European Wilderness Society

Dawn history of wetlands in Europe

Wetlands in Europe at the dawn of history used to be one of the dominant ecosystems. After the last glaciation retreated, they covered extensive areas and significantly contributed to maintain continental water balance. 

Wetlands already in the past was an important source of water that supported all forms of life. Even in the recent past they were much more frequent than today and used to be the one of the most common ecosystems in Europe.

Wetlands are ecosystems which were the most dramatically impacted by man. Men’s impact started already several thousand years ago right after the last glaciation retreated.

Please also read: Long history of wetlands

Wetlands in the past

The evidence of the first marshes, forest swamps and finally wetlands extend back to the Ordovician Period (485.4 million to 443.8 million years ago). That was a period when the first terrestrial plants, depended on wet substrates, began to colonize the land.

Wetland ecosystems at that time well adapted to low-oxygen and low-nutrient conditions so common in the past. That led also to the evolution of fens (peat marshes) and forest mires (peat forests). 

The differentiation of peatland habitats created varied niches that influenced variation of the first invertebrate, adaptations of their skeleton and muscles that enabled proper support and movement on land. Peatlands surfaces were supplied mostly only with rain and snow. Later on, also widespread peatlands evolved, with the earliest mires.  

The differentiation of wetland habitats created varied niches

Wetlands after last ice age

Most European wetlands came into existence at the end of the last glaciation about 14 000 – 12 000 years ago. The very first large wetlands were formed when glaciers dammed rivers, scoured valleys, and reworked floodplains. Countless smaller wetlands originated when large blocks of the continental ice left behind by receding glaciers and formed pits and depressions in the land.

These hollows were filled by gravel, sediments and organic layers in which was carbon fixed directly from the atmosphere. All necessary elements for creation of wetland were on the place. 

Wetland and man

The period of the glaciers retreat, was also the time when the man pops up on the scene. That was a time the dawn of a new era when the first signs of land use were recorded. The name of that era was the Holocene, also called the “age of man.” Since that time the wetlands are linked with existence of the man throughout the following ages.

Wetlands are ecosystems which were heavily impacted by man since the beginning of his presence in Europe. The man for long centuries pretty much ignored the benefits what wetland offered to his everyday life.

Wetland have played an important role throughout human history. They helped promote the development of communities in flooded and fertile floodplains. Evidence of the first signs of the use of wetland, which were also food for humans, goes back long before the era of written historical records.

History of wetlands is reaching very far to the Earth history


History of wetlands is reaching very far to the Earth history. During the geological cycles wetlands were completely damaged and recreated again.  That cycles happened due to climate changes and repeating glaciation of Europe. The current wetlands have developed only recently from geological time perspective. Since the last continental glaciations retreated and climate in Europe get warmer, wetter and the flooded part of Europe become covered by wetlands.

History of wetland in Europe is very dynamic. Timeline of wetlands in Europe is coming from the dark past, when after last glaciation, enormous part of Europe has been covered by wetlands. They were already in that time have played an important role to maintained water balance, biodiversity and also contributed to the stability of climate. That functions the wetland played pretty much throughout whole human history.

Wetland has been linked with humankind throughout the ages. Result of that interaction is that today wetlands still cover ca 5-8% of the Earth’s land area. However, it is much less than it used to be in the period at the beginning of the man – wetland interaction.

Vlado Vancura
EWS Deputy Chairman

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