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Chapter 28. Northern Europe

Figure 28-1. Northern Europe: forest cover map

The subregion of Northern Europe includes the Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (Figure 28-1).[43] The total land area totals 129 million hectares, half of which is classified as forest (65 million hectares) by FRA 2000. The region extends across a wide range of climate zones, from the polar zone in the northern high-altitude areas to the moist warm-temperate zone in the southwest and the continental zone in the east. Annual precipitation varies from 300 to 3 000 mm per year depending on location.

Representative vegetation zones include the alpine, subalpine, boreal, boreal-nemoral and nemoral zones. The majority of the forests are coniferous, predominantly Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and Norway spruce (Picea abies), which are often mixed with broad-leaved trees such as birch (Betula spp.) and quaking aspen (Populus tremula). In the subalpine zone birch is predominant and in the nemoral zone, oak (Quercus spp.), beech (Fagus sylvatica), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and other broad-leaved trees comprise the natural tree vegetation.

Historically, forestry has played a major role in the economies of Sweden, Finland and Norway. For example, in 1999 the value of exports from the forest sector in Sweden were US$9.7 billion, and exports from Finland totalled US$10.9 billion (Sweden NBF 2001). Wood exports from the Baltic countries have increased dramatically since they gained independence in the early 1990s, much of which is imported to Finland and Sweden. At the same time, the Baltic countries have increased their industrial capacity over the last few years and are able to utilize increasing amounts of their own forest resources.


The forest resources of the subregion have historically been well managed by many of the countries. For example, both forest area and timber volume have increased in Sweden, Norway and Finland since they were first inventoried early in the 1920s (Finnish Forest Research Institute 2001; Sweden. Department of Forest Resource Management and Geomatics 2001; Norwegian Institute of Land Inventory 2001). In the Baltic countries, forests increased after the Second World War (Lithuania. Department of Forests and Protected Areas, Ministry of Environment 2001), when many farms were abandoned and reverted into forests. During the course of the last decade the overall forest area in the subregion has increased (Table 28-1). However, a point of equilibrium has been reached where afforestation and natural expansion of forests on old farmland is equal to the loss of forests due to the expansion of cities, highways and other infrastructure into once forested areas. In Sweden, preliminary figures from an evaluation of the national forest policy (Sweden NBF 2001b) show that the forest area may even have decreased somewhat during the last two decades.

Table 28-1. Northern Europe: forest resources and management

Country /area

Land area

Forest area 2000

Area change 1990-2000 (total forest)

Volume and above-ground biomass (total forest)

Forest under management plan

Natural forest

Forest plantation

Total forest

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha


ha/ capita

000 ha/ year




000 ha



4 227

1 755


2 060







1 125



30 459

21 935

21 935







21 900



10 025













6 205

2 780


2 923







2 923



6 258

1 710


1 994







1 938



30 683

8 568


8 868







7 147



41 162

26 565


27 134







27 134


Total Northern Europe

129 019

63 332

1 613

64 945







62 180


Total Europe

2 259 957

1 007 236

32 015

1 039 251







954 707



13 063 900

3 682 722

186 733

3 869 455



-9 391






Source: Appendix 3, Tables 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
The forest area per capita in Finland, Norway and Sweden is higher than for the rest of Europe and the world average. This is due to their relatively large forest areas and low populations. Many large forests are located far away from forest industries in sparsely populated areas without roads. In fact, forests are frequently the only incentive for investments in roads in these locations. In forest areas where roads do not exist, their construction adds to the costs of logging operations, making timber extraction much more expensive. There is also concern that low populations will result in an insufficient work force for forestry field operations. In Lithuania and Iceland, the forest area per capita is small in comparison.

The net annual increment is more than 220 million cubic metres per year over bark and the fellings about 150 million cubic metres per year over bark (of which approximately 6 million cubic metres per year over bark are attributed to natural losses). This accounts in part for the net annual increase of growing stocks which is close to 80 million cubic metres per year over bark from 1990 to 2000. As the forest area and stocking levels have increased since the Second World War, the total volume and biomass within the region have also increased.

