The Boreal biogeographical region
European Environment Agency
Europe's biodiversity - biogeographical regions and seas
Biogeographical regions in Europe
The Boreal biogeographical region
- numerous lakes, vast coniferous forests dominate
Table 1: Statistics for the Boreal biogeographical region
Source: compilation from various sources by ETC/NC, EEA and ETC/Water.
Note: RU: Russian Federation; SE: Sweden; FI: Finland; BY: Belarus; EE: Estonia; LV: Latvia; LT: Lithuania; NO: Norway.
The area treated in this chapter is the Boreal biogeographical region as defined by the European Commission and the Council of Europe for evaluation and reporting on nature conservation. In the south it borders on the Continental biogeographical region.
It covers around Œ of Europe's territory and involves eight countries: south eastern Norway, the majority of Sweden, most of Finland, all Estonia and Latvia and the northern parts of Lithuania and Belarus. In the Russian Federation it stretches east to the Ural Mountains. It connects to two European Seas: the open Arctic Ocean via the White Sea and the semi-enclosed Baltic Sea.
It is the conifer dominated forest belt below the Fennoscandian alpine mountains and south of the Arctic biogeographical region, constituting part of the vast, circumpolar taiga belt of North America and Eurasia. It contains the sub-arctic Swedish, Finnish and southern Karelian parts of the Barents region as defined by the Barents Region Council.
Map 1: The Boreal biogeographical region physiography (elevation pattern, main lakes and rivers)
Source: EEA. UNEP/GRID Warsaw final map production.
Most of the Boreal region lies less 500 m above sea level, the main inhabited areas even below 200 m. Taiga forests and mires, numerous lakes and rivers form the characteristic mosaic landscapes of the Boreal region. Along the coasts bedrock archipelagos intermingle with low-lying brackish fens and grasslands.
The geology of the Boreal region is characterised by old weathered sedimentary rocks and bedrock, such as gneisses and granites. Glacial and post-glacial erosion and associated deposits have formed large undulating plains and rolling hills broken by occasional mountain outcrops and river valleys. The north European ice sheet carved out numerous depressions, which combined with the effects of a cool and moist climate, has resulted in an exceptionally large number of lakes, rivers and other wetlands. The massive ice layers depressed the land (more than 800 m). When the ice melted, large areas have been both submerged and lifted out of the sea due to the combined effects of land uplift and sea rises during postglacial times.
In parts of the region the land uplift is still occurring at a rate of nearly 1 cm per year (http://www.sgu.se/search/index.htm search: uplift). It is felt mostly along the northern very shallow coast of the Baltic Sea, where strips of land gradually emerge from the sea, broad enough to induce cattle fencing and boat landing to be shifted outwards every generation, becoming naturally brackish fens and grasslands. These areas may be directly counter affected if a sea level rise will occur in the future. The highest uplift occurs in the area Höga Kusten in Sweden, which was declared a World Heritage area in 2001 with its high coast giving evidence of the uplift (more than 200 m). A map of the effect in the whole region is found at Chalmers University of Technology website (Sweden): http://www.oso.chalmers.se/popular/images/geo/uplift.html (22.11.2002)
The ice sheet wiped the land clean of most plants and animals, forcing them south and eastwards. Several species are still considered to be on a natural move back. This slow move is sometimes by-passed by human use of the same species (though often in other provenances) beyond the present natural distribution limits.
The young soils formed after the glacial period are generally shallow, with a poorly developed organic component. On well-drained ground, over large areas of the Boreal region, however, strongly layered, acidic podzol soils have formed as a result of organic acids leaching from the conifer needle litter. Leaching removes minerals from the characteristic podzols, resulting in reduced potential for plant growth. The leaching is enhanced by acidification. Where broad-leaved deciduous trees dominate in the southern part, especially near the Baltic Sea coast, richer brown soils with a better structure and balance of nutrients are more common. Paludification, the extensive formation of peat soils, is another typical feature of the region.
The region has a cool-temperate, moist climate, varying from sub-oceanic in the west to sub-continental in the interior and the east. The most significant climatic factor for biodiversity is the length of the growing season, which defines the productive period, and the amount and duration of snow cover. The summer growing period varies between 100 days in the north and 200 days in the south. Precipitation varies between 500 and 800 mm per year, with extremes of 300 and 1 200 mm. Evaporation is low and prolonged periods of drought are rare. Snow covers the ground for several months during the winter. Average annual temperatures are generally low, but varies much over the region: with monthly mean temperatures varying from + 20 °C in the warmest months of the warmest areas to -15 °C in the coldest months in the coldest areas.
The Boreal region is characterised by a striking contrast between increasingly large and heavily urbanised areas, situated mostly along the coasts and in the lowland plains along major rivers and lakes, and the vast forest dominated areas with a diminishing population.
The highest population density and urban development in the Boreal region in the big urban centres, such as Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Riga, and Sankt Peterburg are found near the coast in the southern parts of the region. The largest urban centre of the region, Moscow, although inland, is also located in the southern part.
Human impact on biodiversity in the Boreal region is young, having started at the end of the last glacial period about 10 000 years ago. Agriculture is still dominating in the central and southern parts where terrain, soil conditions and climate are most suitable. Numerous small family holdings with combined forestry and agriculture have been characteristic of much of the region. Agriculture reached its widest extent towards the end of the 19th century. It is now being intensified and concentrated to the main agricultural regions, while farmland in marginal areas is increasingly abandoned and the land returned to forest naturally or by planting. This process accelerated rapidly since the middle of the 20th century. The effect is a more uniform landscape with strong contrasts between open agricultural areas and closed forests.
Widely spread reindeer-based settlements and nomadic herding in the northern parts of the region are now increasingly shifting to all-year settlements and mobile herding.
