|CHAPTER 23: FORESTRY - INTRODUCTION|
How forests are used and managed can significantly affect environmental quality. This chapter examines the changes in the nature of Europe's forests and in how they are used. It summarises how the associated activities and practices can result in impacts on the environment, both negatively and positively, and identifies the principal underlying driving forces influencing these changes, including such factors as policy, demand for wood and ownership patterns (see Box 23A).
There has been extensive loss of forest cover in Europe since the early post-glacial era 10 000 years ago, when an estimated 80 to 90 per cent (Delcourt and Delcourt, 1987) of Europe's land was forested. Deforestation was due partly to changing climatic conditions but was caused primarily by human activities such as land clearance for farming and the harvesting of forests for fuelwood and wood for building, shipping and mining material. The first important deforestation in Europe took place during the Roman period but the largest deforestation period ever in Central Europe occurred in the Middle Ages. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, vast primary forests were still present until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Today, forests cover about 312 million hectares, that is 33 per cent of Europe's land (see Chapter 3), from which 166 million hectares are located in the European part of the Russian Federation. This percentage ranges from 6 per cent in Ireland up to 66 per cent in Finland (see Map 23.1). Recent trends from different sources (UNECE /FAO, 1992a; see Statistical Compendium) indicate that there has been an increase of Europe's forest cover, in both area and volume, over the past 30 years (see Figure 23.1). In addition, the composition and use of many of Europe's forests have changed greatly.
In Europe, there are practically no forests that can be considered 'natural' or 'virgin' in the sense that there has been no human influence whatsoever (see Chapter 9). It is estimated that as little as 1 per cent of Europe's forests remain essentially untouched by humans and are still in their original, natural state (Dudley, 1992), most of it being in Russia. Even the Nordic subalpine birch woods, or the tundra or taiga of Russia, which are often thought of as untouched or virgin, have been subject to human impact. Therefore, most of the forests in Europe are the result of past use (or misuse) of the environment: in parts of the Mediterranean basin, for instance, fire and overgrazing have led to the appearance of a degraded brush vegetation. However, in the Iberian region (agro-forestry landscapes of the montados or dehesas (see Box 23B), or in Scandinavia, grazed deciduous woodlands are the result of sustainable landuses that have survived over the centuries, are rich in wildlife and nature, and are considered as harmonious landscapes which deserve protection (see Chapter 8). Although most European forest has been modified by human influence, changes are not necessarily for the worst. Forest is still one of the components of the European environment where human impact has been relatively slight and natural values dominate.
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This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe's environment.
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