Things you may not know about forests in Europe: forest area, annual growth and fellings, but also protected areas all continue to increase

29.1.2021 / Article
Europe, the view from the satellites. Photo: Shutterstock
The total forest area in Europe is 227 million hectares

Forests can be compared to a cake that you may actually increase by eating it. The volume of wood in European forests has grown by 50% since the year 1990, while fellings and forested area have also increased at the same time. Industries based on renewable wood raw material continuously generate new innovations.

According to the State of Europe’s Forests 2020 report, the volume of wood in Europe, excluding Russia, has increased by one half since the year 1990, even though the forest area has only grown by nine percent during the same period. The total forest area is 227 million hectares, which is 35 percent of Europe’s surface area.

There is more wood because the forests are denser. The average volume of wood per hectare is 169 cubic metres, which is 40 more than in 1990 – and the total is 31 thousand million cubic metres. An important reason for the increased density is forest management. Thanks to it, the age structure of forests has altered and the share of older forests, for example, has increased by more than that of other types of forest everywhere in Europe.

The volume of wood has grown steadily everywhere, except for the western parts of Central Europe, where the growth has slowed down especially during the past decade. The reason is not known.

The European Union strives to expand forest areas, though this is facing two important obstacles: lack of funding and competition for land.

The daily growth of Finnish forests would make a 1,000-kilometre pile of logs. In Finland, the annual growth period of trees is about 100 days. Trees do not grow in winter. During the growth season, the total growth of the tree stock is about one million cubic metres per day. If that amount of timber was piled one metre high and one metre wide, the resulting pile would be over 1,000 kilometres long.

Forest growth is also increasing

The annual volume (increment) by which Europe’s forests grow is considerably more than the volume of fellings. The increment has also increased: in 2015 it was 25 percent more than in 1990.

Nevertheless, fellings have also increased. If natural removal – that is, the trees that die naturally – is subtracted from the growth of Europe’s forest, the average share of fellings of the annual net increment is 73 percent. The figure does not include the household use of timber.

The surplus stays in the forest and contributes to the carbon storage.

How can this be? It is because forest is a renewable natural resource. When you use it, it grows back, and to an even greater volume than if you did not use it. A sustainably managed forest really isn’t a cake that you can either have or eat: it can actually increase if you know how to eat it.

Among European countries, the volume of wood in Germany grew by most in 2015. In that year, Europe’s forests grew by 650 million cubic metres, and Germany’s share of that was 100 million. Almost on a par with Germany were Sweden and Finland. At the moment, these figures have still grown.

In absolute terms, felling figures were the greatest in Sweden. If, however, fellings are compared with the growth of trees, fellings were proportionately greatest in Belgium: 98.7 percent of the growth. The second most efficient feller was Sweden, where a total of 93.9 percent of the growth was felled. In all other countries the figure was clearly below 90 percent.

In Finland, the annual increment of forests has more than doubled since the 1950s and now stands at about 110 million cubic metres per year. During the same period the volume of wood in Finnish forests has grown by almost 70 percent. The area of Finnish forests is about 10 percent of that of Europe, while forest growth in Finland makes up 20 percent of the total annual increment of Europe’s forests.

More wood mean bigger carbon storage

The most important carbon storage in forests consists of trees. The carbon storage in living trees makes up 36 percent of the forest’s carbon storage. The rest is contained in other vegetation, plant litter and the soil.

More wood means a direct increase of carbon storage. However, carbon storage also increases when the carbon in dead plants and parts of plants end up as litter and humus.

One ton of carbon dioxide in one cubic metre of wood. On average, one cubic metre of wood binds about a thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide. While the trees continue to grow, one hectare of Finnish forest binds about 4,700 kilos of carbon dioxide per year. About 60 percent of the carbon storage in Finnish trees is contained in their trunks; the rest is in the canopies, branches, stumps and roots.

During the past decade the average amount of carbon bound by Europe’s forests was 155 million metric tons per year. The forests in the European Union bound an amount of carbon that corresponded to one tenth of all carbon emissions in the Union.

Similarly, the carbon storage in products made of wood from forests has increased in Europe. In 2015 the figure per capita was 2.8 tons, compared to 2.5 tons in 1990. Figures are only available on how much the storage has increased, but not of its actual size.

