Our forests in a European context – the odd one out now

The State of Europe’s Forests has just crossed my laptop (Forest Europe, 2020) and it seems an appropriate time to look at our woods and forest in this broader context.

The paucity of our woodland cover (shared with some other parts of the Atlantic seaboard – western France, Ireland, Denmark) at 13% compared to a European average of about 35% is widely appreciated. I had not though thought before about how this translates into patch size and continuity of woodland cover: across Europe 64% of the forest area is in more-or-less contiguous blocks of 100,000 ha or more (roughly 20×20 miles in old money) and only 13% in the 1-1000 ha patch classes where much of our woodland lies.

Contrasting landscape views: the fragmented landscape of Devon and the continuous forest in Bukk National Park, Hungary.

Our 13% is dominated by plantations with a high proportion of non-native trees, whereas across Europe most forests are more-or-less semi-natural. They are largely composed of species native to the respective countries even if often some species have had their abundance artificially increased. However the broad balance of tree species between conifers and broadleaves and even in terms of the main genera is surprisingly similar between the UK1 and Europe as a whole.

Spruce over bilberry in Kielder (introduced) and in Sweden (native).

Across Europe about three quarters of the annual increment is felled, so the total stock of wood on the ground is increasing as is the case in the UK. However, while Europe as a whole, is a net exporter of wood and wood products, the UK is the biggest net importer. Each of us uses slightly below the European average of 1.1 m3 a year.

The biodiversity measures reported are limited : there are some positive trends in terms of tree species richness and dead wood levels, but as in the UK, from a low baseline. Common bird populations are reported as stable, contrasting with the decline in woodland birds reported in the UK, although different suites of species are involved and from a later starting point, which may explain the difference. Protected sites cover about 15% of the forest area, a similar order of magnitude to that in the UK (depending on what definitions of protected site are used).

Levels of sulphur dioxide pollution have decreased but there are still issues with active nitrogen levels above critical limits and locally with ozone levels. We are also not alone in having ungulate browsing and wind damage as major threats to our woods, while fire which is a problem in southern Europe may have to move up our agenda with climate change.

The proportion of Continental forests actively managed for recreation is small, probably not much different to the UK, but the vast majority are open to the public who make an average of 16 visits per person per year. This use is facilitated by the greater area of forest, the higher proportion of public ownership (about half, compared to about a quarter in the UK) and legal rights-to-roam in some countries.

Of course, there is considerable variation around these average figures in a continent that covers boreal, temperate and Mediterranean climates with wide diversity of landscape histories (Kirby and Watkins, 2015). We do have distinctive elements in our woodland, but, as we leave the European Union, it is worth remembering that our woods and forests are just offshoots of those on the Continent.

FOREST EUROPE 2020. State of Europe’s forests 2020. Bratislava: Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe.

KIRBY, K. J. & WATKINS, C. 2015. Europe’s changing woods and forests: from wildwood to managed landscapes, Wallingford, UK, CABI.

1. https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/statistics/forestry-statistics/

3 thoughts on “Our forests in a European context – the odd one out now

  1. ‘..it is worth remembering that our woods and forests are just offshoots of those on the Continent.’ Except, maybe, the bryophyte rich western Atlantic oakwoods? Although I suppose one could argue that these are offshoots of those woods which are, (or ought to be) found in EU Ireland. Happy New Year Keith.


    1. Hi there, Rob, it’s been a while. And Happy New Year to you and Keith. I think even the British rainforests have poorer (bryophytically at least) cousins in western Spain, France and Norway, and there are certainly superb examples in Ireland – although generally much smaller than those in Scotland. The Beara rainforest (http://beararainforest.com/) looks amazing, although I’ve only seen it on the webpage. Once we can travel again, I’m very keen to get to some of the Irish woodlands.

      By the way, I assume you saw the story of the newly discovered fern in KIllarney last year? https://www.rte.ie/news/2020/1004/1169346-ireland-fern-discovery/


  2. Thanks for the comments and happy new year. British woods do have distinctive features (as do woods in other parts of Europe), but even then they are part of a broader continuum of vegetation composition across the continent. In emphasising differences we should not forget the things that are in common as well.


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