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Old-growth forests, new policy implications

EFI report contributes to debate on how to achieve old-growth forest protection targets in the EU

If you ask stakeholders all over Europe “How should we address the remaining old-growth forests?”, you can expect eyebrows to be raised. Most of us agree that despite covering only a small fraction of Europe’s land area, old-growth and other primary forests play an important role in biodiversity conservation and in the provision of other ecosystem services. But other aspects of the topic are constantly debated. Discussions of old-growth forests also have new policy implications, as the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 sets the target to strictly protect all remaining EU primary and old-growth forests. This is part of a wider objective to strictly protect 10% of EU land area.

However, the path to protection is not so straight forward. It starts with questions continuing to circle at policy level and in academia on how old-growth forest should be defined. Similarly, we face unresolved issues on how to implement the targets of the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Aiming at informing discussions related to these questions, European Forest Institute (EFI) recently released a study titled ‘Protecting old-growth forests in Europe – a review of scientific evidence to inform policy implementation’.

The short-term project (October 2020 – June 2021) was funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU). The study reviewed scientific literature on the topic and held a workshop with around 20 external scientific experts in February 2021 to discuss preliminary findings. The experts also had a pivotal role in reviewing and commenting on previous drafts of the study and helped to jointly create key messages throughout the report together with the study’s authors.

Lyla O’Brien presenting at the Old-growth forest expert workshop in February 2021

The report provides scientific evidence as input to ongoing policy discussions of forest protection in the EU, and thus may also have wider relevance once the highly anticipated new EU Forest Strategy is published. Here we briefly summarise the main results of the study:

Defining old-growth forests

There are several different definitions of old-growth forest, which makes it challenging to work on the topic. This is partly because the first definition from the US Pacific Northwest region in the 1980s is very difficult to apply to other forest types. Various definitions have been criticised, especially (1) those based on tree age, because maximum tree longevity depends on the species and the environment, and (2) those including lack of human disturbance criteria because despite having a management legacy, forests can recover to develop old-growth attributes, i.e., “secondary old-growth forests”.

Experts of EFI’s study suggest that the use of „old-growthness“ indicies and levels of naturalness are useful concepts for defining old-growth. Importantly, the study found that the chosen definition for the EU should include forests with some management legacy given the rarity of primary forests and the high importance of secondary old-growth forests for biodiversity conservation in European forests.

Evidence of old and old-growth forests in Europe

Recent publications have mapped European primary forest locations, but data gaps still need to be filled. Our review of the literature revealed that primary forests are very rare in Europe, unevenly distributed, poorly protected, and continue to decline.

On the use of tree age in old-growth definitions, our study found that tree lifespan is very species- and site dependent, and therefore, adopting a common age threshold to identify old forests is questionable. However, identification of veteran trees may be a useful alternative method, we think.

Approaches to protect old-growth forest and to maintain and develop old-growth attributes

Europe’s primary forests are small, poorly connected and more than half lack strict protection status. Strictly protecting the remaining is thus important to ensure their conservation. Implementation of the target to strictly protect 10% of EU land is an opportunity to significantly increase the share of (secondary) primary/old-growth forests in the future, which would greatly benefit biodiversity conservation.

Our study found that strictly protecting areas adjacent to primary forests based on the concepts of minimum dynamic area or wilderness area will increase conservation effectiveness. Spatial elements can also be used to enhance connectivity. Importantly, planning new areas would benefit from the use of systematic conservation planning and should take into account land ownership.

As a complement to strict protection, integrative forest management approaches can support biodiversity conservation by protecting and developing old-growth patches and old-growth attributes in multi-functional forests and improve habitat connectivity between primary and old-growth forests.

Associated benefits, consequences, and potential trade-offs of old-growth forest protection and management and development of old-growth forest attributes

The benefits arising from expanding the area of strictly protected forests are numerous (increased forest resilience, biodiversity conservation, etc.). However, it will not be possible to simultaneously ensure all forest ecosystem services in the same location, and thus expanding strictly protected areas will have certain consequences and potential trade-offs.

Integrative management approaches to retain and create deadwood can help to develop old-growth forest attributes in managed forests (Photo by Andreas Schuck)

Our study compiles some direct consequences that will occur inside or directly surrounding the newly designated protected area destined to become secondary old-growth (e.g. wood production losses and modified disturbance regimes). There may also be related changes in management of other EU forests, leakage effects in forests outside Europe, or spill-over effects to other sectors. Therefore, increased strict protection to support old-growth conservation will need to be interlinked with decisions taken in the forests that remain without strict protection status and in other policy sectors.

Promoting old-growth attributes (e.g. old-growth islands, high amounts of deadwood and tree related microhabitats) through integrative forest management approaches provides multiple ecological benefits compared to forest management that strongly prioritises wood production. However, such management approaches also have limitations (e.g. in the conservation of certain species) and opportunity costs. Such approaches are valuable in complementing the strictly protected forest area networks, but they cannot substitute strict protection.

Policy implications

In the course of the study’s analysis, a number of potential policy implications became apparent:

The choice of a definition will determine the extent of identified primary and old-growth forests in Europe. In the implementation of the Biodiversity Strategy, our study suggests a broad framework definition of old-growth forests combined with regional specifications related inter alia to forest types.

Better data is needed on pan-European tree / forest age and their trends. However, a diverse set of old-growth forest attributes, not limited to tree age, are important to consider in old-growth forest definitions and old-growthness indices.

Primary and old-growth forests are continuing to decline and there is no alternative preservation approach other than to strictly protect. Where Natura 2000 areas surround these forests, the management guidelines for these areas could be adapted to support the development of secondary old-growth forest and/or old-growth attributes.

Complementary measures to strict protection provided by landowners in managed forests to promote old-growth attributes and old-growth forest protection should be acknowledged. Meanwhile, well-designed compensation schemes may help to further promote them.

Our study found that future policy implementation will need to address how the EU Biodiversity Strategy land area protection targets could best be allocated across land-use types, and how their implementation could differ between Member States and regions, while considering the large diversity in forest types and land ownership situations.

Finally, policy integration will also benefit from well-coordinated conservation and landscape planning. We believe that using a forward-looking approach involving all stakeholders can help shift debates of confronting policy demands to more science-based and societally inclusive approaches.

You can read the executive summary and full report of the study here.

Featured image from: Krumm, F., Schuck, A., Kraus, D., 2013. Integrative management approaches: a synthesis. In: IN FOCUS – Managing Forests in Europe: ‘Integrative approaches as an opportunity for the conservation of forest biodiversity’. Daniel Kraus, Frank Krumm (Eds.). European Forest Institute, 256 – 262.


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