predators (bears, wolves) who held the deer and boar population in check in times past are endangered species today.
Another major difference is that some types of food were more prevalent in past. In my country, this applies to freshwater fish (water pollution since the early industrial age and the building of dams severely affected their population) and likely edible fungi as well (as gathering them doesn’t require any special gear or skill, unlike hunting animals).
The use of pesticides in present time also affects birds of prey. Hares, not so endangered by predators, can be seen regularly in suburbs – and even in the city center.
Ecosystems and cuisine in historical fiction…
I admit there are many stereotypes I can imagine when it comes to historical fiction. One of them are pompous hunts organized by the nobles as a competition, followed by a major feast. There’s likely to be some truth in it as many members of European nobility suffered from their imbalanced diet in their old age.
When it comes to wildlife on a commoner’s table, this is what would require even more research for a realistic setting. First aspect would be the state of the ecostystem in regards to location and time period. As I said, bears, lynxes, and wolves acted as population control for deer and boars – which would affect how (un)common sight they would be – and thus how (un)common prey would they be for human hunters.
The second aspect would be legal one. Would the nobles limit hunting to assure their vainglorious hunts are more likely to be successful – or to make sure there’s no way to obtain food that wouldn’t be a subject to taxes?
And, finally, the third aspect is of skill. Hunting wildlife requires specific skills, whatever form the hunt takes. This affects anything from fishing through setting traps to hunting with a (cross)bow. Just as today, getting a wild animal on one’s table without these skills would mean buying the meat. Which leads back to the state of the ecosystem and the present laws – those would impact the price.
Most of the abovementioned would also apply to fantasy. However, there are some specifics to keep in mind. Especially when it comes to creatures spawned by the author’s imagination. Those, too, would have their place in the ecosystem and affect the food chain in its entirety, from the bottom to the top.
To give a more specific example: a dragon, due to its size, would have a major demand on sustenance. If a dragon lived in an area where they’d compete with other large (even though small for a dragon) creatures – such as bears – it would affect not only the population of their prey but also of the bears and dragons alike. The lack or surplus of prey would be the main factor when it comes to the population of both real and fictional animals.
To give an example from my own writing: in my story, dragons live in volcanic mountains rising above a vast savanna. As they’re the apex predators hunting the savanna’s herbivores (such as zebras), the presence of dragons means there are no typical savanna predators, such as lions, because the ecosystem would be unable to sustain both in the long run, even if the dragons hunted the lions in addition to the herbivores. In turn, large felines in my fictional world live mostly in places where the dragons can’t maneuver due to their size, such as jungle or rainforest.
And with that, I end this post. It was quite spontanneous and a bit further away from my usual topics, but thinking about both real and fictional ecosystem is fitting for the Earth day.
As usual, I’ll welcome your comments and opinions on this topic.
See you next time.