Europe’s Lost Forests – Coverage has Halved Over 6,000 years


Ireland has the lowest forest cover of all European countries.

More than half of Europe’s forests have disappeared over the past 6,000 years. This is thanks to increasing demand for agricultural land and the use of wood as a source of fuel.

Using pollen analysis from more than 1,000 sites, scientists from the University of Plymouth showed that more than two thirds of central and northern Europe was once covered by trees. Today, it is down to a third. In western and coastal regions, including the UK and Republic of Ireland, the decline has been far greater with forest coverage in some areas dropping below 10%.

There is good news, however. These downward trends have begun to reverse. This is thanks to the discovery of new types of fuel and building techniques, but also through ecological initiatives to reforest areas that need it.

The study’s lead author is Neil Roberts, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Plymouth. “Most countries go through a forest transition and the UK and Ireland reached their forest minimum around 200 years ago. Other countries in Europe have yet to reach that point. Some parts of Scandinavia – where there is not such a reliance on agriculture – are still predominantly forest. But generally, forest loss has been a dominant feature of Europe’s landscape ecology in the second half of the current interglacial, with consequences for carbon cycling, ecosystem functioning and biodiversity.”

The research, which involved academics in Sweden, Germany, France, Estonia and Switzerland, sought to establish precisely how the nature of Europe’s forests has changed over the past 11,000 years. It showed that forest coverage actually increased from around 60% 11,000 years ago up to as much as 80% 6,000 years ago.

However, the introduction of modern farming practices during the Neolithic period sparked a gradual decline which accelerated towards the end of the Bronze Age and has largely continued until the present day. Professor Roberts said this was one of the more surprising elements of the research. This is because while forest clearance might be assumed to be a relatively recent phenomena, 20% of Britain’s forests had actually gone by the end of the Bronze Age 3,000 years ago. “Around 8,000 years ago, a squirrel could have swung tree to tree from Lisbon to Moscow without touching the ground. Some may see that loss as a negative, but some of our most valued habitats have come about through forests being opened up to create grass and heathland. Up until around 1940, a lot of traditional farming practices were also wildlife-friendly and created habitats for many of our most loved creatures.”

If you want to help reforest Ireland, then get involved in National Tree Week, held by the Tree Council. The project gives thousands of free trees to people across the country to plant and take care of. There you go, do your bit for Ireland’s forests. Love a tree, people!

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