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Rise in numbers of deciduous trees The forest habitat – more biological diversity in the forests

Rise in numbers of deciduous trees

There are again more deciduous trees in Germany’s forests. They presently make up 43% of the timberland.

Change in forest area by tree species groups. Source: BMEL

This means that the percentage of deciduous trees rose by approximately 7% (approx. 315,000 hectares) compared to 2002 and the percentage of conifers dropped by approx. 4% (267,000 hectares). The difference of approximately 48,000 hectares corresponds to the increase in forest area.

Today’s forests are the legacy of history. If left to nature, deciduous trees would dominate the appearance of the forests in Germany. The fact that today’s forests are dominated by conifers, spruces and pines in particular, is a consequence of our past.

From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, many forests were over-used or cutover (Historic development of the forested area). As a consequence, in past centuries uncultivated wasteland or large clear-cut areas frequently had to be afforested. Such areas are dominated by conditions that are unbeneficial to forests. Without the shelter of old trees, small trees are exposed to the influence of the sun, wind and frost without protection and at the same time have to assert themselves against fast growing competing vegetation such as grasses, bracken and blackberries. Mice, fungi, insects and browsing by game animals are additional burdens for small trees.

The National Forest Inventory results show more deciduous trees and more mixed forests. The percentage of deciduous trees has risen since 2002 by approximately 7 %. The counter-trend from pure conifer stands to site-appropriate, highly structured mixed forests is meant to prevent the effects of climate change. Photo: Reinhold Schönemund

Only a few tree species, among them the spruce and pine, can deal well with the conditions of a clear-cut area. There were hardly any alternatives to spruces and pines for rapid reforestation. Sufficient amounts of propagating material were available only for these tree species. Also, spruce and pine grow quickly and their timber is in demand due to its outstanding properties. This is why spruces and pines became widespread in Germany. Hence, today’s forests are, to a considerable extent, the result of the silvicultural considerations and options of our forefathers.

On many sites, deciduous trees have many benefits for the forest soil, for the supply of groundwater, for the diversity of animal and plant species as well as for the stability and adaptability of the forest stands, for example against pests, storms and climate change.

Therefore, the transformation of pure conifer stands – as those that were cultivated in large numbers most recently after the Second World War – into site-appropriate deciduous and mixed deciduous stands is one objective of the forestry policy of the Federal and the Länder governments. It is an element of the forestry directives of many Land forests and has been promoted with major funding in the non-state forests for decades. In this way, the forests will be better able to cope with the anticipated burdens of climate change.

The forests as climate protectors – still a carbon sink

The forest continues to be an important resource. Photo: Klaus M. Weber

The Federal government and Länder have already made considerable investments in order to bring about the forest transformation documented here. In the meantime, many forest owners have practiced ecologically compatible forestry for many decades. With targeted management, they cultivate stabile and ecologically valuable mixed stands with a high share of site-suitable native tree species.

The results of the National Forest Inventory substantiate the success of these measures: Between 2002 and 2012 the area of spruces dropped by 242,000 hectares (-8 %) and the beech area rose by 102,000 hectares (6 %). Already between 1987 and 2002 the spruce area in former West Germany had been lowered by 219,000 hectares (-8 %) and the beech area increased by 151,000 hectares (12 %). This development was intensified further by storm events and drought years.

In addition to the beech, the forest owners also expanded the area percentage of other deciduous tree species. Among the conifers, only the Douglas fir increased slightly by approx. 35,000 hectares or 19 % and the fir by a little under 19,000 hectares or 11 %, while the pine decreased by approx. 85,000 hectares or 3 %. The decline in pines is particularly noticeable in the younger age classes.

Forests are long-lasting ecosystems that develop over decades and centuries. Forestry planning and production periods are correspondingly long. It is therefore natural that spruces and pines – in spite of the development leading to more deciduous trees – will initially remain the two dominant tree species.