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Threatened walnut forests

October 17, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

The effect of excluding grazing in the walnut forests, Kyrgyzstan

Sheltering in the south-western Tian Shan mountains exist a unique yet threatened forest found nowhere else on Earth. These forests are the walnut-fruit forests of Kyrgyzstan.

Last month I attended an international conference concerning the sustainable management of the forests (see my travel photos). The walnut-fruit forests are considered a biodiversity hotspot of global importance. Estimates suggest that there are 47,000 hectares (Grisa et al., 2008) of walnut fruit-forest, although large areas are now in a critical condition for a number of reasons.

Socio-political change

Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure deteriorated, especially the administration, transport, industry and public services. With these socio-political changes the walnut-fruit forests became even more important for local people; providing fuel wood, timber and walnuts from the trees, and grazing land, hay, cropping (e.g. alfafa and potatoes) and other non-timber products essential to rural life. As a result, the pressure on the forests increased, and forest management became unsustainable.


The walnut-fruit forests are found in two distinct areas of Kyrgyzstan; in the Fergana and Chatkal mountains. They survive winter colds of -24oC in January, and summer heat of +36oC in June. Late Spring frosts are a problem as they damage shoots and flowers, sometimes leading to serious failures of the walnut crop. Most precipitation in the forested areas occurs in the Spring, while there are three very dry months between July and September. The threat from climate change is very real, where changes in precipitation patterns could significantly affect the health of the forests.

Six walnut forest types have been identified (more details):

  1. walnut with false brome grass
  2. walnut as [1] but with moister soils
  3. walnut with spruce and fir
  4. walnut and hawthorn
  5. walnut with maple and apple
  6. walnut in park-like conditions

Ownership and use of the forests

The walnut-fruit forests are owned by the state. They are used heavily by local people however under different agreements, which have become more structured in recent years. Families in the forest explained to me that where there was a history of use in an area of forest, this used to be enough to secure continued use in a neighbourly agreement with fellow users and officials. Now, most users are likely to pay a rent to the state.


A ban on walnut tree felling has been in place for a number of years, and is mostly successful. This has led in turn to heavy pressure on other tree and shrub species, where any fallen branchwood from any tree species is quickly cleared away for fuel wood. Wood fuel remains the main source for heat and cooking in most rural dwellings. The walnuts themselves are harvested for sale in markets across Kyrgyzstan. Of course, what are nuts for humans are reproductive fruits for the trees, and therefore unless collection is limited or controlled, then the forests will become increasingly senile.

Walnut forest and fuel wood collection

A camp in the walnut-fruit forest in Autumn, where the people collect walnuts for market, and wood fuel for the winter

The greatest threat today is from over grazing: with cattle, horses, goats and sheep. This is illustrated perfectly in an experiment in place near Shaidan. On a typically steep slope deep within the forest, the most common walnut type [6] (above) is prevalent: mature walnut trees spaced widely apart with no natural tree regeneration (complete absence of young trees) in the heavily-grazed sward. Yet, nearby a fence made from the brash of tree branches has excluded grazing animals in a plot of some one hectare in size. Inside the fence, the grass is tall and rich with dicot species, and a new generation of young walnut trees are present under the tall canopies of the mature walnut trees. The photo below illustrates this perfectly.

The effect of excluding grazing in the walnut forests, Kyrgyzstan

The effect of excluding grazing in the walnut forests, Kyrgyzstan. In the plot on the left grazing animals have been excluded, and now ground flora thrives and a new generation of walnut trees are emerging. On the right, the typical appearance of the 'walnut park-like' woodland caused by overgrazing.

Without real and determined action, which must necessarily combine the best silvicultural practise with the tackling of the socio-economic issues with local communities, the walnut-fruit forests of Kyrgyzstan will continue to be degraded. Ultimately their survival is under significant threat.

Gabriel Hemery

References and further reading

  • Grisa, E., Venglovsky, B.I., Sarymsakov, Z., Carraro, G., 2008. Forest typology of the Kyrgyz Republic. Intercooperation, Bishkek.
  • KIRFOR: Kyrgyz-Swiss Forestry Support Program
  • More of my Kyrgyzstan posts

Kyrgyzstan walnut fruit forest photos

Collecting firewood, Kyrgyzstan

Regular readers will have noticed that I did not post a feature last week. In fact I was in southern Kyrgyzstan visiting the beautiful and remote walnut fruit forests that nestle in the Fergana Valley, among the south-western Tian Shan.

