About 4.9 million hectares of EU forests are ‘primary’ or ‘old-growth’, according to a new report by the EU’s Joint Research Centre.

These are forests that follow natural dynamics, exist in their original condition and are largely untouched by human interference.

They are the natural heritage of Europe, according to the report. Although 4.9 million hectares appears to be a lot, these forest types are in fact rare, small and fragmented, only making up 3% of the EU’s total forested area and 1.2% of the EU land.

Protecting them is “vital for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change”.

Coinciding with Earth Day 2021 (Thursday, April 22), the publication of this report contributes to the EU commitment made in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 to define, map, monitor and strictly protect all the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests.

It is a compilation of existing mapping exercises by various researchers and organisations, and statistical information reported by the member states.

Value of forests

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius has welcomed this report that “confirms the value of these forests and points to the urgency to properly map and protect old-growth forests”.

“European untouched forests are natural treasures that have been providing benefits to humans for centuries and are vital for our health, biodiversity and climate,” he said.

“They also hold important historical and identity values for local communities. That is why mapping and monitoring remaining primary forests in the EU is an important contribution to the next step – their strict protection.”

Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel added that the report “provides scientific evidence and highlights knowledge gaps, so that we can take the right actions to protect this most precious part of our natural heritage”.

Report recommendations

The report shows that there is a need for more robust and up-to-date mapping.

It finds a significant ‘mapping deficit’ in some of the EU’s regions, where the location of these forests is not known. This unmapped area amounts to around 4.4 million hectares, which is a total area bigger than the size of the Netherlands.

For those areas of primary and old-growth forests that are mapped, the majority are already protected to some extent. The report finds that about 93% of the EU’s primary and old-growth are part of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, and 87% are ‘strictly protected’.

In addition, the report recommends increasing the public awareness of the value of these forests for people and the planet and more research on characterising these forests and appropriate management practices.

The commission is working with relevant experts and stakeholders to agree on a common definition for ‘primary and old-growth forests’ and for the ‘strict protection’ regime, by the end of this year.