Preserving biodiversity in European forests

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Source: European Commission, Environment DG

At present, to safeguard biodiversity around a quarter of Europe’s forests is not harvested. Between 2000 and 2005, protected forest areas were increased by almost 40 per cent in area. In addition, farmers have converted significant areas of agricultural land to forests. However, this can sometimes have negative effects: intensification measures such as peat land drainage, fertilisation, genetic 'improvement' of forest trees (including with biotechnology) and excessive prevention of natural disturbances such as fires can all have an impact on biodiversity. The report from the European Environment Agency suggests that sustainable forest management will increasingly require balancing traditional forest production of wood for timber and paper with the harvest of biomass for bioenergy.

There is also the need to maintain and, where appropriate, enhance biodiversity. The continuing decline of threatened
plant and animal species is highlighted in the report. According to a recent assessment, eleven European forest
mammal species are threatened, including the Iberian lynx, the most endangered species of cat in the world. A number
of forest birds are also declining in parts of Europe. Despite this, managed forests in Europe are improving, becoming
increasingly diverse, with higher numbers of tree species, larger trees and an increase in deadwood. However, some
invasive alien species can affect forest biodiversity. For example, the tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, causes a
significant threat to forest biodiversity in Italy, in some cases displacing native tree species. Air pollution also threatens
forest ecosystems. Presently there is great concern about the impact of nitrogen on animal and plant species.

Climate change is likely to have an impact on forest biodiversity in a number of ways. Predicted effects of climate
change include more droughts, floods, increased salinity, a greater risk of spring and autumn frost and insect and
pathogen damage, all of which could affect the health of European forests and the abundance of wildlife in them. The
frequency of such events is as important as the degree of temperature change, the report suggests.

Around 87 per cent of forests in the EEA member and collaborating countries are managed to some extent. However,
despite ongoing initiatives, systematic and harmonised European wide forest monitoring and assessment is not yet
available, in particular for forest biodiversity and ecosystem health. Although these topics are given increasing attention
in EU research framework programmes, much more research is needed to improve our understanding of forests, and in
turn, forest policies.

Improvements in our understanding of forests are predicted through greater knowledge exchange programmes.
Cooperation between the European Environment Agency and its member countries within the European information and
observation network (Eionet1), together with EU Data centres for biological diversity (EEA) and for forests (European
Commission Joint Research Center), will improve data accessibility and data exchange at both the national and
European levels.

The report claims that, although the EU’s 2010 target of halting forest biodiversity loss is unlikely to be met, Europe has
the institutional, legal, financial and information framework in place to make a real difference in the longer term. These
improvements will be made through new forest policies and management programmes. Education, information and
interest groups also play an important role.

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