The Boreal biogeographical region is a transition zone from the climatic extremes of the Arctic region to milder regions of Europe.
Table 2: Main habitat types of the Boreal biogeographical region. Definition according to EUNIS Habitat Classification (top categories)
Source: Compiled by ETC/NC and EEA from Corine Land Cover (EEA) and PELCOM map (Pan-European Land Cover Monitoring, Alterra 1999, NL). June 2000
Note: Estimation based on 83 % of the region.
Table 3: Habitat types of European importance in Sweden and Finland in the Boreal biogeographical region. Flora, fauna and habitats directive, annex I (FFH AI)
Source: ETC/NC from FFH directive annexes. March 2000
• Vast forests
More than 58 % of the region is covered by forests and other wooded land. There are large differences among northern and southern types. Over 90 % of the forests are under management, though in very varying degrees. The tree limit is in the attitude of 300-500 m in many northern areas and is even lower in the northernmost areas. The forest health condition is crucial to the region (see 2.3.5 Contaminants – Forest condition). The effects of acidification still cause severe problems.
Most of the boreal forests belong to the taiga type, dominated by a few conifer tree species, primarily Norway spruce (Picea abies) on moister ground and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) on drier ground. East of the White Sea, mainly closer to the mountains, Siberian conifer species like Siberian pine, fir, and larch (Pinus sibirica, Abies sibirica, Larix sibirica) may also occur. Deciduous species like birches (Betula spp.), aspen (Populus tremula), alders (Alnus spp.) and willows (Salix spp.) may occur as early successional forest stages (especially birches and aspen) or may form smaller stands among the conifers or along rivers and lakes. The European taiga forms the western part of the Eurasian taiga belt and relates to the taiga of USA and Canada.
Vast forest areas were grazed by cattle until some decades ago. This has now diminished radically. The forest grazing kept forests open and with low litter accumulation, but it also made regeneration, both natural and by plantation very difficult. In the northern part large areas are still being grazed by reindeer. In many areas the large elk and deer populations influence the forest composition.
Towards the mountains in the Fennoscandian part of the Alpine region and the arctic tundra the forest is formed by birch (Betula pubescens) (including in the Kola Peninsula), while east of the White Sea this transitional zone is generally formed by Siberian spruce (Picea abies ssp. obovata) (Map 2).
Map 2: Siberian spruce (Picea abies ssp. obovata)
Source: ETC/NC based on data from Atlas Flora Europaea. Data extracted March 2000
In most of the boreal forest ecosystems, nutrients tend to be tied up in organic components of the ecosystems, either as live biomass in the dominating forest trees or as partially decomposed dead organic matter in litter and peat.
The vertical structure of mature boreal forests is generally simple, with a well-defined tree layer and a rather poorly developed shrub layer. The nutrient availability for the vegetation tends to be rather limited. The field layer is dominated by ericaceous dwarf shrubs (e.g. Calluna and the berry rich Vaccinium, Empetrum and Rubus spp.), varying from dry and poor lichen and Calluna-dominated pine forests to somewhat moister and richer Vaccinium-dominated spruce forests (the blueberry forest). Grasses and herbs are more common in the field layer on richer soils, tall herbs being especially characteristic for the rather uncommon richest forests. The bottom layer is often well developed, being dominated by bryophytes under moist conditions and lichens (e.g., Cladonia, Cetraria spp.) on drier ground with more accessible light. In moist old forests, an epiphytic vegetation of lichens and bryophytes is often well developed.
The blueberry and lichen-moss rich forests and other berry rich forest types decrease at present due to intensive forest management with heavy disturbance during felling and clearing, with gradually denser forest cover and high N-content.
Photo: Mixed conifer forest with lichens, mosses and berries
Source: Ulla Pinborg
The north European mixed forest
Natural rejuvenating factors
Natural forest fires are set by lightning. Up through history, until the last 100 years, traditional human activities also contributed significantly to fire frequency and patterns in most parts of the Boreal region. Now fire by accident or arson is a major factor.
Fires rejuvenate the forest over large areas and mobilise the nutrients tied up in various living and dead organic matter. Several forest tree species seem to germinate better after fire. Both recently burned areas and fire refuges have great significance for forest biodiversity, as both types of areas provide particular habitat characteristics not readily available elsewhere. The extensive reduction of forest fires in recent years has reduced the availability of special habitats for fire adapted species. When fires occur in areas under modern forest management that often allows deep litter layers to form during the full life time of forest stands, fires may be very severe. Controlled fires are beginning to be considered as a positive forest management tool in this region.
Storm damage and large outbreaks of insect pests, killing smaller or larger groups of trees, are important rejuvenating forces on forest content and structure which strongly influence biodiversity. In riparian areas the forests are normally adapted to flooding, but extensive floods may disturb and restructure the forest. Otherwise, rejuvenation takes place by gap dynamics. This occurs when individual trees die and fall over in local patches, thereby freeing space for new recruits and opening the canopy for increased light and heat. Storm damage has so far not been considered a major risk for forests in the region despite several severe incidents during 1980-2001.
Very few remaining untouched forests
• Mires, bogs and fens
Over most of the region, wetlands such as mires, bogs and fens form characteristic landscape elements in mosaics with various forest types. In parts of northern Finland, mires cover almost 50 % of the surface area. Peat-rich mires are still abundant in Estonia and Latvia (Baltic Environment Forum, 2000), while Lithuania has lost around 70 % of such wetlands over 30 years.
