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From research to action: the future of Old-growth Forests in Europe

Despite making up a small fraction of forest area in Europe, primary and old-growth forests generate heated debates given their importance for biodiversity conservation and provision of many ecosystem services. However, due to the complexity surrounding these forests, discussions sometimes seem to circle indefinitely. Inputs from the latest scientific research are therefore exceptionally valuable, especially when it comes to guiding policy implementation on their protection.

On September 21st, 2021, a webinar on two recently published studies on primary and old-growth forests held by the Commission Working Group on Forests and Nature (sub-working group of the Co-coordination Group for Biodiversity and Nature) provided such an opportunity. EFI presented its recent study, Protecting old-growth forests in Europe – a review of scientific evidence to inform policy implementation. Following, José Barredo gave insight to the Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) report on Mapping and assessment of primary and old-growth forests in Europe. The Working Group, which aims to progress the process to define, map, monitor, and strictly protect EU’s primary and old-growth forests, hosted the webinar with the goal of raising awareness of the two studies among the group’s members, as well as to discuss how the scientific findings could inform their ongoing process.

Our presentation focused on giving an overview of the five main chapters of the report, as well as key takeaways for future EU policy implementation. The presentation of the JRC study particularly highlighted some striking differences between the area of primary and old-growth forests in Europe reported by different sources. For example, the area of primary forest reported by Sweden to the FAO was significantly higher than the total area mapped by the European Primary Forest Database (EPFD) v2.0, the most comprehensive map of European primary and old-growth forests to date. While these discrepancies vary and in some cases are overestimated, José explained that many primary forests in Europe may remain unmapped. This information has high policy relevance, as strict protection will need to be guided with complete spatial explicit information on their location, founded on a common framework for identification.

José’s presentation also highlighted the small and fragmented nature of primary and old-growth forests in Europe, and the need to design protected areas of sufficient size to ensure their long-term conservation. The study pointed to the helpful concept of minimum dynamic area for such planning, as was also recommended in our report.

After the two presentations, the floor was open for discussion. The European Commission addressed questions regarding the 10% strictly protected EU land target that we addressed in our presentation. They noted that the 10% target is to be seen as EU-wide, as opposed to a requirement for each Member State. In addition, it is not specified that 10% strictly protected land area would translate to 10% strictly protected forest area, although the Commission suggested that in order to meet the target, strictly protecting 10% of forest area may be necessary. Likewise, there is no requirement to cover all European forest types through the target.

Open questions about the 10% strict protection of EU land target presented in the webinar by EFI

Although the clarification provided by the Commission suggests a greater flexibility for implementation, it will remain important to create a representative network of primary and old-growth forests across EU member states and forest types, as well as meeting minimum size requirements for their long-term conservation through strict protection of new areas. Implementing this target would also help to increase the share of secondary old-growth forests, i.e. forests that have recovered in the absence of management to develop old-growth characteristics.

However, some questions, such as the definition of strict protection, remain at discussion level among the Member States. The choice in a definition has strong policy implications regarding primary and old-growth forests, as certain management processes may be incompatible with their conservation. In addition, as raised by one participant, there is a need to address predictions that climate change will lead to huge changes in Europe’s vegetation.

Also raised in the discussion was the need to verify mapping of primary and old-growth forests in Europe done by remote sensing with on the ground inventories to avoid inaccuracies, with Slovakia representing a leading example of such an approach.

Concluding, discussions on primary and old-growth forests will need to continue and be informed by the latest scientific evidence with the policy implications carefully weighed. Only then can we hope to advance the protection of these valuable forests in the EU.

Featured image taken by Lyla O’Brien

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