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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK


Health of Europe's forests worsens

Europe's forests: Under attack by natural causes and human activities

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The state of the Europe's woodlands is still getting worse and little more than a third of its trees are judged to be healthy, say forestry experts.

And while eastern Europe's pine forests are enjoying a gradual recovery, the oak forests of the west have deteriorated in recent years.

The findings are published in a report by the UN Economic Commission for Europe and the European Commission, entitled "Forest Condition in Europe".

It presents the results of the 1998 survey of forest health, the latest stage in a process begun in 1986 and described as one of the world's largest bio-monitoring systems.

The report says 35% of Europe's trees can be classified as healthy, with another 40% in what it calls the warning stage. The rest, about 25%, are described as damaged, meaning they have lost more than a quarter of their leaves.

Pollution and weather

"The results of the 1998 forest health survey show a general deterioration of the crown condition of the main tree species.

"The main causes of the vitality losses and damage are air pollution and extreme droughts."

The report notes:

  • a steady increase in defoliation of the main tree species since 1988;
  • the sharpest increase in leaf loss occurring in oak species, beech and maritime pine, with European oak by far the worst affected at present;
  • a recent recovery by Scots pine and holm oak from their previous decline;
  • cause for concern over the condition of forest soils, as acid soils are widespread in Europe;
  • particular concern over parts of central Europe, where very acid soils coincide with the highest air pollution and the highest rate of defoliation.

Much of the leaf loss they observed is attributable to natural causes like soil pathogens, parasites and weather conditions, the researchers say.

[ image: European oaks are suffering badly]
European oaks are suffering badly
But they say the growing defoliation rate "seems to indicate that deteriorating forest condition is difficult to explain by natural stress factors alone".

"Even though it is difficult to disentangle the causes for crown condition development on a large scale, drought, air pollution (specifically ozone exposure) and to some extent soil chemistry are correlated with the crown condition."

The World Wide Fund for Nature carries out its own surveys of European forests, and says they bear out the findings of the report.

Julian Scola of WWF told BBC News Online: "Europe's forests are in a pretty bad state.

"Their area may have grown. But their health and the biodiversity they contain are declining all the time, with some rare forest types becoming steadily worse.

"The Mediterranean forests are in a really bad way."

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