What I learned about the challenges for German forests and their owners, about future-oriented management and collaboration between forest science and practice when exploring the Hatzfeldt-Wildenburg county with my EFI Bonn team
It is only a few months since I joined EFI, but of course, I have known the institution for a long time. And I must confess that I have always loved its catchy slogan: “Connecting Knowledge to action”. Thus, since I started working here, I have been looking forward to meeting and congratulating whoever would have created such an inspiring sentence. But recently I have found out that this slogan just simple and merely defines what we do at EFI, and I am going to tell you why.
On Tuesday 22nd. August, we had our annual “Day out”, where EFI Bonn goes to the forest and discusses practical forest-related issues. We visited a forest located only one hour and a half Northeast of the city of Bonn, in the Northeastern part of Rhineland-Palatinate. It was not my first time visiting a German forest, but it was my first time seeing a German forest through the eyes of local practitioners.
We started the day very early, and at 9:30 am we arrived at the amazing Schönstein Castle from the 13th century. In the courtyard we enjoyed a very needed coffee together with some wonderful baked goods, as it could not be otherwise in Germany, which were already waiting for us, provided by our local host Hermann Graf Hatzfeldt-Wildenburg and his team, executive manager Franz Straubinger as well as forest manager (and former EFI colleague) Heiko Liedeker and his dog Falco. Once our strength was properly recharged, we started our journey.
After having the privilege of visiting the indoors of the castle – including one of the oldest chapels in the region – and being impressed by the architecture, we headed to what we all were looking forward to visiting… the forest surrounding the castle! First of all, we learned that the operational area of the Hatzfeld property covers around 7,050 hectares of forests, managed for various purposes from wood production to tourism to biodiversity conservation and further forest ecosystem services.
Hermann Graf Hatzfeldt-Wildenburg and Franz Straubinger explained to us we were about to walk through a forest that has not been managed for wood production for the last 50 years. While we went on our walk, I could see how a forest fully covered by natural maple regeneration no more than one meter high slowly gave way to an impressive mixed forest!
As we were hiking through the forest, Franz Straubinger collected several twigs of different, tree species. It turned out he had Beech, Purple beech, Sessile oak, Norway maple, Sycamore maple, Alder, Ash, Hornbeam, Birch, Larch, Fir, Common holly, Yew, and Spruce. We also discovered many fallen dead trees – logs – that used to be spruce trees. The fact that the stand was protected did not mean that there was no room for other ecosystem services. The area is open to anyone who likes to explore, and we saw several people, including families with small children, passing by. Apart from recreation, we were told that the forest reserve functions as an area for “eco accounts” (Environmental-economic account). This compensation serves as another form of income for the forest owner through setting aside.
After 30 minutes our guides took a break at a strategic point in the forest. It was a spot where deadwood was one of the main characters of the landscape and before I could formulate the question, it was already answered: The die-off of those Spruce trees was triggered by the bark beetle but more specifically, by the heat and the drought these species have been experiencing over the last five years.
“We look, we think, we do” – Graf Hatzfeld-Wildenburg and Franz Straubinger said. They explained how based on the great threat we all are facing – the uncertainty of what the climate will be like in the future – they bet on introducing non-native species, particularly those species working well with the climate expected in the future. But due to this unpredictability of future climate, they experiment not only with 2 species but with a mixture of 5 or even 6 species because, as scientific studies have demonstrated, it is not a matter of mixing species in general, but rather of how species interact with each other. Meanwhile, they focus their economic income on the Carbon Market as this is, according to them, less risky than relying on wood as a source of income.
We spent around 40 minutes discussing the Hatzfeld experience as well as our knowledge collected in several projects dealing with forest risks and resilience.
Then we continued to our next stop: a mixed forest plantation of 25ha. This plantation used to be a mature Spruce forest, but the bark beetle wiped out everything in just 2 years, emphasized Heiko Liedeker, forester and our guide for this part of the excursion. Again, we saw some dead trees in between the plantation, this time standing dead trees, which in forestry vocabulary are known as “snags”. Heiko explained to us they intentionally left 10% of the dead wood standing, because they know it means only a small loss in their economic activity, compared to the enormous benefits these snags can bring to the forest, helping to maintain the biodiversity and thus, the future of the forest.
Looking around, the oldest Spruce we could find was only 25 years old. In fact, this species sadly has no future in Germany, or at least, not as we are used to seeing it, in large stands of Spruce monoculture. My colleagues as well as our guides agreed that we need to promote mixed forests with an uneven-age structure. However, we will have to wait 80 or 100 years to see the desired irregular structure, and the Hatzfeld family worries that it might be too late. This is why our guides emphasized the importance of incorporating non-native species with shorter rotation periods, hoping that these could help to save at least 20 years. They stated that by reducing the rotation periods, they aim at reducing the risks and thus having a more stable position in the wood market. However, the remaining difficulty lays in selecting “sprinters” and “marathoner”’ species that ensure the establishment of an irregular mixed forest structure, but at the same time guarantee not introducing new pests and diseases in the forest.
So, how do these foresters ensure their own future in a Spruce stand with no future? They let the Spruce regenerate naturally but complement it with planting other species, mainly deciduous species with shorter rotation periods. But here they are facing another common challenge: the pressure of Roe deer that love to eat the tender leaves of the seedlings they plant. Heiko Liedecker stated the importance of hunting in this context, to support forest regeneration, which in turn sustains soil moisture. According to our guides, they could save up to 1400€ in protectors for the seedlings if there were proper hunting regulations. But while being aware that they cannot wait for these regulations to come they use techniques that promote natural regeneration which is much cheaper than planting. Of course, we were curious to learn about those techniques, and when they pointed to the ground, we could see all the branches and litter we had under our feet: deadwood. Apart from its importance for biodiversity conservation, retaining deadwood serves to promote stand conditions, to ensure all the nutrients of the soil will be retained. Thus, the seedlings will have enough moisture and nutrients to grow quickly and become an established and strong forest eventually.
We finished our excursion to the Hatzfeld county with a very nice meal all together in the Restaurant located on a camping lot in the forest. By the time I arrived home, I was very tired. It was a day full of hiking, learning, and discussing the topics I am passionate about. It was nice to see the interest from both sides: we as EFI team wanted to learn from the experiences of the Hatzfeld forest management team to take them into account in our projects, and they were eager to collect knowledge from our projects to apply it in their forests. So, I took my laptop to be sure I would not forget all the comments and inspiring ideas I was having at that moment, and here is when I realized: This is what we mean with our slogan EFI: Connecting knowledge to action.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our local host Hermann Graf Hatzfeldt-Wildenburg, executive manager Franz Straubinger as well as forest manager Heiko Liedeker, his dog Falco and the rest of their passionate team for hosting us, feeding us and for sharing their very valuable experiences, challenges and lessons-learned with us.
PS: Thanks to Silvester Boonen and Gesche Schifferdecker for supporting this blogpost.