Though the total area of forest is not large in Europe, there are more virgin forests left than previously thought.
Before settled agriculture started to transform Europe’s landscape dramatically from some 7,500 years ago onward, the continent had been covered in thick primary forests. Most of those forests are long gone. Trees have been felled to make way for agricultural land and to be used as timber for building houses. Settlements, farming grounds and pastures have taken the place of woods.
Along with those forests have disappeared much of their once vibrant ecosystems, including iconic species like grey wolves, brown bears and European bison. Yet not all has been lost, according to researchers who have conducted a study of Europe’s remaining primary forests.
There are more old growth forests, like Poland’s Bialowieza Forest, remaining still relatively intact than previously assumed, they say. Writing in the journal Diversity and Distributions, the researchers, who worked under the aegis of Humboldt University in Germany, say they have managed to pinpoint some 3.4 million acres of primary forest within 34 countries on the continent.
“What we’ve shown in this study is that, even though the total area of forest is not large in Europe, there are considerably more of these virgin or primary forests left than previously thought — and they are widely distributed throughout many parts of Europe,” one of the researchers, forest ecologist Bill Keeton, explains. “And where they occur, they provide exceptionally unique ecological values and habitat for biodiversity.”
This does not mean, however, that these forests have been left in pristine conditions. “It is not that these forests were never touched by man. This would be hard to believe in Europe,” notes Francesco Maria Sabatini, the study’s lead author.
“Still, these are forests where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities. Maybe that’s because they were blurred by decades of non-intervention, where ecological processes follow a natural dynamic,” Sabatini adds.
Troublingly, however, whereas 89% of the primary forests the researchers have mapped are within protected areas, fewer than a half (46%) enjoy strict protection. In at least some of them, continued logging may pose threats to local woods and their wildlife.
“Wide patches of primary forest are being currently logged in many mountain areas, for instance in Romania and Slovakia and in some Balkan countries,” says Miroslav Svoboda, a Czech scientist who worked on the study. “A soaring demand for bioenergy coupled with high rates of illegal logging, are leading to the destruction of this irreplaceable natural heritage, often without even understanding that the forest being cut is primary.”