The diversity of mires is very high both in terms of habitat types and associated species. Mires are defined as waterlogged ground with a peat layer made up of partly decomposed vegetation, at least 30 cm thick. In this region, it can reach up to 10 m thickness. Mires which receive virtually all their water and nutrient input from precipitation are ombrogenous, while mires where some of the water and nutrients also come from the mineral soil are minerogenous mires or fens. The most common types of mire in the Boreal region are fens on level or gently sloping ground, often mixed with smaller areas of open water, raised bogs, and drier, firm ground. Characteristic ombrogenous raised bogs, with a central dome of accumulated peat, are mainly found in the southern part. In the most oceanic parts of the region, terrain-covering blanket bogs may have many similarities with North-Atlantic bogs. Special types of palsa mires, which are heaps of peat with a nucleus of ice, may be found in areas of permafrost, generally surrounded by fens. Various Sphagnum mosses dominate in bogs, but only a few vascular plants may be found there, such as species of sedges, cotton-grasses and rushes (Carex, Eriophorum and Juncus spp.), heather (Calluna vulgaris), and stunted Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris). Important plant species for animals are cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus) and other berry-carrying dwarf shrubs. A special group of plants on bogs are the insect-eating sundews (Drosera spp.), which benefit from the extra nutrients in their animal diet. On rich fens a far greater range of species may be found, including orchids like the marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris) and marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.).
Although bogs and poor fens generally have rather few species, such habitats have great significance for several specialised species, including many of conservation interest. Of the most well-known are migrating birds such as common crane (Grus grus, Photo and BOX2) and wading birds like broad-billed sandpiper (Limicola falcinellus) and jack snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus). The remoteness and inaccessibility of many large mires provide important refuges for these sensitive species. Mires also provide special habitats for many species of insects and other invertebrates.
Map 3: Status in December 2000 of areas (SPAs) designated in EU15 countries under the birds directive for protection of the Common crane (Grus grus)
Source: ETC/NC core team, based on data reported by EU Member States to the Commission under the birds directive. December 2000.
Note: When SPAs will be designated in new EU Member States more central European areas will be added.
• Profusion of lakes and rivers
There are hundreds of thousands of lakes in the region; at least 3/4 of the approximately 600 000 European natural lakes larger than 0.01 km2 are located here. Most of them are small (less than 1 km2). Of the 24 European largest natural lakes, 21 alone are located in the Boreal region. Lakes Ladoga and Onega in north western Russian Federation are the largest freshwater bodies of Europe and rank 18 and 22 in world order (Herdendorf, 1982). 17 constructed reservoirs with surfaces larger than 100 km2 are located in the region, 10 of these within the Volga River system. The Rybinskoye Reservoir is the largest of the region (4 450 km2) and the second largest in Europe (EEA, 1995).
Table 4: Estimated number of natural lakes in different surface area classes
Source: EEA, 1995
Many of the Boreal lakes are young, succeeding the glacial period. Most of them are rather shallow, cold, clear, and oligotrophic with very low natural nutrient loads.
Only the largest lakes and those in mountain areas have mean depths exceeding 20 m. Most boreal lakes are covered by ice for several months each year, develop sharp temperature profiles during summer, and have pronounced turnover of water in spring and autumn. Many of the small lakes associated with forests or mires are heavily influenced by peat deposits and have a dystrophic character with high humus content. Several lowland lakes and watercourses have become increasingly influenced by agriculture, forest industry, urban runoff and wastewater and have developed a more eutrophic character as a consequence.
Oligotrophic lakes are specifically mentioned as habitat types of priority for conservation in the EU habitats directive and by the Bern convention. In the Boreal region this applies in particular to lakes poor in dissolved inorganic carbon, so-called Lobelia lakes, which contain a suite of characteristic macrophyte species such as isoëtids (plants with basal rosettes growing on the bottom of shallow waters in clear, naturally oligotrophic lakes). The occurrence of isoëtids is used as a quality indicator. Sweden estimates still to have around 8 000 naturally oligotrophic lakes, but the occurrence of Lobelia is decreasing.
Photo: Acidic oligotrophic lake with Lobelia dortmanna
Source: Ulla Pinborg
With the extensive bogs and mires, lakes and forests present in many river catchments of the region, there is a huge natural water storage capacity, resulting in a generally slow water release. However, the river flow in the Boreal region has heavy floods in spring and early summer, due to snow melt, while the flow is lowest in winter during the ice-bound period. In Fennoscandia rivers are rather fast-flowing and relatively small, draining local catchment areas. Many of the rivers in the Russian Federation are slow-moving because of very gentle gradients of terrain and are connected to large river systems like the Volga which drain major parts of the continent.
Several of the river systems in the region are connected artificially by canals: in the Russian Federation many of the large rivers are linked with canals, forming an extensive waterway network, and enabling navigation from e.g. the Baltic Sea to both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal enables passage from the White Sea to the Baltic Sea through Lake Onega, Lake Ladoga, and the Neva River. The 227 km long system, of which 37 km is man-made, reduces sea passage between Sankt Peterborg and Arkhangelsk by 4 000 km.
Species such as osprey (Pandion haliaetus), European beaver (Castor fiber) and European mink (Mustela lutreola), which used to be fairly widespread in Europe, now tend to have their major or only populations in association with lakes and rivers of the Boreal region, where they may encounter introduced populations of Canadian beaver (Castor canadensis) and American mink (Mustela vison).
The ringed seals (Phoca hispida saimensis and Phoca hispida ladogensis) of lakes Saimaa and Ladoga represent endangered subspecies, which may be considered post-glacial relicts. Boreal waterbodies are important breeding habitats for numerous birds, several of high conservation value and sensitive to disturbances, such as divers (Gavia stellata, Gavia arctica) and water birds like whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus), bean goose (Anser fabalis) and smew (Mergus albellus).