The landscape in many areas has changed radically over the last 50 years. In previously open farmland, there are now often thick coniferous forests. This development has largely continued over the last two FRA reference periods (Table 28-1, Figure 28-2) (UNECE/FAO 2000). One exception is the decrease in growing stock in the late 1990s in the Baltic countries, owing to increased fellings (Lithuania. Department of Forests and Protected Areas, Ministry of Environment 2001d). However, the overall trend has helped to increase carbon sequestration in the forests of northern Europe (currently estimated at 4.7 billion tonnes, oven-dry) (UNECE/FAO 2000).


The FAO forest plantation area estimates (Table 28-1) are fairly limited in northern Europe. Only 2 percent of the forests are considered to be in plantations. For FRA 2000, Finland reports no plantation areas and Sweden only 570 000 ha, all planted with introduced species (mostly Pinus contorta). However, FRA may have missed some of the plantations in the subregion. Owing to differences between national and global definitions, some of the countries were unable to supply better data on the theme within the context of their own national reporting. In fact, the major source of regeneration in the subregion following harvesting is through tree planting with one or two species. Alternatively, many countries reported these areas as "semi-natural forests" owing to their mixed composition of exotic and native species. This is commonly due to the natural seeding of native trees from the surrounding forests which continue to grow alongside planted exotics.

There are good justifications why most of the subregion's forests are considered to be semi-natural, rather than plantations. First, the geometry of the plantations is not uniform - so the resulting mature planting stock does not look like a conventional plantation. Additionally, in these same areas, regeneration is augmented by seeds supplied by the surrounding native forests, which increases their presence. The combination of these two regeneration mechanisms frequently results in the native species dominating the site until they reach about 3 to 7 m (after about 10 to 30 years). Following this period when thinnings are carried out, planted forests temporarily begin to look like conventional plantations. However, at the end of the long rotations (60 to 120 years) the forests have regained the appearance of "natural forests", except for their lack of dead wood and hollow and old trees.

About 75 percent of the forest area within the subregion is privately held (UNECE/FAO 2000). However, this figure is far from stable as there has been a rapid privatization of forest land in some countries. In the Nordic countries, the majority of the forest land has been owned privately. This increased even more in the 1990s since the majority of the State-owned Swedish forests were sold to private shareholders. Now 70 to 85 percent of the forest area is in private ownership in the four Nordic countries in the subregion. In the Baltic countries, private ownership has only recently become possible since their independence in the 1990s, although the majority of the forest land is owned by the State. Overall, State-owned lands in the subregion are less productive than the private ones. Consequently, the private forests have an even larger proportion of the production capacity than the forest land ownership figures indicate.

Figure 28-2. Northern Europe: natural forest and forest plantation areas 2000 and net area changes 1990-2000

The high figure of 96 percent of forest under some form of forest management plan also implies that information and knowledge about forests is abundant in the subregion. The Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian national forest surveys have all been ongoing since the 1920s. Other countries in the region also have a long history of producing national forest statistics with reliable and comparable multidate data.

Both wood and non-wood forest products (NWFP) are important in the subregion. Income from wood products represents a major portion of their national economies, with their importance at the local level being even greater. NWFP such as game-meat are important, and there is an abundance of moose, deer, game birds and other game.

Of the 65 million hectares of forests within the subregion, about 10 million hectares (16 percent) are reported as not available for wood supply (7 million hectares are under protection for conservation purposes and 3 million hectares are not available for economic reasons). In terms of percentages, this is low compared with the 30 percent not available for wood supply for all of Europe and the Russian Federation.

Protected areas may also result in forests being unavailable for wood supply, depending on their protection regime. FRA 2000 utilized the IUCN classification for protected areas with mixed results in northern Europe. For example, Sweden did not report any forests as being protected, as the IUCN scheme did not correspond well with national protected area classes. Conversely, Norway reports 26 percent of their forests as under formal protection.


