Primary forests in Europe, seriously?

“Where are Europe’s last primary forests?” asks a study, recently published in the journal Diversity & Distributions, and answered it with the most comprehensive compilation of knowledge to date.

Primary forest, old growth forest, primeval forest, virgin forest – different terms are used to describe forests without (or with very limited) human influence. Primary forests refers to naturally regenerated forests of native species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.

But do we really have primary or virgin forests in Europe? I studied forestry in Germany and my image of European forests is dominated by managed forests. These may embed some forest reserves, but there are usually clear signs of the past management legacy. In my perception, the only regions where virgin forests could still be found in Europe were in the Carpathian Mountains and at the border between Poland and Belarus in the Bialowieza forest. I never had the opportunity to visit any of these forests, but from what I read, also these forests are more or less strongly affected by human influence. Even without cutting trees, the human influence on game populations and the extinction of natural predators has shaped these forests much more than perhaps visible at first sight. Clearly, there is no wilderness left untouched by humans in Europe.

“It is not that these forests were never touched by man. This would be hard to believe in Europe,” explains Humboldt University scientist Francesco Maria Sabatini, lead author of the study. “Still, these are forests where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities.”

“The European landscape is the result of millennia of human activities, so it is not surprising that only a small fraction of our forests are still substantially undisturbed,” explains Tobias Kuemmerle, director of the Conservation Biogeography Lab at Humboldt University and senior author on the study. “Although such forests only correspond to a tiny fraction of the total forest area in Europe,” he says, “they are absolutely outstanding in terms of their ecological and conservation value.” (more background to the study in the EFI press release and here)

Concerns about continuous biodiversity loss and societal demand for nature protection have changed the European forest landscape over the last two decades. Unmanaged forest reserves have been established all across Europe. But at least equally important, also the attitude towards protected habitats is gradually changing from a strictly conservative approach, often targeting remnants of past management practices such as open wood pastures, towards giving space for natural processes to evolve. Against this background, it is exiting to find out how much “primary forest” we actually have left, and to get a more solid knowledge-base on which we can build new conservation and management strategies.

Francesco Maria Sabatini describes in his Blog Post on Forest & Co how this collective effort was carried out – a lot of effort went into the compilation of this data set. Still, there are obvious shortcomings. For example, the striking difference between Finland and Sweden is mainly reflecting differences in data availability – as large areas of primary forest are expected to be found in Northern Sweden. There are a lot of data and statistics on Swedish forests, but the location of primary forests has not yet been compiled in a comparable format.

It is a great step forward to have a consistent European data base on primary forests and their likelihood of occurrence. Understanding the human-caused pressures behind the current distribution of primary forests can inform future protection and restoration efforts. As part of the study, the map of primary forests was used to calibrate a model highlighting areas where land-use pressure is low. These areas could contain other unmapped patches of primary forests or serve as target for forest restoration initiatives at relatively low cost.

The great news is that we still have some primary forest in Europe. 0.7% of Europe’s entire forest area (a low estimate, as some primary forests have not yet been mapped) is clearly not much. But there is reason to expect that this share will increase in the future, as over the last two decades many forests have been taken out of production, providing space in strict forest reserves to develop characteristics of primary forests (rewilding). However, at the same time there is reason to be concerned that some of the existing primary forest may not survive, because a considerable share of these is not fully protected and some are located in areas where illegal logging takes place, even in Europe.

Nature conservation does not only rely on primary forests in protected areas. Work in the EFI-coordinated INFORMAR project demonstrates that there are also promising ways to integrate nature conservation in sustainably managed forests. The two strategies need to complement each other. We want to use our renewable wood resources and need to do this in a way that protects our natural habitats. This is where integrative forest management approaches are needed. But natural processes need also space and the value of primary forests is without question, especially where they still cover large areas, or get space to develop again. For a long time, land use intensity in Europe did not leave much space for natural forest dynamics. With the remaining – and hopefully expanding – primary forests we get a chance to learn again how resilient our forests are to cope with natural disturbances and how they can recover from past human management interventions.

Distribution of primary forest patches in Europe by forest type. Forest types follow EEA (2006): FT1- Boreal forest, FT2 – Hemiboreal and nemoral coniferous-mixed forest, FT3 – Alpine coniferous, FT4-5 – Mesophytic deciduous & acidophilus forest, FT6 – Beech forest, FT7 – Mountainous beech forest, FT8 – Thermophilus deciduous forest, FT9 – Broadleaved evergreen forest; FT10 – Coniferous Mediterranean forest; FT11-12 – Mire and swamp forests & Floodplain forest, FT13 – Non-riverine alder, birch or aspen, NA-NC – NoData/Unclassified.

Full reference:

Sabatini, F. M., S. Burrascano, W. S. Keeton, C. Levers, M. Lindner, F. Pötzschner, P. J. Verkerk, J. Bauhus, E. Buchwald, O. Chaskovsky, N. Debaive, F. Horváth, M. Garbarino, N. Grigoriadis, F. Lombardi, I. M. Duarte, P. Meyer, R. Midteng, S. Mikac, M. Mikolas, R. Motta, G. Mozgeris, L. Nunes, M. Panayotov, P. Ódor, A. Ruete, B. Simovski, J. Stillhard, M. Svoboda, J. Szwagrzyk, O.-P. Tikkanen, R. Volosyanchuk, T. Vrska, T. M. Zlatanov, and T. Kuemmerle. Accepted. Where are Europe’s last primary forests? Diversity and Distributions. doi:10.1111/ddi.12778

The study is accessible here: https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12778

Funding and support:

Francesco Maria Sabatini received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 658876. He was supported by EFI researchers Hans Verkerk, Marcus Lindner, Sergey Zudin and Simo Varis.

Further information

Link to the project: https://www.geographie.hu-berlin.de/en/professorships/biogeography/projects/forests

Link to Francesco Maria Sabatini’s Research blog: https://forestsandco.wordpress.com/

Featured foto: A scene from Bialowieza forest, Eastern Poland (Foto: Agata Konczal)

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