Boreal freshwater habitats are inhabited by substantial populations of economically important fish species of the families Salmonidae, Cyprinidae, and Percidae, as well as pike (Esox lucius) and burbot (Lota lota). There is a rich fauna of freshwater invertebrates, but few of these have been of substantial economic or conservation interest. The crayfish Astacus astacus and the mussel Margaritana margaritifera provide exceptions. Both of these species have been under traditional and partly modern exploitation with dangers of over-harvesting and are also under threat from changes in their habitat. Several invertebrate species have been used as indicators of environmental changes in freshwater, especially for acidification or eutrophication.
Map 4: Bean goose (Anser fabalis)
Source: ETC/NC based on data from EBCC (European Bird Census Council). Data extracted March 2000
• Baltic coasts and islands
Along the Baltic Sea the coast is low with coastal meadows forming important habitats in some areas, often as part of the still ongoing succession resulting from land uplift. Sandy beaches occur but are not frequent. The coast of Sweden and Finland is rocky or rich in boulders.
The multitude of islands in the archipelagos around the coasts of Sweden and Finland, including the Åland Islands, are of particular interest with their often dry climate. The larger islands – Gotland, Öland (in the Continental region), Saaremaa, and Hiiumaa – with calcareous soil are housing habitats, with many species to be found otherwise in warm and dry, steppe-like habitats in other regions. Continued traditional agricultural management is a prerequisite for preserving many of these habitats. Several national parks and reserves have been set up to protect habitats of the islands.
• Grass-lands and tree-rich meadows
Permanent pastures, hay meadows and tree-rich meadows were formerly widespread, especially in small holdings, often in remote areas, in mosaics with forestry. These light open habitats with long continuity under the same special management type are very rich in specialist plants and associated insects. They are the habitat type in the most rapid change in the region (See 2.2.5).
There are about 1 800 indigenous vascular plant species in the Boreal region, most of them in the southern parts. The region provides important habitats for a large number of bryophytes, lichens and fungi. For instance, in Sweden alone there are about 1 200 species of bryophytes and 2 000 lichens. Many mire plants now have their main populations in the Boreal region, as such habitats have been considerably reduced in much of the rest of Europe. Similarly, several aquatic plants also have their main populations in the oligotrophic freshwater habitats of the Boreal region.
Table 5: Species in the Boreal biogeographical region covered by the European Atlas projects (western part of the region). Number of vertebrates
Source: EUNIS from European Atlases. Compiled by ETC/NC June 2000
Table 6: Species of European importance in EU Member States Sweden and Finland in the Boreal biogeographical region. Birds directive, annex I (B AI) and flora, fauna and habitats directive, annex II (FFH AII)
Source: ETC/NC from FFH directive annexes. March 2000. (European Commission, NATURA2000)
The elk and reindeer have fundamental impacts on many habitats of the Boreal region through their feeding on trees and bushes or on grass and lichens. The effects are only now being generally recognised. It is a delicate balance between too much and too little grazing. Browsing by elk is severely limiting the rejuvenation of pines in many parts of the western Boreal region. The reindeer population consists of both domesticated, semi-domesticated and wild animal herds, that are part of the populations of both the Arctic and the Boreal biogeographical regions. 25 % of the elk calves are taken by carnivors, mostly by bear.
Protection versus control of the large predators is a very sensitive political issue, leading to serious conflicts about their management, such as for the wolf in Sweden with its very small population (upwards of 50 animals) and in Finland (100 individuals in 1999). The wolves in Norway and Sweden belong to an isolated population with a low recruitment rate, different from the Finnish population, which receives influxes from the Russian population. The wolf population in Belarus is around 3 000 and wolves are also frequent in the Baltic States.
Damage by predators to reindeer was estimated for the 1990's in Finland and Sweden. For the period 1991–1998 in Finland around 13 000 reindeer were killed by bear, wolf, wolverine or lynx. During 1992–1997 eagles were estimated to have killed 2 400 reindeer. Damage recompensation payments were 7 million FMK in 1998. In Sweden 12 % of reindeer calves are estimated to have been taken by predators, with 35 million SKR set aside for damage compensation for 1999.
Map 5: Great grey owl (Strix nebulosa)
Source: ETC/NC based on data from EBCC (European Bird Census Council). Data extracted March 2000
Reptiles and amphibians
The Boreal region may expect an overall increase in average annual temperatures of at least 2 °C over the next 50 years, varying from about 1 °C in the south-western part to as much as 3 °C in the north-east. Most of this increase in temperature may occur in winter. Precipitation may also increase, mainly in the western areas, which already have fairly high precipitation. Decrease in the period of ice cover on lakes and in the Baltic Sea may have large effects on wetlands, lakes and rivers and the coasts. In the Baltic countries ice break-up of rivers has moved two weeks earlier over 80 years (1920–1997) (Baltic Environment Report, 2000).
The consequences of such changes for the biodiversity of the region are difficult to predict. Forest trees and other plants will probably grow faster as a result of increased temperatures, longer growing season and increased precipitation. However, increased temperature stress may also result. In addition, the rates of decomposition are likely to increase. Such changes may give improved opportunities for southern species and species with broad habitat requirements. Various pests and pathogens may also receive better conditions for invasion and settlement. Native, cold-tolerant species, which are also often sensitive to disturbance and competition from more aggressive species, will probably retreat in distribution and have reduced populations. For some species changes are already visible such as for the number of migrating species now wintering more northerly than earlier: in Belarus the number of regularly wintering water birds has gone up from around 12 to 35 (Belarus, 1998).
The southern part of the Boreal region is part of the northern European mixed forest region, where deciduous trees begin to appear in conifer stands. The distribution of the deciduous trees may shift northwards with increasing temperature.