In 1997 I spent three and a half weeks in Kyrgyzstan, which is one of the most mountainous countries in the world. In places it has very high biodiversity and yet is devastatingly desolate in others. Fourteen years ago I was collecting walnut seeds as part of a scientific expedition (read more).

This time I was invited back to this fascinating country to give a presentation at an International Conference discussing the future of the walnut fruit forests. Both meeting and travel were inspiring and I have much to write and share. For now, here is a short slideshow highlighting some of my favourite photographs from the trip:

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Gabriel Hemery

Walnut expedition – mission complete

February 11, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Kyrgyzstan walnut expeditionI undertook an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 1997 to collect walnut seeds from the wild walnut-fruit forests.

Following our last day collecting walnut seeds in the mountains near the spectacular Sary Chalek lake (see post) we travelled back to the capital Bishkek via a three hour jeep journey, first through the mountains on dirt tracks and then 13 hours in a minibus along winding roads – mostly in the dark of night.

We spent two days in the capital resting and making final arrangements for our departure.   The success of the expedition was dependent ultimately on the transportation of the seeds back to the UK.  I now faced my longest-standing fear: that after nine months of planning and three weeks hard work during the seed-collecting expedition, we might face some difficulty with customs at the border, even though our expedition had been undertaken with the support of Kyrgyz scientists.

Gabriel's walnut journal
Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

Walnut journal entry – 11th October 1997
It was with some trepidation that I reached the airport today.  I waited with dread as my turn at customs drew closer – over the last nine months this stage has been a constant concern.  After all the successful elements of the expedition – a problem now could ruin everything.

I approached a surly customs official who looked at me and my two bags: a holdall full of clothes and equipment in my hands, and a bulging 75 litre expedition rucksack on my back.  He pointed to the rucksack, containing the 2000 walnut seeds, and indicated that I should take it off and open it.  I was tense as he first felt the outside of the rucksack, his eyebrows rising in interest at its hard lumpy contents.  On opening it he looked very surprised as he lifted first one, then another, and another cloth bag from the rucksack’s insides; each one filled with walnut seeds inscribed with a number.  I said “semina” [seed] as his brow now furrowed and he called a colleague over.  I had at the ready an official letter from the Kyrgyzstan Forestry and Nut Breeding Institute approving of my work in Kyrgyzstan, a letter from the University of Oxford confirming my research, and an official statement from the UK Government confirming that the import of seed to the UK was permitted.  In the end, I need not have worried, as the custom official waved me through with a cursory nod without asking to see any documentation.

After nine months of  labour and my 2000 walnut babies safe in the hold,  I walked on to the plane bound for London, looking forward to starting the next chapter of my walnut research in the UK.

Gabriel Hemery

The last tree and an illusive Lake

January 1, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

I undertook an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 1997 to collect walnut seeds from the wild walnut-fruit forests.

Walnut journal entry – Tuesday 7th October 1997

Walnut-fruit forest at Sary-Chelek

Walnut-fruit forest at Sary-Chelek on the last day of our expedition. On the ridge tops the indigenous spruce Picea schrenkiana replaces walnut.

We were up at 6am and started collecting seeds in the forest just after 7am.  We were welcomed to the day by a beautiful dawn, the sun rising above the high mountainsides as we collected from our last ten trees of the three week expedition.  It was quite an emotional moment collecting the last walnut seeds from our last selected tree.  A total of 2349 seeds from 253 mother trees.

Afterwards we returned to our ‘guesthouse’ for a second breakfast; this time the usual mutton and vegetable stew.  Then we set off for the lake.  It was a dramatic drive lasting over one half hour of climbing steep and dusty mountain tracks.  When we arrived we were stunned by the scale, beauty and isolation of the lake.

Sary-Chelek Lake

My journal entry and sketch of Sary-Chelek Lake

Sary-Chelek Lake is apparently over 5km long and is situated at just under 2000 metres altitude. It is closed to tourists, and theoretically the local people too.  The five of us were completely alone and the silence was deafening.  The strangest aspect was the lack of wildlife, except for a large fish that jumped out of the water nearby, and a mountain goat on one of the distant cliffs that caused a thundering rockfall that echoed across the lake. The rocky slopes were covered with pines, mostly along the ridges.  It is a local species –  Picea schrenkiana.

