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Forestry measures

Main characteristics of the EU forest sector

Forests in the EU are characterised by a wide variety of climatic, geographic, and ecological conditions. They encompass temperate, boreal, Mediterranean, alpine and lowland forests, among other forest types. Socio-economic conditions also vary greatly among countries and regions.

Forests and other wooded land cover more than 40 % of the EU's surface area. Expansion of the EU's forest area exceeds the loss of forest land to infrastructure and urban uses. This trend, starting in the 1950s (earlier in some countries), is driven by a range of factors. Several countries have expanded their forest cover by plantation programmes on agricultural land which is no longer cultivated. This positive development sets the EU apart from many other global regions, where deforestation continues to reduce forest resources.



Forest ownership

Prior to the accession of the twelve new Member States, about 35% of forests and other wooded land in the EU-15 were in public and about 65 % in private ownership. Since accession, the proportion between areas of publicly and privately owned forests has changed to approximately 40 % and 60 % respectively.

Along with a change in the structure of forest ownership in the EU, changes are also taking place in the occupations and lifestyles of private forest owners. In some regions, forest owners are increasingly becoming less dependent on forestry as a main source of income as they practice increasingly urbanised lifestyles.

In the EU, private forest holdings are managed by an estimated 16 million forest owners, being in most cases small-scale private forest owners. Following recent EU enlargements, the number of private forest holdings has increased by 25 %, and it is estimated that the number of forest owners rose by nearly three million. Forest restitution processes, which took place in the new Member States, have introduced private forest ownership. The situation is characterised great variation in knowledge and understanding of forest management by private forest owners, size of individual forest holdings, and expectations from and interests in forest management.

The average size of EU public forest holdings is more than 1,000 ha, while private forest holdings have an average size of 13 ha. However, considerable variation exists among countries. The vast majority of private owners have holdings of less than 3 ha. In this respect, forest ownership in the EU differs from other countries with expansive forest resources, where public ownership is often the predominant, even exclusive, situation.


The economic importance of the EU forest sector

Forestry and forest-based and related industries comprise the following industrial sectors: woodworking, cork and other forest-based materials; pulp, paper and paper-board manufacturing; paper and paper-board converting, and printing industries.

In 2005, forest-based industries in the EU employed about 3 million people in 350,000 enterprises, with a turnover of about EUR 380 billion, producing added value of around EUR 116 billion (Source: Eurostat, Statistics in focus 74/2008).

In addition, the construction and furniture industries are important users of forest materials.

The social and economic importance of forestry in rural areas is difficult to assess and tends to be underestimated, as forestry often involves small enterprises or even individuals whose activities are commonly coupled with those of other economic sectors.

Besides wood, forests produce many other products, such as cork, resins, medicinal plants, mushrooms and berries. The economic value of non-wood goods and services (NWGS) provided by forests is increasing. NWGS include hosting biodiversity and helping to mitigate climate change, mushroom and truffle gathering, fruit and berry collection, game products, honey, cork, medicinal products, and the seeds of forest tree species. Cork is one of the most important non-wood forest products in the EU, with approximately 1.7 million ha of cork oak forests accounting for 80 % of it's production worldwide. In addition, almost 100 % of the manufactured output of cork originates in the EU.

The EU is one of the biggest traders and consumers of forest products in the world, with a positive trade balance overall. Conversely, supplies of wood-based raw materials of adequate quality can be imported at competitive prices, and the EU is a net importer of these products. The two main types of such imports comprise roundwood as well as pulpwood. In contrast, for certain categories of processed wood products, some EU sub-sectors exhibit a particularly high level of domestic supply, especially of the more highly value-added products (e.g. quality papers and wood-based panels). Consequently, the EU is a prominent exporter of these products.


The multifunctional role of forests

Forests provide a livelihood for millions of workers, entrepreneurs and forest owners, and contribute significantly to economic growth, jobs and prosperity, especially in rural areas. They are an important source of raw materials for forest-based industries, providing the wood, pulp, cork and fibres that supply a plethora of sectors: construction, carpentry and furniture-making, veneer and laminate manufacture, production of household and office paper and sanitary items, to name but a few. In some Member States, forest-based industries are major employers within the manufacturing sector. They also provide energy, both directly and indirectly, and a host of non-wood forest products and services, including grazing and forage for domestic and semi-wild animals.

Forests are one of the key elements of our ecosystems. They fulfil important environmental functions, serving as a habitat for a variety of plant and animal species, protecting water and soil. They also safeguard land, infrastructure and settlements from erosion and help prevent avalanches or landslides in mountainous regions as well as providing catchments and filtering for water supplies. Forests therefore fulfil many functions. Forest management has traditionally taken into account this 'multifunctionality'.

