Europe’s jungle

Last month marked the second International Day of Forests, but closer to home, how are Europe’s woodlands fairing? Holly Squire finds out

Today, forests cover more than 30% of the world's land and contain more than 60,000 tree species, many as of yet unidentified, but each year more than 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of forests are lost, an area roughly the size of England.

As go the forests, so go the plant and animal species that they provide a habitat for – 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity.
Most importantly, forests play a critical role in climate change including global warming: deforestation results in 12-18% of the world's carbon emissions – almost equal to all the CO2 from the global transport.

But Europe is one of the few regions of the world where forest cover has increased over the last century. Forests cover around 35% of the land area (190 million ha) - making the continent one of the most forest-rich regions in the world.

The recent increase in European forest cover is a result of national legislation, afforestation and natural expansion over the last 200 years.

Europe’s forests generate income for more than 16 million private forest owners, and forest activities have a turnover of almost € 500 billion, employing approximately 3.5 million people.

“Forests are the lungs of our planet,” says Ban Ki-moon secretary-general of the United Nations. “They cover one-third of all land area, and are home to 80% of terrestrial biodiversity.

“They are crucial for addressing a multitude of sustainable development imperatives, from poverty eradication to food security, from mitigating and adapting to climate change to reducing disaster risk.

“Not only do forests provide essential economic safety nets for a significant number of the world’s poor, they underpin economies at all levels. Round wood production, wood processing and the pulp and paper industries account for nearly 1 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product. Non-monetary benefits from forests, such as water, energy, shelter and medicine, are estimated to be two to three times as great. Forested catchments supply three-quarters of freshwater, which is essential for agriculture, industry, energy supply and domestic use.”

Alongside wood and other products, forests are also valuable for their ‘ecosystem services’. For example, more than 20% of European forests are managed to protect water and soils, mainly in mountainous areas. Other services include preventing floods and filtering air.

Forests also help to mitigate climate change impacts. European forests absorb approximately 10% of Europe's annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the latest State of Europe’s forests report.

But forest structures in the EU are becoming more uniform. As the variety of tree species is reduced, our forests are becoming more similar. This means forest biodiversity is lost, making these ecosystems less resilient to pests, disease and a changing climate. Natural forest once covered most of Europe, but only a very small proportion remains untouched, mostly in isolated pockets - meaning that many forest ecosystems are in poor health.

The effects of poor forest management can be seen in the population of woodland birds, which declined more than 30 % in some regions of Europe between 1980 and 2005. The the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated in 2009 that 27 % of mammal species, 10 % of reptiles and 8 % of amphibians related to forests are threatened with extinction in the EU.

And alongside a decrease in native woodland creatures, invasive alien species are increasingly a problem for European forests.

There are around 1,800 species in Europe’s forests which are invasive and alien to the natural environment. For example, European forests have been devastated by Dutch elm disease caused by fungi introduced from Asia, and grey squirrels are outcompeting red squirrels. Globally, invasive alien species are one of the largest causes of biodiversity loss.

Climate change is also very likely to harm forest ecosystems, with some habitats, such as forest wetlands, particularly sensitive to climate change. And then there is also the pattern of forest fires to consider. On average, around 400 000 ha of forest currently burns down every year, mostly in the Mediterranean region,

So while the International Day of Forests is dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of all types of forests and trees to our economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being, it’s clear that awareness must be coupled with concrete action to ensure that Europe’s forests can continue to grow.