24 May 2021

Europe’s primary forests are such a buried treasure. And we must protect them


Primary forests are a rarity in Europe. Their protection is essential. However, available information is still fragmented

by Matteo Cavallito


Primary and old-growth forests are are rare, small and fragmented, at least in Europe where they occupy just 2% to 3% of the total forest area. But they are also a substantial enigma for researchers who have long struggled to collect enough information. A recent report by the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has partially filled the gap. The survey aims to provide new useful data within the framework of the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy which recognizes the value of these unspoiled natural spaces and calls for their “effective conservation”.

This initiative involves the whole forest area, which has grown by 9% in the last three decades and is still essential in providing ecosystem services, including the production of renewable materials. Their use, the Commission said, is important for “climate neutrality” and teh “protection of soils and water resources.”

Primary forests play an essential role

These areas are defined by the substantial absence of signs of human activity. In the primary forests, in other words, ecological processes have always been carried out in an undisturbed way, thus contributing in making the ecosystem unique. Globally, they are quite extensive – 1.1 billion hectares according to FAO estimates – as well as highly concentrated, given that 61% of their surface area is located in just three countries: Brazil, Canada and Russia.

Remarkable, as mentioned, is the range of services they provide: primary forests, in fact, “play a key role for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and storage, fresh water provision, regulation of local climate regimes, the maintenance of human health and are home for imperilled species.” If we want to adequately protect these spaces, in line with the program coordinated by the EU Working Group on Forest and Nature, we need to start by mapping them, collecting all available data and assessing the level of protection. But this is not an easy task.

Le principali funzioni svolte dalle foreste primarie. © European Union, 2021 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Main services provided by primary forests. © European Union, 2021 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.

From Balkans to Northern Europe

A lack of a common definition is the main obstacle. Among the available sources, analyses carried out by FAO and Forest Europe have been harmonized for years and they provide substantially the same numbers. FAO, in particular, defines primary forests as “naturally regenerated forest of native tree species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes.” According to the authors, the extension of primary areas in the EU is 3,700 hectares or 2.4% of the total forest area.  In Europe, 90% of these forests are located in Sweden, Bulgaria, Finland and Romania. In Italy they reach a total of about 93 hectares (1% of the national forests extension). If we include the uncontaminated areas located in the other forest areas, the European figure would rise to almost 4,900 hectares, or 2.7% of the continental forests.

La distribuzione delle foreste primarie in Europa © European Union, 2021 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Primary forest distribution in Europe © European Union, 2021 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.

Monitoring forest areas is the first step for successful policies

The road to comprehensive mapping is still long. “Most georeferenced data sets only cover specific regions” the report says. “Country-level systematic inventories are rare, and information remains overall fragmented. Monitoring primary areas is therefore the first step for policy making with the goal of engaging “all the parties involved, including land owners, nature conservation organisations, researchers, local and regional authorities, and local communities.”

According to available data, 93% of documented primary and old-growth forests in the EU are located in Natura 2000 sites. 87% are in strictly protected areas. Excluding Finland, however, the percentages fall to 87% and 57% respectively. There is definitely a chance for improvement.