Protection gaps and restoration opportunities for primary forests in Europe

credits: Ondrei Kameniar

Exciting times for tree-huggers like myself. In the new ‘Biodiversity Strategy for 2030’ the European Commission has finally recognized the intrinsic importance of primary forests, stating that it is ‘…crucial to define, map, monitor and strictly protect all the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests’. FORESTS and CO paved the way already in 2018, when we published the landmark article ‘Where are Europe’s last Primary Forests’. In our new work, just published in the scientific journal Diversity and Distribution, we go a step forward, and answer three key questions: Are remaining primary forests representative of Europe’s forest types? Are they sufficiently protected? Where is forest restoration needed and feasible to meet biodiversity targets in Europe?

Thanks to an impressive team of 31 coauthors from 19 different countries, we made the first continental-scale assessment ever of the conservation status of primary forests. Overall, the state of Europe’s primary forests remains perilous, but our results show there is plenty of room for action.

Remaining primary forests are not evenly distributed across forest types, and are only partially representative of the full range of environmental conditions in Europe. This means that for many forest types, especially those located in densely inhabited lowland regions, we virtually have no remaining examples of primary\old-growth forests. This is a major conservation gap, since plant and animal species depending on primary forests have little or no sanctuaries left in these regions.

Some primary forests in Europe remain, alas, unprotected. This is extremely worrisome since primary forests continue to be logged in many eastern and northern European countries (see here, here, and here). Now, the good news: it would be enough to expand the protected area networks by 1,132 km2 to ensure that all documented primary forests are under protection. This figure accounts only for those primary forests, which have already been mapped. If we include also the unmapped ones, we probably have to revise this figure upwards. How much? It is difficult to answer. Through a statistical model we got to a 19,194 km2 upper bound. The real figure is unknown, but my take is that it probably lies somewhere ~5,000 km2. Compare it to the extent of protected areas already existing in Europe, which is 1.5 million km2 (Source: EEA 2017 – Europe 39). We are talking of an expansion of ~1.2%, definitely within our reach!


Horse-chestnut forests in their native range in N Greed –  credits: Sabina Burrascano

Not all protected areas are the same though. Europe’s landscapes are mostly cultural, and result from the thousand-year old interaction between nature and traditional management practices. This is why most protected areas in Europe allow for the continuation of traditional practices, and rightly so! Banning humans from these landscapes would be counter-productive from the biodiversity point of view, because many species of plants and animals depend on these traditional practices. In many forest reserves, activities like salvage logging, extensive collection of firewood, or management of the hydrological regimes are therefore normally allowed. Yet, this is clearly incompatible with the long-term conservation of primary forests, which are, by definition, characterized by the absence human impacts and forestry operations. From here, the need to ensure that all primary forests are included in strict reserves, where no human activities (with few exceptions, such as ecotourism) are allowed. In our study, we show there is quite some work to do. We estimate that upgrading 5,600 km2 of existing protected areas to strict reserves should be enough to secure all primary forests in Europe. We also show where upgrading the protection regime is a priority. This is much needed knowledge to ensure that the goal of having 1/3 of Europe’s protected areas in strict reserves, as outlined in the EU ‘Biodiversity Strategy for 2030’, is implemented as efficiently as possible.



Different priorities in different areas. Where should we focus on the protection of remaining primary forests, where on upgrading the protection levels and where should we prioritize restoration? From: Sabatini et al. 2020 (Diversity and Distribution) for additional information.

Clearly protecting what remains is the priority. It is way easier (and cheaper!) to maintain primary forests, rather than restoring them after they are degraded. Yet, for many European regions it is now too late. Out only option is to start restoring forests, so to make sure that they will (slowly!!) develop characteristics typical of primary forests. We could, for instance, remove non-native species, restore natural hydrological conditions, or promote the development of key structural elements, such as deadwood or veteran trees. Our estimation is that we should restore 226,236 km2 of forest, if the goal is to secure that each forest types has at least 17% of high-quality forest for biodiversity. It is about 3.9% of Europe’s land area. The good news is that 2/3 of this land is already under protection, so we do not actually need to take that much forest out of timber production.

Restoration is one of the keywords of the new decade. It is at the core of the EU ‘Biodiversity Strategy for 2030’, and it is inspiring the ‘UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’. Our study answers the question on where restoration should happen. We are well aware it will take decades before forests will evolve back into complex systems. And it is going to be challenging too. But it will also be tremendously beneficial. Not only because we could increase the complexity and resilience of forests in light of climate change, and therefore helping them to cope with the ongoing environmental changes. Doing so would pay off, since complex forests store higher amounts of carbon in wood and soil, compared to simplified tree farms. This is clearly beneficial, as it can help us mitigate climate change. Restored forests might also become sanctuaries for many species that simply cannot thrive in human-dominated landscapes. I am talking of a wealth of rare and endangered lichens, insects or fungi, which are increasingly recognized for being associated to primary forests. We are in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crises. Primary forests can help us on both fronts. 

Our work relies on data collected over decades by hundreds of foresters and field biologists from all over Europe over decades. To them go my warmest thanks.

Full reference:

Sabatini, F. M., W. S. Keeton, M. Lindner, M. Svoboda, P. J. Verkerk, J. Bauhus, H. Bruelheide, S. Burrascano, N. Debaive, I. Duarte, M. Garbarino, N. Grigoriadis, F. Lombardi, M. Mikoláš, P. Meyer, R. Motta, G. Mozgeris, L. Nunes, P. Ódor, M. Panayotov, A. Ruete, B. Simovski, J. Stillhard, J. Svensson, J. Szwagrzyk, O.-P. Tikkanen, K. Vandekerkhove, R. Volosyanchuk, T. Vrska, T. Zlatanov, and T. Kuemmerle. 2020. Protection gaps and restoration opportunities for primary forests in Europe. Diversity and Distributions. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.13158

Link to the study: