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Acknowledgements Wetlands
Grouse (Ger)
Oakwoods (UK)
Söderasen (Swe)
Apenines (Italy)
Ardennes (Bel)


Today, around a third of the European territory is covered by forest, although the extent varies significantly between Member States (up to 72% in Finland and down to 8% in Ireland). The majority of forests are defined as “available for wood supply” and is subject to varying degrees in intensity of human use. Since the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden, the EU has become the world’s second largest paper and sawn wood producer employing some 2.2 million people and generating over €300 million a year.

In addition, forests perform a number of other important functions ranging from erosion prevention, water retention and carbon sequestration to recreational and amenity use, which, in many respects, are considered as important as timber and cellulose production.

A disappearing resource

As a result of afforestation programmes and natural regeneration, forest cover in the EU is increasing. However much of this is commercial forestry with exotic species which are of low ecological interest. The combined effects of intensified silvicultural practices, increased uniformity and use of exotic species has resulted in a decline in the environmental quality of forest ecosystems where these have been used..

Of the truly natural and untouched forests, very little, probably less than 1-3% remains. Most semi-natural forests initially harboured a unique ground cover flora and a broad range of other forest species; however, semi-natural forests have also declined as traditional harvesting techniques like selective cutting, coppicing, pollarding, and woodland grazing became increasingly uneconomical in the face of modern forestry. This left only small isolated patches of natural or semi-natural forests in the countryside, often in remote and less accessible areas.

This practice has also led to a dramatic decline in many woodland dependent species. Because of their structural complexity, forests provide ideal habitats for a particularly rich array of plants and animals and a natural refuge for many large carnivores, such as bears and wolves, which were once a characteristic feature of Europe’s wooded landscapes.

The situation is further exacerbated by the severe fragmentation of the remaining forest resource and the loss of associated habitats such as pastures, hedges, river belts, stream banks etc., which would have allowed woodland species to move through the landscape by means of ‘ecological corridors’.

The type of forests included in Natura 2000

Listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive are over 70 different forest habitat types, of which many are classed as priority. Altogether, they correspond to a third of all the habitats covered by the Directive. The large number of habitat types in Annex I does not however imply an abundant resource. On the contrary, it goes to confirm their generally rare and residual nature.

Over 50% are restricted to just one or two countries (and in some cases to just one or two locations). Typical examples include: Fennoscandian wooded pastures found only in Finland and Sweden, Canarian endemic pine forests, Nebrodi fir forests of Sicily…. Only a handful of the more ‘common’ and well known forest types such as alluvial forests, oakwoods and a variety of beech forests are present in the majority of Member States.

To help select sites for Natura 2000, Member States and the Commission agreed that they should focus specifically on the following:

  • forests of native species, forests with a high degree of naturalness,
  • forests of tall trees,
  • presence of old and dead trees,
  • forests with a substantial area and
  • forests having benefited from continuous sustainable management over a significant period.

These principles indicate that preference should be given to the autochthonous forests with little human interference and/or to those already subject to sustainable management practices favouring biodiversity.It is estimated that two thirds of the sites included in the Natura 2000 network have at least one forest habitat type, which suggests they tend to form part of a complex matrix of habitats within a larger area.

Good practice examples

The range of actions undertaken for forests is almost as diverse as the habitat types themselves. Many involve initial one-off restoration actions in order to bring the forest back up to its original high conservation state. Most also develop management plans in close collaboration with local stakeholders and forest authorities. Some go on to try out innovative ways of bringing together conservation with economic activities. Yet others focus instead on wildlife management issues, for instance, creating suitable habitats and corridors for woodland species such as bears and grouse.

The following illustrate some particularly successful examples

1. Grouse management in the Black forest, Germany
2. Involving private land owners in restoring Atlantic oakwoods in Scotland
3. Restoration of deciduous forest in Söderåsen National Park, Sweden
4. Conservation of endangered tree species in the Apenines, Italy
5. Integrated management of natural forests in the Flemish Ardennes Belgium  

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