Fantastic Forests and where to find them

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

It’s out and completely open-access. The expanded version of our database is the most complete source of information on the location of primary forests in Europe ever assembled. It harmonizes 48 independent datasets, which collectively described 18,411 individual patches of primary forest across 33 European countries. The European Primary Forest Database (EPFD) v2.0 is described in the journal Scientific Data. All data can be freely downloaded from Figshare.

Three years ago we assembled the first database of Europe’s primary forests. This work was published in Diversity and Distribution and we spoke extensively about it in this blog (post 1, post 2). It also received a lot of attention in the specialized and general press, clearly demonstrating that the public opinion cherishes these precious ecosystems, and understands their importance for biodiversity.

While being quite comprehensive, our first database had many regional gaps, and included only about one fifth of the estimated 7.3 Mha of undisturbed forest estimated to exist in Europe at the time. Also, most of these data were not open-access, and could thus not be used without the explicit consent of their respective copyright holders.

After the release of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the topic of primary forests and their conservation became even hotter, and it became painfully clear how badly we need to improve our knowledge on the distribution of primary forests to ensure their protection. Thanks to the financial support of the Frankfurter Zoological Society, we prepared a new paper to go beyond the limitations of our first map. First, we secured permission from all data holders to release all data with open-access. Second, we included 16 new spatial datasets to our collection, which now includes 48 regional-to-continental datasets. This helped filling major regional gaps, including European Russia, the Balkan Peninsula, the Pyrenees and the Baltic region. Finally, we mapped potential primary forests for Sweden and Norway (additional 16,311 polygons and 2.5 Mha), two key regions where complete inventories are currently unavailable.

In total the EPFD v2.0 contains 18,411 non-overlapping primary forest patches (plus 299 point features) covering an area of 41.1 Mha (37.4 Mha in European Russia alone) across 33 countries. For each forest patch, we provide information on its name, location, naturalness, extent and dominant tree species, when available, as well some descriptors of the surrounding landscape (biogeographical regions, protection status, potential natural vegetation, current forest extent).

Yet, our data has been collected over more than two decades, which means that some forest patches might have been disturbed in the meantime. We therefore checked all polygons for disturbance using an automatic algorithm (LandTrendr) in Google Earth Engine to detect changes in their spectral response using all available Landsat images between 1985 and today. After visually inspecting a stratified random selection of disturbed polygons using very-high-resolution images from Google Earth, we found that in the great majority of cases disturbance was of natural origin, yet for ~6.2% of the polygons in our map disturbance was clearly man-made. These polygons were concentrated in the Russian Federation (especially in Archangelsk region, Karelia and Komi republics), Southern Finland, and the Carpathians. This clearly stresses the need to set an effective monitoring to ensure these invaluable forests remain untouched. Hopefully, having our work featured by the latest JRC report on primary and old-growth forests will help in this regard.

Our maps represents a big step forward, but there is so much still to do. There are many primary forests that still need to be mapped, especially in Scandinavia, the Carpathians, and the Balkans. And, we need to achieve a better description of all known patches, and clip out those that were logged in recent years.

Finally, I would like to stress that this was a truly collective effort. More than 200 forest experts from all over Europe contributed their expertise and helped us retrieve the relevant datasets. Not to mention the 700+ published scientific papers we scanned and extracted data from. This work would not have been possible without the effort of hundreds of field surveyors who gathered the data in the first place. To them go our warmest thanks.


Sabatini FM, Bluhm H, Kun Z, Aksenov D, Atauri JA, Buchwald E, Burrascano S, Cateau E, Diku A, Duarte IM, López ÁBF, Garbarino M, Grigoriadis N, Horváth F, Keren S, Kitenberga M, Kiš A, Kraut A, Ibisch PL, Larrieu L, Lombardi F, Matovic B, Melu RN, Meyer P, Midteng R, Mikac S, Mikoláš M, Mozgeris G, Panayotov M, Pisek R, Nunes L, Ruete A, Schickhofer M, Simovski B, Stillhard J, Stojanovic D, Szwagrzyk J, Tikkanen O-P, Toromani E, Volosyanchuk R, Vrška T, Waldherr M, Yermokhin M, Zlatanov T, Zagidullina A, Kuemmerle T. 2021. European primary forest database v2.0. SCIENTIFIC DATA. Doi: 10.1038/s41597-021-00988-7

This study was realized and funded by the project “Policy and on-ground action for primary forest protection, boreal and temperate primary forests” funded through the Griffith University (Australia) and implemented by the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and Wild Europe Initiative as well as the Naturwald Akademie. Additional funding came from the Marie Sklodowska‐Curie fellowship project FORESTS & CO, #658876. A complete list of funding sources, including those supporting each individual dataset, please refer to the published version of the paper.