Forests are some of the most important ecosystems in Europe, and are home to many thousands of species. Although the amount of forest cover is stable across Europe, it is declining worldwide, and the rich variety of life on Earth is also following this downward trend. On 22 May, International Biodiversity Day, the European Environment Agency invites you to explore and enjoy biodiversity in Europe’s forests.
Biodiversity embraces the variety of genes, species and ecosystems that constitute life on Earth, and we depend on it completely for our livelihoods and well-being.
Many of the planet’s species are found in forest ecosystems, which also provide vital services for people across Europe – including cleaning our air, stopping soil erosion, filtering water and providing products like timber and food. But to see forests as purely a service or a source of goods belies their intrinsic value for maintaining biodiversity. To highlight their importance to life on Earth, the United Nations has declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests, while 2011-2020 has been designated the UN Decade on Biodiversity.
Around one-third of the land area of EEA and collaborating countries is covered by forest, with the largest wooded areas located in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden. Of this area, only 5 % is undisturbed by significant human intervention. These old growth natural and semi-natural forests are particularly valuable for biodiversity and carbon storage.
More than half of the forest species of 'European interest' and over 60 % of forest habitat types identified by the Habitats Directive are reported to be in 'unfavourable conservation status'. Indeed, 27% of mammals, 10 % of reptiles and 8 % of amphibians linked to forest ecosystems are threatened with extinction in the EU.
For some forests, climate change is the biggest threat to biodiversity. Rising temperatures are expected to affect the range of tree species. This is predicted to affect forests at latitudinal and altitudinal extremes, while forest fires are increasing at lower latitudes, for example around the Mediterranean. Increased periods of drought and warmer winters are likely to further weaken forests against invasive species.
So what can be done to protect biodiversity in Europe’s forests?
Better forest management is needed in some areas – some European forests are intensive monocultures with very little biodiversity. In addition, reducing fragmentation of forests is also hugely important. When a forest is broken up into smaller patches, these sections are often unable to support the same broad biodiversity as a single forest of the same area.
Europe has pledged to halt biodiversity loss completely on its territory. As the magnitude of this task and the challenges become increasingly apparent, EU biodiversity policy has developed accordingly. To this end, the European Environment Agency (EEA) will increasingly focus on assisting policy-makers and others by delivering relevant and reliable data.
However, European citizens can also play a role in protecting the plants and animals living in the forest. Why not take a walk in the woods on International Biodiversity Day, and experience the value of local biodiversity yourself?