Annual emissions of 140 passenger cars offset by a daycare centre. A new daycare centre was recently completed in Lapinmäki, Helsinki. The wood elements used in constructing it form a carbon storage of about 300, 000 kilos. This is equal to the annual emissions caused by the use of 140 cars. The volume of wood corresponding to that used in the building is restored by Finnish forests in ten seconds during the growth season. A 14-storey wooden building, made of massive wood in Joensuu and the highest in Finland, forms a carbon storage equal to one year’s carbon dioxide emissions from 700 passenger cars. (Source: Stora Enso)

Revenue from timber sales is used to finance sustainable forestry

Three quarters of Europe’s forests are in commercial use. The owners of those forests make their living by adding to natural resources. By far the greatest monetary value of these natural resources is that of round timber. In 2015, its value was EUR 20.5 thousand million.

Estimated by the value of raw timber, the most money was made by fellings in 2015 by Germany: EUR 4.1 thousand million, followed by Sweden and France with about EUR 2.8 thousand billion each. In Finland, the value of felled raw timber has long remained on the level of about EUR 2 thousand million per year.

In Sweden, 370 million tree seedlings are planted each year; in Finland the figure is 150 million. For every tree felled in final fellings in Finland, four new seedlings are planted, if the forest is regenerated by planting. New stands are also created by sowing on an area that is equal to one quarter of the area of seedling stands. The area of naturally regenerated forest is twice that of the areas sown. Natural regeneration means that at the final felling a number of large trees are left to provide the seeds for a new stand.

The European Union strives to increase the use of raw timber. The biggest obstacle to this is the poor profitability of forestry and shortage of felling entrepreneurs.

Forest revenue is extremely important for all operations in forests, including the ecological sustainability of forestry, for this is the money used to fund nature management. The most important profitability factor for forestry is the production of logwood.

Investments in sustainable forestry have been increasing slightly, standing at EUR 22 per hectare in 2015. However, the great fluctuation of forest revenue from one year to the next is a risk for sustainable forestry.

Destruction of forest is forbidden in Finland. Finnish law obligates forest owners to set up a new stand after every final felling, either by planting, sowing or natural regeneration. The method is selected according to what is likely to produce the best result on hat site. The seedlings used in Finland are always of domestic origin. The annual area of final fellings in Finland is about half a percent of the area of commercial forests.

Finns are the top gatherers in Europe

Forests are not just a source of timber. Europe’s forests also yield cork, ornamental plants, chestnuts, fruit, mushrooms, edible game and honey. The value of forests product excluding raw timber in 2015 was EUR 4 thousand million.

Hunting and fishing permits have the highest market value, but the income from the lucrative use of plants was still twice that from the lucrative use of animals.

The most important ornamental plant is the Christmas tree. In 2015, the value of ornamental plant production in Europe was EUR 1.4 thousand million, half of which was generated in Germany.

Forest-based food, such as berries and mushrooms, were produced for about EUR 1 thousand million in 2015. This does not include the value of household use.

As regards both quantity and monetary value, Finland held the first place with 156,000 tons and EUR 214 million. Finland was followed by Latvia (51,000 tons and EUR 64 million), Portugal (50,000 tons and EUR 197 million) and Spain (44,000 tons and EUR 214 million).

The picking of forest products for use at home is more important in countries where everyman’s right (“freedom to roam”) is recognised, as in the Nordic countries, the Baltic republics, Scotland, Austria, Czech Republic and Switzerland. Everyman’s right generally includes the right to pick berries and mushrooms and sometimes even small-scale fishing, as in Finland.

The most important forest products based on wild animals are game meat, honey and beeswax. Important game animals include partridge, pheasant, hare, elk, wild boar and chamois. In terms of monetary value, the three most important game meat producers by far were France, Germany and Spain.

The total production of game meat in Europe in 2015 was valued at EUR 888 million. The value of honey and beeswax was EUR 293 million, most of them produced in Germany, France and Switzerland.

Use of wood most widespread in the north

On average, Europeans use 1.1 cubic metres of wood per year. This includes sawmill products, wooden panels, paper, paperboard and energy wood. The figure varies between 0.7 cubic metres in south-east Europe to 2.6 cubic metres in northern Europe.

