Number of the month: 1.4 million

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Very few of us probably think of Europe when the subject of primary forests comes up. After all, the continent’s forests have been cleared over the centuries to make way for fields or pasture land, or to be used as firewood. All the same, Europe is still home to some primary forest – woodland in which there is very little human influence and ecological processes still remain largely undisturbed. Until recently, however, it was not clear exactly where such forests were located. Scientists at the Geography Department at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) have now drawn up the first map of Europe’s last primary forests .

Good reasons to preserve primary forests

1.4 million

Environmental scientist Dr Francesco Maria Sabatini, who at the time was still working at the HU, spent more than two years collecting data for the map together with his colleagues. The team combed through 650 studies of forests in Europe, as well as sending questionnaires to researchers and forest experts, in an attempt to locate areas of primary forest. This enabled them to identify 1.4 million remaining hectares of primary forest in 32 countries – equivalent to just 0.7 percent of all European woodland areas. Most of the primary forest is to be found in Finland, the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkans. The work is not yet finished, however, as a large proportion probably remains unknown. "I estimate that roughly half of the total area has not yet been mapped", says Dr Sabatini from Italy, who is now researching at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

There are several reasons why it is important to know where primary forests are located. For example, they provide a habitat for beetle, fungi and bird species that are not to be found anywhere else. Furthermore: "Primary forests also help us understand what impact human intervention has on forests", says Dr Sabatini. If it is known what forests were originally like, it is easier to determine how they have been influenced by human activities – and what needs to change. And last but not least, the map is needed to ensure compliance with international agreements, such as the biodiversity strategy of the European Union in which EU member states have committed themselves to preserving wilderness areas.

From research to action recommendations

The data for the new map also allowed new action recommendations to be made. Sabatini and his research colleagues discovered that primary forests are most likely to be found in regions where deforestation does not make economic sense – for example in areas that are difficult to access. Sabatini can therefore imagine that it is not actually necessary to designate mountain forests as preservation areas. "Instead, we should concentrate rather on lowland forests where there is a greater likelihood of conflict between woodland preservation and economic interests."


Geography Department at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU)

The Geography Department at the HU is one of the oldest and largest in Germany. It has close ties with numerous non-university research institutions such as the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The department specialises in metropolitan studies and land system science.