Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Annex 2:
European forests and forestry

Prepared at the request of the Executive Committee of the FAO European Forestry Commission to provide better information on the European dimension of world forestry.

The European region is covered with temperate or boreal forests, over 30 percent of its area. This forest cover is largely of human creation, through the heavy reforestation of the last 150 years following the extensive exploitation of forests over previous centuries in this densely populated continent.

The concept of sustainable management, in earlier times conceived mainly as sustainable yield of wood, found its origin in Europe several generations ago. More recently, the combination of environmental threats and pressing urban demands for varied forest amenities, have led foresters in most countries to elaborate policies which put wood production and forest management within a framework that ensures the long term fulfilment of environmental sustainability and the supply of the whole range of goods and services which society requires.

In many countries, the implementation of such policies depends on the operations of a multitude of private forest owners, often managing small areas of forest, who control nearly half of the forest area. Legal, regulatory, economic or educational instruments, incentives and deterrents have been put in place to bring profit-seeking behaviour into harmony with societal objectives, alongside management practices directly applied by public sector foresters. Such policies have to be seen within an overall trend of declining state intervention and subsidization. These broad traits of the European forest and policies are more systematically documented in the following text.

The debate about sustainable management of forests, and particularly on the reconciliation of economic, environmental and social functions, has gained worldwide scope and is of the highest importance for the future of the forest sector and for the formulation of policies. Every country and every region has its particular ecological, climatic, economic, institutional, even cultural characteristics, which give a specific nature to this common concern and call for approaches tailored to each case. In this context, Europe—taken here in its narrow extension, as large parts of Russia have very different conditions from those prevailing in the majority of other European countries—can be distinguished from the other forest regions in the world by a few features widely shared among its members.


Forest is the climax ecosystem in most parts of Europe20 and in prehistoric times, over 80 percent of the continent was covered by forest. The advance of agriculture over many centuries, and the rapid changes of the industrial revolution, reduced the forest area to less than a quarter in the nineteenth century. However, in European conditions, the forest proved resilient, returning when human pressure eased; from the mid-nineteenth century, or earlier in some cases, Europeans became aware of the importance of forests and the necessity of preserving, expanding and managing them sustainably.

20 For the purposes of this note, Europe includes the Nordic countries, the 12 countries of the European Union, central and southeast Europe and the Balkans, as well as Turkey, and the countries in transition from a centrally planned economy, including the Baltic countries, but not the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)

Table A1
Europe's forests around 1990

countryforest and other wooded landchange 1980–90growing stocknet annual incrementfellingsforest coverforest and other wooded land per caputgrowing stock per hectarefellings as a percentage of net annual increment
 (million ha)(million m3)(percent)(ha)(m3)(percent)
Finland23.40.061 67969.755.9774.687280
Sweden28.00.002 47191.057.5693.278863
Nordic countries61.10.064 721178.3125.2553.397770
France14.20.081 74265.948.0260.2512373
Germany10.70.472 67463.142.7310.1324968
United Kingdom2.40.2420311.18.1100.048573
European Union72.51.046 374210.5144.9310.218869
Central Europe5.10.211 31327.822.6410.3525981
Czech Republic2.60.0261718.813.3340.2623471
Poland8.70.051 38030.527.3280.2315990
Romania6.30.001 20231.616.0270.2719250
East Europe24.90.234 193109.573.1290.2616867
Yugoslavia (excluding Croatia and Slovenia)5.90.351 05613.613.4330.3517898
South East Europe31.50.382 40048.941.5290.357685
Baltic countries6.60.001 00325.513.1400.8515151
TOTAL EUROPE201.71.9120 004600.4420.3360.359970

Source: FAO/ECE Forest Resource Assessment 1990, supplement on newly constituted countries, estimates for ETTS V

Trends in area, gnawing stock and harvest

Since the beginning of this century the area of forests in most countries has been expanding steadily. The recorded area of Europe's forests21 in 1990 was about 195 million ha, 35 percent of land area and nearly 50 million ha more than in 1950, although the area of ‘forests in use’ had dropped from 143 to 133 million ha due to an increase in forest reserves and other protected areas. (Note: part of this increase is due to changes in measurement, so the increase is less than 50 million ha.)

Since the 1950s, fellings have consistently been below the growth of the forest (net annual increment), enabling European forests to supply ever greater quantities of wood while simultaneously increasing the growing stock of forest capital. Almost all European countries have systems to ensure that forests are not managed in an unsustainable way, at least from the point of view of wood production. Only two countries (Albania and Greece) reported fellings higher than net annual increment in the 1990 Forest Resource Assessment. There have certainly also been changes in the quality of Europe's forests. International efforts are under way to develop the analytical and measurement tools to record this scientifically.

The many functions of Europe's forests

There are now hardly any primary forests (in the sense that they have never been touched by man) in the region. Most European forests are managed to produce a wide range of goods, notably wood, as well as many locally important non-wood goods, and services such as recreation, protection (of soils, watersheds and transport infrastructure in mountainous regions), and nature conservation. The role of Europe's forests as an important ‘carbon sink’ is increasingly recognized22. As growth exceeds fellings, there is a net uptake/storage of carbon in the biomass. Human management over the centuries has shaped the forests of Europe, creating forests of great beauty and rich biodiversity (such as the selection forests of central Europe and English ancient woodlands), as well as efficient wood production forests which are often also valuable for the non-wood goods and services they provide.


