The European Environment Agency (EEA) has released its 5th assessment on forest ecosystems. It finds that while their overall area remains stable, woodlands face a variety of threats. Besides unsustainable management practices, air borne pollution and climate change, forests are also threatened by fragmentation due to rapidly spreading urban areas and transport networks. Both the healthy functioning of forest ecosystems and the biodiversity they foster are at risk.
Forests protect soil from erosion, regulate water flows and capture carbon from the atmosphere. Around and within urban areas, they are essential for providing fresh air, reducing dust and noise. They also serve as microclimate buffers against urban heat.
The wellbeing of numerous plants and animals, including many species protected by European Union legislation, is directly linked to forest ecosystems. Moreover, forest patches also play a critical role in facilitating species’ movements through their connectivity with other ecosystems.
- About one-third of the land area of EEA and collaborating countries is forest, with the largest wooded areas located in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden.
- Only 5 % of forests in EEA countries are undisturbed by human intervention. In the wider European region covered by ‘Forest Europe’, such forests account for almost a quarter of the total forest area, with more than half of the undisturbed forest located in the Russian Federation.
- Old growth natural and semi-natural forests are particularly valuable for biodiversity and carbon storage.
- More than half of the forest species of ‘European interest’ and over 60 % of forest habitat types identified by the Habitats Directive are reported to be in ‘unfavourable conservation status’.
- Twenty-seven per cent of mammals, 10 % of reptiles and 8 % of amphibians linked to forest ecosystems are threatened with extinction in the EU region.
- Climate change is first expected to affect the range of tree species, with greatest impacts on those situated at latitudinal and altitudinal extremes. Increased periods of drought and warmer winters are likely to weaken forests further against invasive species.
- Although certain tree species may produce higher timber yields, genetic variety in regionally adapted forests is essential for adapting to new environmental conditions such as climate change.
- Factors such as forest ownership structures and the importance of forestry to national economies can significantly influence forest ecosystem management targets, thereby affecting biodiversity. Forty per cent of forests in EEA countries are state owned. The remaining 60 % is private property.
To explore future forest management options, the European Commission has published a Green Paper on Forest Protection and Information in the EU and launched a consultation process, requesting input from EU institutions, Member States, EU citizens and other interested stakeholders.