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Robin Erithacus rubecula

BRING BACK REAL FORESTS ACROSS EUROPE

WE MUST DOUBLE OUR FORESTS IN SIZE - FOR THE CLIMATE, FOR WILDLIFE AND FOR OURSELVES.

The latest State of Nature report, describing what’s going on with the UK’s wildlife, makes for sobering reading. Many species are in serious trouble, falling in numbers and drawing back into ever-smaller strongholds as we close in around them, a pattern of decline going back hundreds of years. In the rest of Europe, the story is frequently similar. In Germany, more than three quarters of flying insects have disappeared in just 27 years. Farmland birds across Europe have lost over half their populations since 1980. This is a crisis.

It is clear that something has to change. We can no longer pretend that existing conservation approaches are working. It is time for an ambitious, optimistic, forward-thinking programme to bring nature back to Europe. The challenge is significant and the stakes are high, but we have a chance now to restore our ecosystems, keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and bring wildlife conservation into the 21st century on our continent. The first step is to embrace forests again - once familiar, now almost entirely lost - and restore them to their rightful place in our landscapes.

WHY FORESTS?

Forests are the among the best solutions to climate breakdown, and changes to our land use, agriculture and forestry practices globally would take us around 37% of the way to keeping warming below catastrophic levels. It will be impossibly difficult to engineer a system more efficient at taking carbon out of the atmosphere, holding together the hills and supporting wildlife. Even better, allowing forests to re-establish themselves costs next to nothing. So why, in most European countries, and particularly the UK, are we so unconcerned about having no real forests left?

Forest cover in the UK is around 13%, one of the lowest levels in Europe. If you were to exclude plantation forests, grown only for timber and which suffocate biodiversity, this figure would fall still further. Across Europe, the situation is much the same, although not to such a dramatic extent. Majestic, species-rich, carbon-absorbing ancient woodlands have largely been forgotten in favour of sparse, monocultural, neat rows of trees. This cannot carry on.

The good news is that doubling tree cover in the UK can be achieved with little or even no effect on food production, by prioritising land which is low-quality farmland but perfect for woods to flourish.

It’s not enough to simply have more trees, however. Reforestation must take the form of restoring natural forests, not lining up further industrial woodlands. One particularly strong reason for this is that over the same area, natural forests store 40 times the carbon of plantations.

THE LESSONS OF THE PRIMEVAL

True forests would provide a home for many of our declining species, enlarging and reconnecting the small fragments of remaining woodland in which they currently cling to life. More species are usually found in larger patches, and connecting separate islands of habitat means if a species is threatened in one area it has an escape route for establishing populations elsewhere.

The primeval forest of Białowieża National Park, in Poland, provides a blueprint for what more European forests could – and should – look like. To a visitor accustomed to UK woodlands, this forest is at times a confusing experience; fallen trees are left to return to the soil, the forest hums with the noise of birds, bison, deer and wolves, and more species of tree, shrub and mushroom can be seen on a single visit than a lifetime spent in the UK’s woodlands. This forest teaches us that if we let forests manage their own affairs, they will thrive.

Until the late 19th-early 20th century [Białowieża Primeval Forest] was not touched by ‘modern’, ‘rational’ forestry. It is an invaluable reference point for all European forest research, but only as long as we do not turn it into managed treestand. Any attempt at rewilding and restoring ancient woodlands should take the example of Białowieża and aim at including as little human intervention as possible.

Dr Tomasz Samojlik, Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences

THE ENGINEERS OF THE FOREST

Of course, part of the reason Białowieża is so diverse is because it is a more balanced ecosystem. Without wolves and lynx, deer populations explode. This results in trees being stripped of their bark and dying, and the rate of survival for smaller trees is massively reduced or entirely cut off.

Once wolves were allowed to return to Yellowstone National Park in the USA, the populations of tree species which were dying out have rebounded strongly, as have many species of birds and mammals as the wolves reshape their environment. Beavers are another essential ‘ecosystem engineer’. They create small patches of wetland which boost biodiversity and lock up more carbon.

The benefits even extend to dealing with the biggest problems facing wildlife today, like climate change, invasive species and disease – the more biodiverse a given area is, the more able it is to withstand external shocks that would demolish a less resilient ecosystem. As these threats grow in number and significance, bringing back nature to our forests will be essential for ‘future-proofing’ them to ensure they survive.

To restore our forests to their natural state, we must look for the species which once kept them fully functioning and bustling with life, and bring them back to do so again. This – not the idea of returning to a species mix which existed at some arbitrary point in the past – is why rewilding our landscapes is crucial.

We are at a crossroads in forest management in the UK and Europe. Subsidised overgrazing, over-management, and simply counting the number of trees as a measure of success are demonstrably not working, and we are passing up golden opportunities for natural solutions to climate change and the biodiversity crisis. The resurgence of the rainforests, wildwoods, conifer forests and temperate broadleaved woodlands which would naturally exist in Britain, over at least double the area they currently cover, would begin to redress this imbalance.

This EJF piece originally appeared in The Ecologist in October 2019.