Timber resources within the subregion of northern Europe have steadily developed since the early 1900s. This is the result of long-term silvicultural work, deliberately modest levels of fellings, national forest policies and forest acts where a sustainable use of the forest has been an important objective during most of the twentieth century. In fact, a recent study by Sweden's National Board of Forestry (Sweden NBF 2000), showed that significant increases in fellings could be sustained in the country's forests. During the 1990 to 2000 period the net increase in growing stock averaged more than 1 m3 per hectare over bark per year. This increase occurred during a period when harvesting has been greater than ever before (approximately 150 million cubic metres over bark for the ten-year period equivalent to 2.3 m3 per hectare over bark per year). This has proved to be beneficial to the countries in the region and their associated industries. However, increasing public interest in the aesthetic, recreational and ecological aspects of forests have led to a rethinking of industry-oriented management practices in the forests.

During the 1970s, a large segment of the population in the countries began to recognize that timber harvesting frequently left large unsightly clearings, owing to clear-felling and mechanized regeneration. Even though these methods helped optimize the harvesting and replanting, public sentiment began to turn against them. In the 1980s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) became stronger and showed an increasing interest in forest management, pressuring industries and, consequently, the forest owners to manage the forests in ways that would limit their impact on the biological resources and preserve their aesthetic value.

Consumers of forest products have also begun to question the ways in which their countries' forests were being managed and exploited. The result of all of these forces was that in the early 1990s industries had initiated reforms of their management practices. By this time, NGOs, the government and industries had dropped their confrontations in favour of more constructive dialogues on how to enhance both timber yield and biological diversity through forest management. For example, Sweden's forest policy of 1993 indicated that environmental goals were just as important as forest production, in contrast to its 1979 policy which was almost entirely production oriented.

In the late 1990s, the discussions between NGOs and the forest industry resulted in their cooperation on forest certification of forest estates, and by the year 2000 the majority of the forests in the Nordic countries were certified under different plans.

Forest development in the Baltic countries differs considerably from the Nordic countries for many reasons, especially those related to national politics. Since these countries regained their independence, forests have served as a ready source of badly needed capital. Much of the roundwood from the area has been exported to the Nordic countries, although the Baltic forest industries are developing fast. There is hope that the national forest industries of the Baltic countries will motivate the improved management of their forests.

The overall future for the forest sector in the subregion is good. Forest growth exceeds annual fellings and an increasing emphasis on environmental aspects of forests will help to sustain the long-term viability of the ecosystems. The prominent role of forestry in the subregion throughout recent history has helped to create strong and competent forest administrations, and stimulate research and education in various aspects of forestry. At the same time, new difficulties and challenges are emerging, such as those related to acid rain and its possible effects on forest vegetation and soils.


Finnish Forest Research Institute. 2001. The Finnish national forest inventory. Statistics home page.

Lithuania. Department of Forests and Protected Areas, Ministry of Environment. 2001. The Lithuanian Statistical Yearbook of Forestry. Home page.

Norwegian Institute of Land Inventory. 2001. The Norwegian Institute of Land Inventory home page.

Sweden. Department of Forest Resource Management and Geomatics. 2001. The Swedish national forest inventory. Statistics home page. Umeaa, Sweden, Swedish University of Agricultural and Science (SLU).

Sweden. National Board of Forestry (NBF). 2000. Forest impact analyses 1999 (FIA 99).

Sweden. NBF. 2001a. Statistical yearbook of forestry 2001. Official statistics of Sweden. Jönköping, Sweden. National Board of Forestry.

Sweden. NBF. 2001b. Sweden, statistics homepage.

Sweden. NBF. 2001c. National board of foresty home page. Skogsvårdsorganisationens utvärdering av skogspolitikens effekter (SUS) 2001. Sweden SUS 2001.

UNECE/FAO. 2000. Forest resources of Europe, CIS, North America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand: contribution to the global Forest Resources Assessment 2000. Geneva Timber and Forest Study Papers 17. New York and Geneva, United Nations.

[43] For more details by country, see

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