The boreal ecosystems are thus likely to change considerably over a rather short time, with respect to both ecosystem processes and species composition. At a global scale, another major concern is the possibility for feedbacks in the release of greenhouse gases if increased decomposition rates lead to faster breakdown of the huge stores of carbon in boreal forest trees and peat deposits. The balance between increased forest growth and increased decomposition rate with increasing temperature in the Boreal region appears to be one of the critical factors in the global climate system (ICP Forest website; UNEP/Grid Arendal website).
Traditionally, the most severe threat to mammals and birds in the Boreal region was tied to unsustainable harvesting of game for food and fur. The originally wide-spread sable (Martes zibellina) was virtually exterminated from European boreal forests about 1600. Only efforts to reintroduce the species to European Russia in the mid-1900s have secured its continued existence here. During most of the 1900s the brown bear (Ursus arctos) and the wolf (Canis lupus) were also virtually exterminated from most of Norway and Sweden, mainly to prevent their predation on livestock. Hunting is now strictly regulated, and extermination of species due to over-exploitation alone is unlikely, though wolf control versus conservation of a freely developing population has caused intense discussions in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The wolf is being hunted in the Russian Federation and the other countries with less restrictions.
Extensive hunting of game (elk (Alces alces), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), various forest grouses, hares, and to some extent mammal predators) is widespread, both for local subsistence and recreation. After having been low in many areas such as in Sweden and Finland during the mid 1900 the elk population increased much both due to game management and changes in forest practices, giving large quantities of meat but also causing serious damages to forest and fields as well as road and rail accidents. The elk population is now being regulated in many areas to both maintain hunting and to avoid damages. The meat harvest from elk and deer in the Boreal region is considerable. It is mostly used for local consumption and may in northern areas amount to 30-50 % of the meat used. In Sweden 32 000 elks were shot in 1959/60, topping during the 1980s with 143 000 in 1984/1985, decreasing to 101 000 in 1998/1999. Additionally 219 000 roe deer were shot 1998/1999 (numbers also include the high figures from continental part of Sweden). The wild boar population is highest in the central southern part of the region, but is gradually spreading over the region again. More than 15 000 wild boar (Sus scrofa) were shot in Latvia and Lithuania in 1998-1999.
Though no direct comparison is possible between countries, harvesting of wild living food resources like berries (mainly Vaccinium and Rubus species, wild cherries and roan) and mushrooms is important in many areas for economic and recreational purposes, though the amounts have decreased over the last decades: Sweden reports that 75 million litres of berries picked in 1977 (5-7 % of the total berry amount) fell to 23 million litres in 1997, and 21,8 million litres mushrooms in 1977 fell to 15,3 million litres in 1997 (Skogsvårdsorganisationen, 2000). It is estimated that the availability of both berries and mushrooms has fallen because of higher N deposition and darker forests, but the interest in picking has also fallen. The high importance of berries and mushroom picking in Finland, Belarus and the Russian Federation is assumed to maintain its importance. In Belarus (whole country) around 100 species of edible mushrooms are gathered. Lichens (mainly Cladonia and Cetraria species) and mosses are also highly important natural resources, mainly for reindeer grazing. The lichens and the mosses are increasingly harvested for decorations for domestic and export use.
Subsistence, commercial, and recreational fishing of several species of anadromous and freshwater fish is intensive in many lakes and rivers. The economic value of the freshwater fish varies greatly. Lakes in Belarus (both Boreal and Continental regions) provide around 1 500 t fish, 75 % of all freshwater fish caught (Belarus, 1998). However, this only constitutes around 50 % of the commercial fishing of the 1950s.
Stocking of rivers with especially salmon has led to large fishing incomes, but a very strong influence on the genepool of the natural salmon. Fish stocking in natural lakes and rivers is widespread and transfer of fish between water bodies is an old tradition. A growing number of increasingly larger fish farms is established.
Forestry is now the main factor influencing land use and landscape structure of the wider countryside of most of the Boreal region. In Fennoscandia, as in most other European countries, the growing stock of the main forest trees is increasing, partly as a reflection of the intense forest management with increasing use of selected hardy and fast-growing provenances and various cultivation techniques, partly as a result of increased CO2 and N-content and possibly also because of some temperature increase.
Today, the major economic use of forest resources is focused on timber and other wood-based products for the sawmill and pulp/paper industries, harvested from a few tree species (mainly spruce, pine and birch). The use of woody material as biofuel has increased considerably both in industry and households during the last decades. Sweden estimates an increase from around 3 million t in 1980 to more than 20 million t in 1998 (Skogsvårdsorganisationen, 2000). Willows are planted for biofuel in limited, but increasing areas, mainly on previous agricultural land.
Current forestry practices are still varied, depending on access to technology, economic constraints, ownership structures and the structure and productivity of the land itself. Nevertheless, the basic model of clear cutting and forest stand management, often with planting of non-native tree species or provenances, is widely applied and has a tendency of reducing biodiversity in spite of recent efforts taken to make forestry more ecologically sound. Restrictions on the maximum size of clear cuttings in Sweden and Finland have reduced the problem somewhat. However, the re-growth of bushes and trees in clearings has served to increase the elk and deer populations. This has resulted in more damage to new plantings and natural wild tree and bush growth and to crops.
In Sweden, large areas have been planted with the exotic species lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta): around 27 000 ha in 1980, peaking in 1986 at 35 000 ha, but reduced to only around 2-3 000 ha 1996-1998 (of a total of 136 000 ha forest planted 1998). In spite of the reduction in new plantings, the lodgepole pine area will remain significant for several decades.
In both Finland and Sweden large wetland areas and humid forests have been drained by ditching, mainly to improve forest growth. In Finland it is considered, that more than 50 % of the wetland area has been influenced. Both Sweden and Finland used to apply forest fertilisation and chemical pest control (mainly herbicides) on a large scale in the 1970–80s, but this has since been considerably reduced.
The Russian Federation has had extensive exploitation of its boreal forest resources, primarily in areas close to industry and transport infrastructure. However, large areas of boreal forest are still in a near natural state. Considerable conservation interests are at stake over the next few years, depending on the development of forestry in the Russian Federation. The Russian Forest Code from 1997 aims at zoning forests for cutting or protection.
Agricultural intensification, abandonment and change
Parallel to this intensification, whole marginal farms or agricultural areas in remote northern or highland areas have been abandoned on a large-scale, mostly leading to natural or managed reforestation. Both processes, intensification and abandonment, lead to a less varied landscape and to radical changes in ecosystem processes. The highest decline concerns the permanent grasslands including meadows with long-term management of selected trees.
This has led to a high interest in conservation of especially natural and semi-natural hay meadows and pastures. By 2000 inventories had been performed in Sweden, Finland and Estonia, but were lacking elsewhere. EU agro-environmental funds have been used in Sweden and Finland to co-finance continuation of management. The remaining areas under traditional grazing or haymaking are considered to be only around 200 000 ha in Sweden, around 10 000 ha in Finland and around 200 000 ha in Estonia; in all three countries with a falling tendency. In Sweden, around 90 % of the most highly valued permanent grassland areas are still maintained, 80 % of the areas getting EU subsidies under CAP (the common agricultural policy) to support continued management. In the biodiversity action plans for all three countries the maintenance and restoration of such habitats are considered priority tasks. In Russian Karelia around 150 000 ha are hay meadows and pastures, with a stable tendency from around 1975 to 1998 (Ikonen and Lammi, 2000). In Belarus meadow areas have been reduced over 35-40 years with around 50 % (mostly along rivers), to around 800 000 ha, hay meadows and pastures being about equal in cover (the information covers both the Boreal and the Continental regions) (Belarus, 1998). Though the figures are not directly comparable because definitions of meadows and pastures vary, the trend is clear, that open permanent grasslands are in strong decline, and this is a matter of concern from a biodiversity protection perspective.
As in many other parts of Europe, the number of cattle on grass has decreased in the rural areas. A change to sheep grazing for a period is normal, before the land is afforested. Around urban areas the number of recreation horses continues to increase, securing grazing on many farms around cities. Deer farming has been introduced at a small scale, mostly in the Russian Federation.
The density of lichens, primary reindeer winter food, has been seriously depleted in some parts of the region. Lichen cover may take 30-50 years to recover if grazed very deeply. In Sweden the number of reindeer in 1920-1929 were 208 000, peaking in 1993/94 with 279 000, falling to 227 000 in 1998. The number slaughtered fell from 95 000 in 1994/95 to 61 000 in 1996/97. In Finland the numbers were close to 150 000 during the 1960-1980, peaking during 1980s with around 230-250 000 and falling to around 200 000 in the 1990s. Plans for sustainable reindeer management are made, but are difficult to adhere to. The Chernobyl accident significantly affected large areas utilised by reindeer. The numbers concern the whole of Sweden and Finland.
The transport infrastructure network is only very dense and heavily used in the urbanised areas of the region. However, even in the remote areas fragmentation of previously large and contiguous biotopes may result in divided and less suitable habitats for populations of large carnivores and birds requiring large territories. The fragmentation also increases the edge effects for remaining forests, affecting local climate conditions of importance for bryophytes and lichens, as well as making it easier for generalist species to reach the interior of forests or mires. Continued development of transport between the main population centres of the Boreal region can be foreseen (including shifts from rail to road transport), and the pressure on biodiversity from such development is likely to increase, especially as still more remote areas will be crossed.
Photo: Road fencing in Sweden
Source: Ulla Pinborg
In Fennoscandia and the Russian Federation very few rivers remain unaffected by hydropower development. In Fennoscandia, about 2/3 of the entire hydropower development potential has been exploited. Only two large rivers are entirely free from human regulation, Kalix river in Sweden and Torne river on the border between Sweden and Finland. Many plans exist to exploit more of the remaining hydropower potential. The construction of hydroelectric power stations has had very severe impacts on the Finnish natural salmon population: only three salmon spawning rivers are left in a natural state, while the native population has been destroyed in 17 former salmon rivers. (Eriksson and Hedlund, 1993; Wahlström, Hallanaro and Manninen, 1996).
Peat mining and ditching of mires to allow the mining was used during the 1800 to mid-1900s in most of the region, firstly on a limited local scale but ending up in very large scale operations. When left to natural regeneration many of the least exploited areas have developed into oligotrophic bog or dwarf shrub complexes, albeit disturbed ones. Disturbed raised bogs, however, are not likely to regenerate due to different moisture regimes and less Sphagnum growth today than when they were initially formed.
In Finland and Sweden, extraction of peat for fuel or power generation has had a renaissance during recent decades; together they extract 8-12 million m3 of peat yearly. The peat is also being harvested for use in gardening and agriculture at a considerable scale. The peat extraction is presently mostly performed by stripping peat areas horizontally, gradually lowering the peat surface uniformly over large areas till close to the mineral layer. On such areas regeneration will often be by afforestation or agriculture. In Sweden 20 % of all mires are estimated to have been influenced by peat mining at some time. Peat cutting in the Baltic States is at present low, but may grow, considering the existing large amounts of peat containing wetlands and export interests.
Tourism in the Boreal region is largely connected to the most populated areas and the coasts. However, the wide rights of access to land which exist in much of the region allowing tourists a larger freedom of access and of freedom to camp or use lakes and rivers than in the rest of Europe attracts many individual tourists (Sweden, Finland, Norway). Freshwater fishing is a major eco-tourism sector and the pressure for active fish stocking programmes is strong.
