By Marcus Lindner, Lyla O’Brien and Andreas Schuck

Europe’s forests have a strong management legacy. They were fundamentally important to provide fuel wood and construction materials for European societies throughout the ages. Very few forests have been spared of human interventions. Unlike in many other world regions, the vast majority of forests in Europe are managed.  This management can be a source of pride for the forestry sector, especially given that the concept of ‘sustainable forest management’ was first established in Europe in the early 18th century in response to extensive deforestation and forest degradation fuelled by manufacturing sectors. However, not all forests in Europe are managed and especially in inaccessible areas, there are still some forests remaining which are considered primary or old-growth forests. Different estimates suggest that there are between 1.4 and 3 million hectares of identified primary or old-growth forests remaining in Europe. Even if unidentified primary and old growth forests are considered in the estimate, less than 3% of Europe’s current forest area consists of these types of forests and there is evidence that this area has significantly decreased over the last decades.  

Despite this small area, old-growth and primary forests play an important role in biodiversity conservation and provide a multitude of other ecosystem services. Recognising this, 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 target to strictly protect 10% of EU land area. Now, more than a year after the publication of the Biodiversity Strategy, there are still many open questions on how to interpret some of the set targets. Moreover, the implementation of the Strategy needs to consider also other European Green Deal policy targets, such as establishing a circular renewable bioeconomy. Currently, the different policy objectives related to forests are lively debated especially as the new EU Forest Strategy is scheduled to be released later this month.  

With the aim to inform these ongoing debates, the European Forest Institute (EFI) recently published the study titled “Protecting old growth forests in Europe – a review of scientific evidence to inform policy implementation. It reviewed scientific literature on the topic and organised a workshop with 20 external scientific experts in February 2021 to discuss preliminary findings. We have summarised the main results in a recent Resilience blog post. Here, we would like to highlight selected findings and link them to potential forest policy implications. 

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

Europe’s primary forests are small, poorly connected, and more than half lack a strict protection status. Given their conservation value and rarity, it is imperative as a first priority to ensure strict protection for all these forests. This will require setting-aside roughly 1% of Europe’s forest area.  

The second priority for improving the conservation status of primary and old-growth forests consists of strictly protecting areas adjacent to the remaining ones. This will help to mitigate the extinction risk of protected species and reduce their vulnerability, for example to disturbance impacts. Where Natura 2000 areas surround such forests, the management guidelines for these areas could be adapted to support the development of secondary old-growth forest and/or old-growth attributes. In addition, spatial elements like green corridors and stepping stones that may help improve the connectivity between primary forests can be facilitated through systematic conservation planning.  

third priority should target the restoration of secondary old-growth forests. Due to the management legacy in Europe, many countries lack primary and old-growth forests of notable spatial extent. Thus, more than 90% of the European primary forests reported in FAO statistics are located in only four countries: Sweden, Bulgaria, Finland and Romaniai. On the other hand, Forest Europe data indicates that the area of strictly protected forests has doubled since the year 2000, mainly from setting aside formerly managed forests. Many of these forests may develop  into  secondary old-growth forests in the future, but this is a long-term process.  

As a fourth priority and 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 in this way, contribute to improving habitat connectivity between isolated primary and old-growth forests areas.  

Implementing ambitious Biodiversity Strategy targets 

The priority measures listed above would clearly benefit biodiversity conservation in European forests but it is unlikely that they are sufficient to increase the area of strictly protected forests from currently less than 3% to 10% of EU land as stated in the Biodiversity Strategy. Achieving this target would require designating additional strictly protected areas. 

The benefits arising from expanding the area of strictly protected forests are numerous including, but not limited to increased forest resilience, biodiversity conservation, and ensuring natural development processes. However, as not all ecosystem services can be provided in the same location simultaneously, expanding strictly protected areas will have certain consequences. Some of these will occur either inside or directly surrounding the newly designated protected areas destined to become secondary old-growth (e.g. wood production losses, modified disturbance regimes). Further, there may be external impacts affecting forest management in other EU forests as well as leakage into forests outside Europe and spill-over effects to other sectors.  

Such potential external impacts will depend considerably on how the EU Biodiversity Strategy targets will be implemented. Future policy implementation will need to address how the EU Biodiversity Strategy land area protection targets could best be allocated across land-use types, Member States and regions, while considering the large diversity in forest types and land ownership situations.  

The current distribution of the remaining primary and old-growth forests is far from balanced across European forest types and geographic regions. While a few countries are relatively close to proposed land area protection targets, others will find it challenging to implement them. New policy instruments including payments for ecosystem services may be needed to support the development of secondary old-growth forests especially on private land. Further, policy implementation may need to decide to what extent set-aside forests should be implemented as large and continuous areas or whether smaller patches within managed forest landscapes could also be counted in situations where public forest areas are limited.  

Establishing new largescale strictly protected forest reserves would result in stronger segregation of different ecosystem services provisioning. Our study also points out that integrative forest management approaches could complement a strengthened network of strictly protected forest areas as outlined above under the priorities 1-4.  

European forests are crucial for biodiversity protection. Expanding the area designated for strict protection is therefore undisputed. Many EU countries have set national targets for strict protection and are expanding their networks. However, implementing these national targets is usually not enough to meet what is proposed in the EU Biodiversity Strategy. The pending forest policy choice  finally boils down to how much of the additional strictly protected areas should be large segregated reserves and what role additional set-aside measures for example provided by integrative forest management approaches may play. It will be interesting to see how strongly the pending revisions of the EU Forest Strategy will direct future policy pathways in these matters. 

i Barredo, J.I., Brailescu, C., Teller, A., Sabatini, F.M., Mauri, A., Janouskova, K., (2021) Mapping and assessment of primary and old-growth forests in Europe, EUR 30661 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2021, doi:10.2760/797591.

The report Protecting old-growth forests in Europe – a review of scientific evidence to inform policy implementation’ can be accessed here.  

Full reference: O’Brien, L., Schuck, A., Fraccaroli, C., Pötzelsberger, E., Winkel, G. and Lindner, M., 2021: Protecting old-growth forests in Europe – a review of scientific evidence to inform policy implementation. Final report. European Forest Institute. doi:10.36333/rs1

Photo: Andreas Schuck


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