Slightly less than half of Europe's forest land is in private hands. In part these belong to large traditional family holdings, or the forest industries, but in many countries there are thousands, even millions, of owners with very small holdings. In a number of countries, forestry traditions, public support, and cooperative arrangements and extension services, enable these owners to manage their forests intensively and rationally. Elsewhere, some holdings are neglected, especially where the estate has been broken up by successions and owners have left the country for the cities.

Trends in management objectives


Between 1913 and 1990, total production of wood rose 42 percent, but that of industrial wood by 160 percent, as wood which would earlier have been used as fuel was ‘diverted’ for use as raw material. The rise in demand for small-sized wood has been particularly strong in the forest industries, first for pulp, but later also for wood-based panels. For a while, this rising demand for wood of essentially uniform characteristics, the increasing industrialization and mechanization of all parts of the economy, as well as financial pressures, led forest managers in many areas to attach great importance to the efficiency of production of large volumes of wood, sometimes at the expense of the other functions of the forest. However, this coincided with a profound change in society's expectations of what forests should produce: it is now clear that society attaches equal or greater importance to the non-wood goods and services of the forest.

21 Including ‘other wooded land’, but excluding the Baltic countries for reasons of comparability over time.

22 Estimated by Kauppi et al. (Kauppi P., Mielikainen K., and Kuusela K. Biomass and carbon budget of European forests, 1971 to 1990. Science Vol 256, 3 April 1992) at 85–120 million tonnes of carbon a year in stem wood, other biomass and permanent forest products.

Table A2
Roundwood production in Europe* (million m3)

industrial wood119170161268310

* excluding the Baltic countries for reasons of comparability over time.

Non wood

Highly efficient, plantation forestry has created forests in some areas which were poor in biodiversity and sometimes visually unattractive. This may be considered a natural consequence of a situation where forest managers' main source of income was wood sales, and the level of public grants and subsidies often also was not affected by the conservation, landscape or recreation value of the forest, giving no incentive to manage for these goals.

One important consequence of this development was a widening difference in perceptions in many countries between foresters and the general public, increasingly prosperous and urban in its attitudes, and very conscious of ‘ecological’ issues. Reaction to this situation was faster in some countries than others. Most forest administrations have now taken firm steps to correct this tendency, fully recognizing the importance of both wood and non-wood values in their management objectives. A number of countries took the necessary action decades ago. However, it will take decades to remove the visual evidence of past silvicultural misjudgments and in some countries public confidence in the forestry profession and forestry institutions will need to be rebuilt. Considerable research and experimentation is necessary into the management strategies and methods needed to produce the non-wood goods and services in the most effective and efficient way possible.

Threats to European forests

The two threats to European forests which have attracted most public attention are fire and pollution. All over southern Europe, hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests23 are destroyed by fire every year. In earlier centuries, these forests were managed as part of a stable rural land use system, which has now been destabilized by the multiple changes of the modern world, notably rural depopulation, increase of tourism, loss of economic value of the forests etc. Fire suppression, though important, is not sufficient. Fires are a symptom of deep seated socio-economic and land use problems.

In some areas, most notably a large area in north-central Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, eastern Germany), pollution has caused considerable forest damage even to the extent of making traditional forestry impossible. This is, however, basically a local or regional phenomenon. The more widespread foliage loss apparent in the European-level surveys carried out annually since the early 1980s has more complex causes, of which pollution seems to be only one. Research is being conducted into the complexities of forest ecosystems, notably the effect of site, climate, pollution and their interactions. Nevertheless, significant progress has already been made in many countries in reducing emissions, notably of SO2.

Although this attracts less public attention, forests in Europe are susceptible to continuing damage due to storms (over 100 million m3 blown down in 1990), insects (e.g. the regular cycle of infestation of Polish forests by the nun moth, Lymantria monacha) and diseases.

Countries in transition

The formerly centrally-planned economies of central and eastern Europe, now in transition to a market economy, face radical adjustments in every part of their economy and society, including the forest and forest products sector. Particular forest-linked issues are forest ownership (restitution/privatization), support and control of private forest owners, investment in obsolete and polluting forest industries, adaptation of trade patterns, acquisition of marketing and management skills, etc. At present, consumption and production of forest products are at very low levels, although some countries have been able to continue to export roundwood and sawnwood to western markets.

23 An average of 0.6 million ha over the last decade, with large year-to-year variations.

Forestry and agriculture

The reform of agricultural policies in most European countries is releasing many millions of hectares of agricultural land for other uses, including forestry. A major issue facing governments now is to develop effective policies for this which will encourage the establishment of the type of forests required by society, taking into account all factors.

The future

European countries intend to contribute actively to the international effort towards successful progress in the promotion of sustainable forestry practices throughout the world. The two Ministerial Conferences on the protection of forests in Europe, held in 1991 (Strasbourg) and 1993 (Helsinki), preceded and followed the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. They gave birth to a set of resolutions of growing political significance, for which an explicit system of follow-up and monitoring is now being established. Further progress along these lines will take place at the European level. European countries will also participate actively in the initiatives which accompany the UNCED process in the field of forestry, including efforts towards a Convention on Forests which would build on the forest principles adopted in Rio de Janeiro.

Further information can be obtained from:

The Timber Section
UN-ECE/FAO Agriculture & Timber Division
Palais des Nations, CH-1211
Geneva 10, Switzerland
Telephone: (41-22) 917 28 74
Fax: (41-22) 917 00 41

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page