Sary-Chelek lake and our expedition team

Sary-Chelek lake and our expedition team. Left to right: Peter, Askar, Mamajan, Sergei and the author.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

A champion walnut tree

December 24, 2010

Gabriel Hemery

I undertook an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 1997 to collect walnut seeds from the wild walnut-fruit forests.

Walnut journal entry – Monday 6th October 1997
The rushing of the mountain river, whose banks we cooked on last night, soothed me to sleep. I woke up to another beautiful sunny day; the sun striking the steep mountainside beyond the river. Its glowing red rock is covered here and there in junipers, walnuts and scrub. Our ‘guesthouse’ is bizarre. It is quite nicely built but had no glass in its windows and has no running water, therefore no sinks nor taps are built-in. The toilet (squat) is 400 metres away – let’s hope I don’t need it in a hurry! All our washing here is now done in the river. Every place that we have stayed at has been slightly less luxurious than the last. Anyway, last night’s mutton stew was wonderful!

A superior walnut genotype

The champion walnut tree K10.17 in Kyrgyzstan

We worked hard in the walnut-fruit forests at Sary-Chelek today, collecting one and a half provenances (i.e. populations of trees from two separate valleys), finishing by 7pm. Our little team became very motivated because we have agreed to visit a lake here tomorrow. By all accounts it is a lake that is difficult to visit as this whole area is protected and out-of-bounds to those without a visitor license. Maybe it’s also because there are so few large expanses of water in Kyrgyzstan too! So we’ve worked fast and collected many seeds today, so that tomorrow we should finish the second provenance in good time.

Today we found a champion walnut tree of fantastic quality (coded as K10:17): it had 18 metres of clean stem (i.e. free of branches) and was as true as an arrow shaft.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

Mutton stew at the walnut oasis

December 13, 2010

Gabriel Hemery

In 1997 I undertook an expedition to collect walnut seeds from the wild walnut-fruit forests of Kyrgyzstan.

Journal entry: Sunday 5th October 1997

We left Gava behind at 0530 this morning.  It has been our home for the last 12 days, which have flown past.  I think that, compared to many homes here, our accommodation has been quite luxurious and we have been very well cared for.

The walnut expedition team

The walnut expedition team and jeep. Left to right: Askar, Peter, Mamajan, Sergei and the Author

After the usual delays, this time only half an hour, we left but not before a long-winded discussion about whether our driver/host Mamajan should bring his son with him.  Last night my colleague Peter and I had been asked our views.  Peter and I both thought that although he’d be useful, having four adults in the back seat of the jeep for the long journey ahead would be very uncomfortable and we suggested “No”.  Of course this morning his son appeared all ready to leave with us.  Askar [our translator] asked “do you agree to him coming?”  We replied “no” explaining that it was too late now to stop him!  We then had a fantastic conversation trying to explain that we did not agree to it but accepted that it would happen – this proved incomprehensible to him and ultimately very funny to us.

So, we left Gava – all six of us in the ancient Russian jeep: Mamajan and his son, Askar, Sergei, Peter and me.  After a couple of stops for food, including 50 minutes spent negotiating the price for some meat, it took eight hours to reach Sary-Chelek, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Mutton stew in Kyrgystan
Mutton stew for dinner

On arrival we had to wait for a guard to open a locked barrier across the road, and then a further three hours waiting for the caretaker of the ‘guesthouse’ (more on this later) to arrive.  So this was to be our home for the next three nights.  All six of us appear to have a bed and the building is comparatively smart.  There seems to be no kitchen and so we cooked the mutton we had bargained so long for, on an open fire outside the guesthouse.  I made this sketch using some miniature crayons I had packed with my notebook.

It is very picturesque here as we are right beside a river, which I think is only the second I have seen since I arrived in Kyrgyzstan.  All around us are towering hills carpeted with walnuts, junipers and pines.  The landscape is quite different to that we had become accustomed to near Gava and Arslanbob.  Arriving here was if we had reached an oasis: for most of our journey today we travelled through barren hills, a little like the badlands in the USA.  Everywhere were signs of mining; mostly open-cast coal mines.  Abandoned and neglected infrastructure was everywhere: rusting and decaying on the roadside, in riverbeds and on the hillsides.  Maybe when the Soviet Union split all organisation here fell apart?

Soon it’s mutton stew.  Tomorrow we will hopefully make the first of our two planned walnut seed collections here.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal
Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal
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