EU Science Hub

Earth Day : New report shows there are still pristine forests in Europe and calls for their mapping and strict protection

Protecting primary and old-growth forests is vital for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change.
Protecting primary and old-growth forests is vital for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change.
Apr 21 2021

About 4.9 million hectares of the EU forests are 'primary' or 'old-growth', according to a new JRC report. These are forests that follow natural dynamics, exist in their original condition and are largely untouched by human interference.

They are the natural heritage of Europe, as the ancient temples are for our culture. Although 4.9 million hectares may seem a lot, these forest types are in fact rare, small and fragmented, only making up 3% of the EU’s total forested area and 1.2 % of the EU land. Protecting them is vital for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change.

This report contributes to the EU commitment made in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 to define, map, monitor and strictly protect all the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests. It is a compilation of existing mapping exercises by various researchers and organisations, and statistical information reported by the Member States.

Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel said: "Our experts at the Joint Research Centre have a wealth of experience in delivering policy-relevant information on the status of, and trends in, Europe’s forests. This latest report provides scientific evidence and highlights knowledge gaps, so that we can take the right action to protect this most precious part of our natural heritage."

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius said: "European untouched forests are natural treasures that have been providing benefits to humans for centuries and are vital for our health, biodiversity and climate. They also hold important historical and identity values for local communities. That is why mapping and monitoring remaining primary forests in the EU is an important contribution to the next step - their strict protection. I welcome this new evidence-based report that confirms the value of these forests and points to the urgency to properly map and protect old-growth forests."

The report shows that there is a need for more robust and up-to-date mapping of primary and old-growth forests in order to better protect them. It finds a significant 'mapping deficit' in some of the EU’s regions, where the location of these forests is not known. This unmapped area amounts to around 4.4 million hectares, which is a total area bigger than the size of the Netherlands.

For those areas of primary and old-growth forests that are mapped, the majority are already protected to some extent. The report finds that about 93% of the EU’s primary and old-growth forests are part of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, and 87% are 'strictly protected'.

The study includes 'strict nature reserves', 'wilderness areas' and 'national parks' as 'strictly protected' areas, in line with the relevant International Union for Conservation of Nature protected area management categories. However, these figures should be considered with caution due to the mapping deficit and to the unclear legal framework on what counts as 'strict protection'. Further mapping efforts at national level are necessary to comprehensively catalogue primary and old-growth forests in the EU.

In addition, the report recommends:

  • landscape scale conservation measures, including identification of clear buffer zones and ensuring sufficient connectivity;
  • strict protection of remaining primary and old-growth forests;
  • an efficient monitoring system to safeguard the integrity of primary and old-growth forests;
  • increasing the public awareness of the value of these forests for people and the planet;
  • more research on characterising these forests and appropriate management practices

Making a success of this will require a strong partnership with all the parties involved, including land owners, nature conservation organisations, local and regional authorities, and the local communities themselves.

The Commission is working with relevant experts and stakeholders to agree on a common definition for "primary and old-growth forests" and for the "strict protection" regime, by the end of this year.

Background

Primary and old-growth forests are ecosystems where signs of past human use are minimal or absent and ecological processes operate dynamically and with little impairment by human influences.

They store and sequester carbon, provide fresh water, regulate our climate, reduce our stress levels, and are home to a number of endangered species.

Their rarity, values and uniqueness make them a key element of nature conservation and climate mitigation. In the EU the distribution of these forests is uneven, being 90% located in Sweden, Bulgaria, Finland and Romania.

This report contributes to the aims of the European Green Deal and the Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 of strictly protecting all remaining primary and old-growth forests in the EU.

The report assesses the knowledge and documented spatial data on primary and old-growth forests in the EU, as well as in some neighbouring countries.