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Conversion of degraded hardwood forests in France

Société de bois français de papeterie, Paris

Out of a total land surface of 56.2 million hectares, France possesses 11.6 million hectares of forests, 21 percent of which is managed with the aid of grants from the National Forestry Fund. The division of this area by forest categories and by types of ownership is as shown in the Table.

Coppice and coppice with standards account for 37 percent of the forests under management by the State forest service, and 65 percent of private forests and forests not under systematic management. It is mainly on these latter areas that conversion is taking place.

There is a marked predominance of hardwoods (69 percent) over softwoods (31 percent) in French forests because the extensive areas of calcareous soils of high pH lend themselves to the production of hardwoods, and the mean annual temperature of over 10°C. is more favorable to hardwoods than to the majority of conifers.



Coppice and coppice with standards

High forest conversion in progress

Unplanted land

total (ha.)


area (ha.)


area (ha.)


Million hectares








Communes and public bodies under forest management








Private forests and collective groups not under forest management
















The large area devoted to coppice and coppice with standards is, however, due to economic reasons. France is a country which has little coal. Until comparatively recent times, wood was the principal domestic fuel and for part of the 19th century was also an industrial fuel (for smelting, glass manufacture, the manufacture of chemicals, etc.). Also until recently, most of the population was rural and naturally preferred to bum wood instead of coal, because countryfolk lived close to centers of wood production and could themselves cut the amount they required.

This situation has changed gradually since 1918 but at an especially marked rate since 1945. The consumption of firewood has fallen rapidly and is still falling annually. Today only 15 to 20 million cubic meters are used, of which 6 million are used industrially. At the same time, there has been a very marked decrease in the consumption of pitprops, mining timber, and wooden railway sleepers.

Whereas a number of other European countries converted their degraded forests during the 19th century when there was still a steady demand for firewood, for pitprops and railway sleepers, in France the forests are now having to be converted at a time when the market for small-dimension wood is becoming more and more difficult, which makes the operation expensive. However, there is a reason for optimism in that the pulp industry and the fibreboard and wood particle board industry every year use more and more homegrown wood of small dimensions. The consumption of small-sized home-grown timber by the pulp industry has risen from 500,000 cubic meters before the war to 3,015,000 cubic meters in 1959, which represents 10 percent of the total production of home-grown timber against 2 percent in 1939, and provides more than 50 percent of the requirements of the paper industry as against 14 percent before the war. This development has encouraged the rehabilitation of degraded forest and especially conversion to conifers. Moreover, coppice and coppice with standards no longer provide the revenue which private owners expect. The communes especially have suffered from loss of revenue. At the same time these forests can no longer provide opportunities for employment at a time when the population is increasing.

Again, France must import each year 4 million cubic meters of pulpwood (or the equivalent in pulp) and 2 million cubic meters of sawlogs (or the equivalent in sawn timber), quantities which may be exceeded 20 years from now by 10 million cubic meters for the paper industry and 3 million cubic meters for logs.

In view of this situation, the Administration des eaux et forêts has for some years now paid great attention to increasing the industrial timber resources of the country.

While allowing for the fuelwood needs of the communes, the Forest Service has gradually increased the number of standards in communal areas of coppice with standards, to the extent that in many cases, principally in the northeast, full conversion into high forest (of oak or beech) by natural regeneration has already been undertaken or is planned. At the same time coppice rotations have been lengthened from 1520 years to 25-30 years and even to 40 years.

Then there are in France about 5,600,000 hectares of heathland and abandoned agricultural land. The reforestation of this land was encouraged by financial grants even before the war, but since 1947, with the advent of the National Forestry Fund, it has made remarkable progress. In fact reforestation - mainly with conifers, but also with poplars - of these barren areas has progressed faster than the conversion of coppice and coppice with standards to conifers. It is much easier and often much cheaper. Moreover, a large part of the heathland and abandoned areas is in the mountainous regions and on flinty soils particularly favorable to the creation of fast-growing and highly profitable conifer plantations.

From 1947 to 1959, more than 600,000 hectares have been reforested from the National Forestry Fund, which has been aiding enrichment and conversion of coppice, and of coppice with standards only to a smaller extent. But the current trend is an increase in conversion of such forests to conifers, partly owing to the new mechanized techniques now developed and partly owing to the need to keep pace with the growing demands of the paper industry.

FIGURE 1. - Strips are cleared in poor coppice by bulldozer with delta blade, and afterward sub-soiled and gone over with a root rake.

The National Forestry Fund aids by

(a) nonrepayable grants (1,500 N.F.1 per hectare, given principally in the form of planting stock);

(b) long-term loans at 0.25 percent to 1 percent interest according to the method of repayment (maximum duration 50 years);

(c) contracts under which the Fund itself undertakes the execution and payment of the necessary work, recovering its expenses from the first fellings, at an interest of 0.25 percent.

1N. F. 1.00 = U.S. $4.90.

FIGURE 2. - Strip cleared in worthless coppice by a Traxcavator, tilled and ready for planting.

In connection with the work of the Fund, one of the great obstacles was the small size of ownerships. Half of the 7,560,000 hectares of private forest is in ownerships of less than 50 hectares. 1,400,000 private owners have each less than 10 hectares of woodland. In some extreme cases, there are forested parcels of 3 meters in width by some hundreds of meters in length.

A law of December 1954 on the grouping of forest properties allowed the setting up of private companies especially for the purpose of forest management. Through such groupings, fragmentation of almost 400,000 hectares of private forests has been avoided on the succession of new owners. A reduction in registration fees is allowed when a new owner agrees to accept management of his forest by the Administration.