Mosses and lichens as pollution indicators
Acidification of the most sensitive area in Europe
Though deposition of acidifying substances from central and western Europe is decreasing, and some lakes and rivers show slight increases in pH, the acidic heritage in the soil and water bodies is still strong and will persist for a long time. Of the acidic Swedish lakes, around 40 % or around 90 % of the total acidic lake surface were under improvement by liming by 1997 (some started already in the 1970’s). 500 more lakes are limed to protect downstream waters and around 10 % of acidic streams are limed. This is the largest liming programme of the world, though also Norway, Finland and Canada have such programmes. Sweden will continue liming, using around 200 000 t crushed limestone per year. The effects, positive as well as negative have been much debated with no clear conclusions as yet (Swedish Environment Protection Agency, 2001).
In boreal forest soils like podzols, natural acidification occurs. Deposition of acidifying pollutants has been shown to increase this natural acidification, which may also be increased by the vegetation such as conifers. The long-term effects on the terrestrial vegetation are less well documented than for aquatic ecosystems. The effects from acidification and the fertilisation effect of nitrogen are also masking each other, further complicating responses due to variation in geology and soils of different buffering capacity.
Effects of air borne fertilisation from nitrogen compounds can be seen in the south-western part of the Boreal region where nitrogen deposition has lead to an increase in grasses like purple moor-grass (Molinia caerulea). Mushroom production in the most affected forests has declined.
Although the wildlife is dominated by native species, a considerable number of birds and mammals have been introduced or have escaped and several have succeeded in establishing wild living populations. Game birds like pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) and various water birds have established large natural populations. Since its introduction in the 1930's the populations of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) has increased considerably and is now considered a problem in some areas, mainly tied to aggressive behaviour and faecal pollution of beaches and water. Several mammals have been introduced for hunting and economic exploitation, for instance white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), fallow deer (Dama dama), Canadian beaver (Castor canadensis), muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), racoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) and American mink (Mustela vison). The latter two are predatory species considered as pests on local wildlife, but even the rodents and the deer species may create local problems by damage to vegetation and river banks (muskrat). Several species of fish have for centuries been introduced beyond their natural distribution limits. Most of these are salmonid and cyprinid fish, amongst them a small number of North American species. With the introduction of the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) followed the crayfish pest, which is still spreading and has led to virtual extinction of the normal crayfish in many waters of the region (Weidema, 2000).
The attitude to re-introduction varies much among the countries. Re-introductions have been tried out for several animals: around 80 European beaver (Castor fiber) were transferred from Norway to Sweden (extinct there from 1871) in the 1920–1930's. Now some 200 000 beaver are spread over most of the country, some recently exported to Austria for release to the Danube. The wild boar (Sus scofa) has been continuously living in the wild in some parts of the region, while extinct in the northern part such as Sweden. Here the boar escaped from game parks in the 1980's. This re-introduction has been officially accepted and much of the former range is already now inhabited and conflicts with landowners begin to appear.
Over the centuries, a large number of vascular plant species have been introduced, either for production or accidentally as weeds in connection with agriculture, forestry and horticulture, or via transportation of goods. Many have only become naturalised to a limited extent, but several have meant radical changes. Belarus reports as an example that more than 120 new predominantly invasive vascular plants have been found (Belarus, 1998). All countries have during the 1990s collected information and begun working towards national programmes, based on case studies such as in Finland (Kurtto, et al., 2000). A Nordic Network on Introduced Species (NNIS) serves as information web site to national and international institutions. For the Baltic Sea a database is situated in Lithuania (Baltic Sea Alien Species Database). In 2001 and 2002 several of the countries of the region (Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden) have reported to the convention on Biological Diversity on alien species and the main problems.
Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) has been very widely planted in Swedish forests. From the outset it was considered unlikely that it could become naturalised. In recent years, however, it has begun to spread. A potentially large problem with respect to the ecological and genetic integrity of the boreal forest species is represented by non-native provenances of local forest trees (mainly Norway spruce (Picea abies) of continental European origin). These have been widely used in forestry in the 1950-60s and interbreed with native provenances.
The Boreal biogeographical region is covered by several types of international collaboration, where biodiversity is an important issue: circumpolar arctic, Nordic and Baltic, European Community and wider European collaboration.
• The Arctic Council
• The Nordic Council and Council of Ministers
• The Baltic Council of Ministers
• PEBLDS (Pan-European Biological and Landscape Strategy)
The main conventions with direct influence on biodiversity in the region:
• The Ramsar convention
• The Helsinki convention
•The Bern convention (Council of Europe)
• The Bonn convention
• The EU birds directive and the flora, fauna and habitats directive
• The European Union external and cross-border policies for the Baltic Sea, the Arctic Sea Region and north western part of the Russian Federation
• The convention on biological diversity
Areas designated for nature protection may be protected by national instruments as well as under international instruments.
Internationally protected areas
Several of the international and European Community instruments lead to area based protection on nature.
The Bern convention. The EMERALD Network
European Community NATURA2000 Network
Map 6: Specially Protected Areas (SPAs) under the EU birds directive. Only for EU Member States Sweden and Finland
Source: ETC/NC compiled from European Commission birds directive database. March 2001
UNESCO Biosphere reserves and World Heritage sites
Helsinki convention (Helcom)
Bilateral conservation cooperation
Nationally protected areas
All the countries in the region have a wide number of protected areas which fall under national protection. Data on Nationally protected areas is a priority dataset for countries collaborating with the European Environment Agency: Norway, Sweden and Finland and is extended to cover also Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, the information is not yet available for the region as such.
International red lists in the region
The HELCOM Red list of Marine and Costal Biotopes and Biotope complexes in the Baltic Sea, Belt Sea and Kattegat was produced in 1998 as part of the collaboration under the Helsinki convention and is being used for the designation of Baltic Special Protection Areas (BSPAs).
