Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences - Biogeography

Where are Europe’s last primary forests?

Sabatini, F. M., S. Burrascano, W. S. Keeton, C. Levers, M. Lindner, F. Pötzschner, P. J. Verkerk, J. Bauhus, E. Buchwald, O. Chaskovsky, N. Debaive, F. Horváth, M. Garbarino, N. Grigoriadis, F. Lombardi, I. M. Duarte, P. Meyer, R. Midteng, S. Mikac, M. Mikolas, R. Motta, G. Mozgeris, L. Nunes, M. Panayotov, P. Ódor, A. Ruete, B. Simovski, J. Stillhard, M. Svoboda, J. Szwagrzyk, O.-P. Tikkanen, R. Volosyanchuk, T. Vrska, T. M. Zlatanov, and T. Kuemmerle.


Aim: Primary forests have high conservation value but are rare in Europe due to historic land use. Yet many primary forest patches remain unmapped and it is unclear to what extent they are effectively protected. Our aim was to i) compile the most comprehensive European-scale map of currently known primary forests, ii) analyse the spatial determinants characterizing their location, and iii) locate areas where so far unmapped primary forests likely occur.

Location: Europe

Methods: We aggregated data from a literature review, online questionnaires, and 32 datasets of primary forests. We used boosted regression trees to explore which biophysical, socioeconomic and forest-related variables explain the current distribution of primary forests. Finally, we predicted and mapped the relative likelihood of primary forest occurrence at a 1-km resolution across Europe.

Results: Data on primary forests were frequently incomplete or inconsistent among countries. Known primary forests covered 1.4 Mha in 32 countries (0.7% of Europe’s forest area). Most of these forests were protected (89%), but only 46% of them strictly. Primary forests mostly occurred in mountain and boreal areas, and were unevenly distributed across countries, biogeographical regions and forest types. Unmapped primary forests likely occur in the least accessible and populated areas, where forests cover a greater share of land but wood demand historically has been low.

Main Conclusions: Despite their outstanding conservation value, primary forests are rare and their current distribution is the result of centuries of land use and forest management. The conservation outlook for primary forests is uncertain since many are not strictly protected and most are small and fragmented, making them prone to extinction debt and human disturbance. Predicting where unmapped primary forests likely occur could guide conservation efforts, especially in Eastern Europe where large areas of primary forest still exist but are being lost at an alarming pace.


Link to the manuscript: onlinelibrary.wiley.com


Link to the project: projects/forests


Link to Research blog: https://forestsandco.wordpress.com/


Citation: Sabatini FM, Burrascano S, Keeton WS, et al. Where are Europe’s last primary forests? doi:10.1111/ddi.12778



Funding and support: addressing-climate-change-mitigation-and-biodiversity-conservation-in-european-forests-2013-forests-and-co-project-launched.text.image0 The work has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 658876.



Photo: F. M. Sabatini