EU forests cover very varied environments, ranging from sub-arctic to Mediterranean and from alpine to lowland, including flood plains and deltas. Forests are home to the largest number of species on the continent (the Mediterranean region alone has 30,000 vascular plants), compared with other habitats, and provide important environmental functions. Approximately 12 % of the forest area is designated as protected forest, meaning that ecological or protective functions are given priority over economic and social ones.


Forest protection as a constant concern

The Temperate & Boreal Forest Resources Assessment 2000 (UNECE/FAO) identified biotic factors and grazing as main causes of forest damage within the EU. Other major factors affecting forests are air pollution, storms and forest fires. While EU legislation has led to considerable improvement of air quality in Western Europe over the past 20 years, deposition of air pollutants is still a concern for European forests. The majority of sites with the highest acid inputs (which comprise nitrogen as well as sulphur deposition) are now situated in Central European forests. Several heavy storms have recently caused severe damage to areas of forests, affecting a volume of timber equivalent to several times the normal annual cut.

Forest fires are the most important damaging factor in Mediterranean countries. During 2007, fires in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece burned a total area of 574 361 hectares, which is well above the average for the last 28 years. The number of fires was particularly high in Italy and Greece, accounting for approximately 79 % of the total burnt area in the five southern Member States. The total burnt area in Greece was estimated to be over 225,700 hectares. Forest fires were also particularly violent during the summer of 2003, when forests were exposed to very hot and dry climatic conditions and when, for instance in Portugal alone, around 400,000 ha were destroyed by fire.


Forest management in the new Member States

The recent enlargement of the EU to 27 Member States has led to a substantial expansion of the EU forest sector, both in forest area and in terms of productive and ecological potential. The total area covered by forests and other wooded land grew by over 20 %. During the period 1999–2002, several studies assessed the impact of enlargement on the forest sector and the specific forest management issues in those countries. Some of the particular aspects of the forest sectors of new Member States are reviewed below, emphasising the restitution and/or privatisation of forest land, institutional reforms, timber processing and the conservation of biodiversity.

One of the most important issues in the ten continental new Member States, which has triggered a whole sequence of market and governance changes, is the restitution and/or privatisation of forest land and other forest-related assets. Most of these new Member States (with the notable exception of Poland), started far-reaching programmes to re-privatise forests that had been mostly managed by public forest services until 1989. In many cases, this has led to a large number of small forest properties, the owners of which often lack the skills or the investment capacity to develop their forests. This has resulted in a lack of economy of scale for forestry operations, which also afflicts the private forest sector in the EU-15. Absentee ownership in some locations is also a problem for efficient forest management. In most countries, the forest ownership distribution is still not conclusively settled and the approaches followed differ in many ways, including the type (e.g. private, church, municipal) and size of the areas allocated for restitution, the reference year (the conditions of which are to be restored) and the treatment of cases where restitution is not feasible or desirable (areas that ceased to be forest, nature reserves, etc.). The earlier fear that restitution would lead to excessive timber harvesting has generally not materialised, except in some limited areas in the early stages of restitution.

Another important development is the progress of institutional reforms, such as the trend towards separating the productive and the administrative functions of state forest administrations. Several new Member States and candidate countries have established commercial companies (mostly state-owned) for the management of state forests. Harvesting and silvicultural operations are mostly carried out by private contractors, and some services, like the preparation of forest management plans, have also been shifted to the private domain in several countries. While these reforms have generally increased economic efficiency, jobs have been reduced in the state-owned sector, having potential implications on the ability of enforcing forestry regulation and providing technical support to private forest owners.

From the wood-processing perspective, enlargement has maintained the EU's position as a net exporter of forest products. Confirming a process that started several years ago, forest products originating from the new continental Member States continue to gain market share in the EU. The reason for this has been the differentials in processing costs and product prices, respectively, between the EU-15 and the EU-12. The new Member States have offered attractive investment opportunities for forest-based industries from the EU-15, North America and elsewhere. However, erosion of the differentials continues, with rising wage rates and social and environmental requirements in the EU-12. At the same time, the growing living standard of the new Member States will open new market possibilities for higher value-added products in those countries, particularly for printing and writing papers on the one hand and for quality wooden construction elements and furnishings on the other. As in the EU-15, demand for the use of wood and its residues for energy generation will also continue to increase. As elsewhere in the EU, that process needs to be conducted in a coherent manner so as to optimise material and value flows as well as to ensure an efficient use of the raw material.

The importance of EU-12 forests for the conservation of biodiversity has raised high hopes, not only in the framework of Natura 2000, but also outside of protected areas at the landscape level. Some new Member States have extensive and relatively undisturbed forest areas with a high conservation value. This is especially obvious as regards the existence of relatively large and stable populations of large carnivores and birds of prey.

Hence, one of the most important challenges for the new Member States is how to combine the conservation of their rich natural heritage with investments in a dynamic forest industry.


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Last update: 06-01-2010