In 1990–2015, the use of wood products increased in all parts of Europe, excluding central and western Europe, though the figures there were the second highest after northern Europe. In addition to traditional sawmill products and paper, wood is used more and more innovatively in various composite materials and in products based on micro and nano cellulose.

Wood-based wound dressing. The FibDex wound dressing, based on UPM Biomedicals nanocellulose, is made of Finnish birch. Nanocellulose fibres are smaller than those of conventional pulp, down to a few nanometres, which is about one hundred thousandth of the thickness of paper. Being a natural material, nanocellulose is compatible with human tissue and is not rejected. FibDex has been CE approved.

From 1990 to 2015, the value of wood product exports in Europe doubled. In 2015 the figure was EUR 5.5 thousand million.

The forest sector generated 0.7 percent of the national product of Europe in 2015. In northern Europe the share was higher: 2 percent.

Household appliances of wood. Wood and bioplastic can be used to make biocomposites, with a carbon footprint that can be up to 80 percent smaller than that of plastic. Biocomposites are used to manufacture cutting boards, handles for kitchen utensils and, most recently, household appliances. Biocomposites combine the best properties of wood and plastics: the strength and hardness of wood and the durability, moldability and lightness of plastics.

The forest sector consists of forestry, wood product industry and the pulp, paper and paperboard industries. In several countries, the graphic industries are also considered to be forest industries.

In 2015 the forest sector employed 2.6 million Europeans, even though the number has shrunk by one third since 1990.

15 kilometres of corrugated fibreboard from one truckload of timber. A full-trailer load of timber makes about half a million one-litre beverage cartons or a band of corrugated fibreboard that is 2.8 metres wide and 15 kilometres long. This, in turn, could be used to make 125,000 pizza boxes.

Recycling saves raw material

In most cases, products made of wood can be recycled, which is also what happens in Europe. Europe is among the best recyclers of wood products.

The wood fibre used to make paper can be recycled more than ten times before it grows too weak to use. Recycled paper can be turned into new paper or paperboard, for example.

However, paper cannot be made exclusively from recycled fibre, since fibres are removed from the process when their quality becomes too poor. The deficit must be made up with fresh fibre from forests or other sources, for otherwise paper production would soon stop.

Wood fibre that cannot be recycled any more is usually used for bioenergy.

Area of protected forests in Europe is increasing

During the past 20 years, protected forests in Europe have increased by about 65 percent and now cover almost one quarter of the forest area, or 49.3 million hectares. About 15 percent of Europe’s forest area is protected to safeguard biodiversity and about 9 percent for other reasons, such as landscape protection.

The European forests protected to safeguard biodiversity are divided in three categories according to how much human activity is allowed in them. The area of strictly protected European forests, where no human activity at all is allowed, is 3.7 million hectares, over half of which is located in Finland.

The area of protected forests where human activity is allowed is 6.4 million hectares. The largest shares of them are found in Sweden, Italy, Finland, Norway and Spain. Active management as a means of protection is used on 21 million hectares of forest. Most of such forests are located in France, Germany and Poland.

Retention trees help increase deadwood. In order to have more deadwood in forests, Finnish forest owners have for long left big, log-size trees standing on felling sites. These trees will live out their lives and then fall down and turn into deadwood. A more recent idea is to leave artificial snags in the forests, by cutting trees not yet grown to log size at a height of 3 to 4 metres. To begin with, they will make good nesting places for birds that nest in hollows, and in time they will also turn into deadwood.

The European Union strives to safeguard biodiversity by means of protecting the most valuable sites and by nature management in commercial forests, which includes such things as using forest management to increase the amount of deadwood in forests. Deadwood is an important part of the circulation of nutrients in forests. It forms the living environment of numerous forest species, and many such species are endangered. Deadwood also forms a carbon storage, though that decreases with the progress of decomposition.

The amount of deadwood in Europe’s forests is 7 percent of the volume of living wood. Per hectare, the amount of deadwood was 11.5 cubic metres in 2015. In Finland the amount of deadwood per hectare is smaller, as is the amount of living wood.

The range of tree species in Europe’s forests is becoming more diversified. In 67 percent of the forests, the number of dominant species is two or more. Foreign species imported from other parts of the world are grown on 3 percent of Europe’s forest area. Invasive species are dominant on half a percent of the forest area.