An overview of red lists is kept by the European Topic Centre for Nature Protection and Biodiversity.
National red lists
Forest management and certification
Relations to the Arctic and Barents Councils
Programmes under the convention on long-range trans-boundary air pollution (CLRTAP)
Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF), 2000. 2nd Baltic State of the Environment Report. (http://www.bef.lv/baltic/baltic2/content.htm)
Belarus, 1998 : First National Report on the Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Belarus. (National report to CBD): http://www.biodiv.org/world/map.asp?ctr=by
BirdLife International, 2000. Important Bird Areas in Europe. Priority sites for conservation. Vol 1 and 2.
Bonan, G.B. and Shugart, H.H. 1989. Environmental factors and ecological processes in boreal forests. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20.
DN, 1994. Natural dynamics of forests. Elements and processes in natural forest development. (Skogens naturlige dynamikk. Elementer og prosesser i naturlig skogutvikling.) DN-rapport 1994-5.
Eriksson, M.O.G. and Hedlund, L. (Eds.) 1993. Biologisk mångfald - Miljön i Sverige - tilstånd och trender (MIST). Naturvårdsverket, Stockholm, Sweden.
Esseen, P-A., Ehnström, B., Ericson, L. and Sjöberg, K. 1997. Boreal forests. Ecological Bulletins 46.
European Environment Agency, 1995. Europe's Environment. The Dobris Assessment. Mainly chapter: nature and wildlife
European Environment Agency, 1995. European rivers and lakes.
European Topic Centre on Nature Protection and Biodiversity (ETC/NPB), 2002. Checklist of Red Books on Species and Habitats in Europe. http://nature.eionet.eu.int/activities/products/redbooks/index_html
HELCOM, 1998. Red List of Marine and Coastal Biotopes and Biotope Complexes of the Baltic Sea, Belt Sea and Kattegat. Baltic Sea Environment Proceedings no 75.
ICP Forests (UN/ECE and European Commission), 2002. The Condition of Forests in Europe. Executive Report 2002. Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products (BFH). http://www.icp-forests.org/RepEx.htm
Ikonen, I. and Lammi, A. (eds.), 2000). Traditional rural biotopes in the Nordic countries, the Baltic States and the Republic of Karelia. Tema Nord 2000:603. Nordic Council of Ministers.
IPCC Special Report, 2000. An Assessment of Vulnerability. IPCC Special Report on The Regional Impacts of Climate Change. http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc/regional/index.htm
Kurtto, A. et al., 2000. Alien Species in Finland. Ministry of the Environment. Finland.
Moberg, L. 2001. Kärnkraftsolyckan i Tjernobyl. En sammanfattning femton år efter olyckan. Swedish Radiation Protection Institute. 2001:07. Sweden http://www.ssi.se/kaernkraft/Tjernobyl/tjernobyl_15.pdf
Nordic Council of Ministers, 1995 (Jan Höjer (ed.). Hotade Djur och Växter I Norden. TemaNord: 520.
Rolstad, J. 1989. Habitat and range use of capercaillie Tetrao urogallus L. in southcentral Scandinavian boreal forests. Dept. of Nature Conservation, Agricultural University, Norway.
Syrjänen, K., Kalliola, R., Puolasmaa, A. and Mattsson, J. 1994. Landscape structure and forest dynamics in subcontinental Russian European taiga. Annales Zoologici Fennici 31.
Skogsvårdsorganisationen, 2000. Skogsstatistisk årsbok 2000. http://www.svo.se/fakta/stat/ska2/
Swedish National Atlas: http://www.sna.se/webbatlas/index.html - search: limes
Sømme, A. (ed.), 1960. A Geography of Norden. Denmark. Finland. Iceland. Norway. Sweden. Cappelen, Oslo.
TBFRA, 2000. Forest resources of Europe, CIS, North America, Australia, Japan andNew Zealand. Main report. UN/ECE and FAO.
UNDP and UNICEF, 2002. The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. A Strategy for Recovery.
Wahlström, E., Hallanaro, E-L. and Manninen, S. 1996: The future of the Finnish environment. Edita and the Finnish Environment Institute, Finland.
Weidema, I. 2000. Introduced Species in the Nordic Countries, Nord 2000:13. Nordic Council of Ministers.
Internet addresses [URLs]
(Last visited March 2003)
Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP): acidification:
Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM):
Baltic Environment Forum:
Baltic Sea Alien Species Database:
Bern Convention (Council of Europe):
Convention on Biological Diversity, national CHM pages:
Estonian Environment Information Centre:
European Commission, forest measures:
European Commission, COST Transport:
European Commission, NATURA2000 and Nature Protection:
European Commission, Northern Dimension:
Finnish Clearing House Mechanism for Biological Diversity:
Finnish State of the Environment:
Finnish Forest Certification System (FFCS):
Helsinki Commission (HELCOM): http://www.helcom.fi/
IENE (Infra Eco Network Europe):
Latvian Environment Agency:
Nordic Council and Council of Ministers
Norwegian Ministry for Environment:
Norwegian Clearing House Mechanism for Biological Diversity:
NESB, 2001 (Nordic Environmental Specimen Bank):
NGB (Nordic Gene Bank for Plants):
NGH (Nordic Gene Bank Farm Animals):
NNIS (Nordic Network on Introduced Species):
Pan European Forest Certification Council (PEFC):
PEBLDS (Pan-European Biological and Landscape Strategy):
Russian Conservation Monitoring Centre:
Swedish Environment Agency (SEPA,2001):
Swedish National Atlas:
Swedish Radiation Protection Institute:
UNEP-WCMC. European Forests and protected areas. Forest Protected Areas. Gap Analysis. Joint project UNEP-WCMC and WWF.
UNEP-WCMC. Forests in flux:
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
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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