Moreover, land replanted in conformity with certain standards can benefit from an exemption of land tax for 30 years.


Owing to the increased demand for softwoods, conversion to conifer high forest in France has much attraction, especially on private estates where conversion to broadleaved high forest without changing the species has little appeal although this is practiced widely in state and communal forests.

Several techniques are available for doing the work, by hand, mechanically and by the use of chemicals. The extent of the area to be treated and the composition of the crop decides the choice.

Mechanical means. Considerable research into mechanized operations has been carried out which has already yielded useful results. Numerous private planting contractors have mechanical equipment for the destruction of coppice and ground preparation (bulldozers, angledozers, rootrakes, subsoilers, etc.).

Two conditions must be fulfilled before using mechanical equipment:

(a) At least 50 hectares must be dealt with at one time, in order to justify the cost of the equipment. That presupposes that large areas are available to be treated, and that the areas are badly derelict so that there is no unnecessary sacrifice of saleable produce from the existing forest or of potentially useful timber.

(b) The ground must not be too irregular, and the coppice must not be of species with too vigorous stools: for instance, coppice with a high proportion of hornbeam usually cannot be dealt with by mechanical methods. Conversion generally entails the complete clearance by bulldozer of all stumps and stems in strips 3 meters wide, followed by passing along the center of the strips a subsoiler equipped with two coulters which cut the roots of adjoining stumps. The strips are spaced 5 to 6 meters apart. In the case of very derelict coppice with weak stools, a scrubcutter or heavy rotovator can be used to clear the strips.

Chemical methods. Chemical control is becoming increasingly used, especially in the treatment of first-year regrowth of coppice shoots, just before planting conifers; and the chemicals can also be applied to the stumps soon after cutting. Private contractors are equipped for the chemical treatment of large areas with motorized equipment, but chemicals can be used by an owner himself on small areas with small portable equipment.

Manual clearing. Can be used in all types of stand no matter what the area to be treated or the conversion treatment to be applied (complete clearance, strips, group clearance or shelterwoods).

Preparing poor hardwood areas for the introduction of conifers

The methods in use are in proportion to the very wide 'variety of ecological conditions, component species, and social and economic factors which are to be found in France.

Enrichment. This method is used in worthless or impoverished coppice, or in coppice with standards potentially rich in standards which contain open spaces. In both cases the initial aim is to introduce a limited number of conifers, for example by group planting. From these a fully stocked coniferous stand, more or less mixed with hardwoods, can be obtained at a later stage by natural regeneration. In the latter stages, the operation thus costs less than it does in the beginning. This practice allows considerable areas to be treated, while at the same time preparing for the future. This has been called by an eminent forester, enrésinement à terme.

Abies spp., cedars, and maritime and other pines are introduced by planting in:

(a) Worthless or devastated coppice cleared by strip or group felling. This coppice originates either from degraded woodland, or from abandoned arable or grazing land on which there has been a natural regrowth.

(b) Present coppice with standards selectively felled so as to create gaps where reasonably shade-tolerant species can survive.

Other methods rely on natural regeneration combined with improvement fellings; or, for instance, the planting of poplars in deep moist soils. In each case only between about 300 and 1,200 plants are used per hectare. Special care must be taken in opening up the canopy.

Substitution of species. This can be done in various ways:

(a) In strips from 1 to 3 meters wide, with or without retention of a shelterwood. Some cover should be retained over the strips on heavy, wet soils to prevent the water table from rising. The strips can be cleared mechanically where there is only scrub or worthless coppice.

(b) By clear felling of more or less large areas ranging from strips of about 20 meters wide to clear felling of more extensive areas, with or without soil preparation. Under these conditions some landowners use large plants of spruce (weeded annually over a period of 5 to 6 years) or pines (which are sometimes sown the year before the coppice is cut).

(c) By fairly heavy felling of the shelterwood, retaining from about 200 to more than 1,000 coppice stems per hectare as shelter for the establishment of the conifers. This type of felling is especially practiced in older coppice which still can yield merchantable products, or in the vicinity of urban areas where firewood is collected privately for domestic use. The stems retained for cover increase in girth and value and are then often used for pulpwood. The introduction of Abies at lower elevations fits in particularly well with this method which can be, according to the market for hardwoods, one of the most economical because it requires little or no later cleaning (for example, in the Basses-Vosges where Abies are planted in coppice under beech standards).

Private woodland owners are often advised, as the first stage in the improvement of their coppice, to allow the coppice to grow on to marketable size before converting to conifers.


The success of the effort to convert poor and degraded hardwood forests can be seen in the growing numbers both of private undertakings specializing in reforestation and of forestry co-operative societies set up for the same purpose. More recently a number of societies, started by government agencies and by local authorities, have begun to take an interest in the problem, for example in the east of France (Société d'étude des friches et taillies pauvres de l'Est), in Brittany, in the southwest (Société de mise en valeur des coteaux de Gascogne), in the southeast (Compagnie nationale du Bas-Rhône-Languedoc), etc. Lastly, private woodland owners are organizing groups, with the encouragement of the Forest Service, for the joint study (at forestry training centers and agricultural training centers) of the problems of converting totally or partially unproductive woodlands. A major exercise in the co-ordination of effort, in the dissemination of technical knowledge, in publicity and in the technical advisory services is taking place, thanks to the joint efforts in their various fields of the private owners, the State and professional foresters themselves.

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