The area of primary forests in Europe is 2.2 percent. In Finland the figure is 2.9 percent of land area, or 985.000 hectares, which makes up two thirds of of the primary forests in Europe.

Over half of Europe’s commercial forests are certified. A certification label in a wood product tells the consumer that the wood used in it was grown in a sustainably managed forest. Two forest certification systems are used in Europe: PEFC and FSC. The area of PEFC-certified forests in Europe is about 80 million hectares, and that of FSC-certified 48 million hectares. However, since about 27 million hectares are certified under both systems, the total area of certified forests is about 100 million hectares. This is about 60 percent of the forest area used by forestry.

Forest are widely used for recreation

About 70 percent of Europe’s forests can be used for recreation. In most European countries, the figure stands at 90 percent. Recreation is one aspect of the multiple use of forests: the same hectares can be used for, say, timber production and recreation.

Public bodies – sovereign states, local authorities and the like – own 53 percent of Europe’s forests. The rest are in private ownership. Private forest holdings are small; most of them are under ten hectares in size. Forests in private ownership are the most common in northern Europe, up to 70 percent of a country’s area, and least common in south-east Europe, where public bodies own up to 90 percent of the forests.

People also make good use of the right to recreation: on average, Europeans visit a forest 16 times per year. In Finland, the average number of visits is 140.

Everyman’s right refers to the right of anyone to hike and make a temporary camp in any forest. In Europe, everyman’s right is recognised to some extent at least in the Nordic countries, the Baltic republics, Scotland, Austria, Czech Republic and Switzerland.

About 6 percent of Europe’s forests are expressly reserved for recreational use.

Sweden’s forests are available through Airbnb. A forest is not just a stretch of land; it can also be a home that takes care of all your daily necessities: it gives you food, you can sleep there and have a wash in a lake. Sweden wants to offer this home to everyone on the basis of everyman’s right, and has announced the whole country to be available through the accommodation service Airbnb.

Correction, 2.2.2021: The wood fibre used to make paper can be recycled more that ten, not 3 to 7 times as it was earlier written, before it grows too weak to use.

Hannes Mäntyranta

6 comments on “Things you may not know about forests in Europe: forest area, annual growth and fellings, but also protected areas all continue to increase”

Dear Hannes, I am regularly following your articles (since they most often deal exactly with the topics I also deal with in my own daily business). This one is – again – a highly interesting and useful one. Kiitos paljon! Please continue to do so … Magnus, Senior Manager, Sustainable Raw Materials, Stora Enso

Reply

Dear Magnus, thank you very much. I’ll try to keep the spirit on!

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Thank you Hannes, a massive compilation of information and interesting examples!

I just noted one outdated information point: paper life cycles are not limited to ‘3 to 7’ times. This was used in past, in the same way as ‘cats have nine lives’ to illustrate resilience and long, yet limited, life of fibres. Later research and academic studies has shown the real limit is up to ten times more loops. At the moment, paper and board fibres make on average 3.6 loops per year in Europe. The faster it comes back for recycling, the smaller is the stock needed – literally making more with less.

But, as you pointed out, fresh material is needed to cover losses, growth in demand and exports (not returning back for recycling in Europe). In fact, this is not paper-specific but applies to any material and to circular economy as a whole. Losses, growth and exported volumes need replenishment with new materials: having read your article we probably all can agree the best source of replenishing circular economy in Europe is sustainably managed forests! Bioeconomy and circular economy are highly synergic and both are also optimal for mitigating climate change.

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Hi, I have heared stories like that a lot and it might seem correct if you only drive on highways. But if you go into the woods and see and speak to all locals in Eastern Europe with focus on Romania, you will discover that it is just marketing so that the big lumber industry can keep the business going. I know after 20 years in the business that big numbers seem as such… But the reality in the field is different and it expands in the east. If you would see with your eyes…

So sorry, but forests are not like a cake, and such titles only put new generatios to nice sleep until it is too late.

I am not an activist. I just am of the opinion that such articles should not polarize people’s opinions and hide other thoughts. Best regards!

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Thanks, Jori. I’ll make a correction.

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Dear Stefan, thanks for your comment. You are certainly right that the world behind the average varies. This is why we tried to bring the examples for the reader as well. However, if we look at the average in Europe and some examples as well, forest really is a cake that you can have and save. But of course only if you use the forest in a sustainable way.

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