This photo story reveals the beauty of European forest biodiversity and why it is so important for EU climate goals.

Forests’ burgeoning flora and fauna amount to over 80 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial biodiversity. Forests also remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere; putting them at the heart of solutions to the climate crisis.

Even before Coronavirus, 2020 was going to be a ‘big year for biodiversity’, with governments planning to meet in China to agree post-2020 global biodiversity targets; and in Scotland for the 26th international climate conference (COP26).

The meetings have been postponed, but our relationship with nature has still been thrown into the spotlight.

‘Forest biodiversity’ is not just about tropical forests. In Europe we have old-growth forests capable of hosting an incredible diversity of life. But the sad truth is that the health of our forests and their ability to remove carbon is in decline, due to intensive management and industrialised forestry practices.

This photo story, framed through the lens of Estonian photographer Karl Adami, explores the stunning flora and fauna found in Estonia and Finland, highlighting just a small segment of the life in Europe’s great forests. His pictures show why we should lament the loss of these ecosystems which, if managed differently, could help us meet EU and international climate and biodiversity targets.

Adami has wanted to capture the hidden moments in forests since he ‘stumbled across a roe deer giving birth’ and now finds himself in a race against time to document forest biodiversity. “At the moment, I’m trying to capture as much as possible of what’s left, mainly keystone habitats, which are packed with biodiversity. Last year I filmed a beautiful old pine grove for a movie, and when it was time for the premiere, that forest was gone. So I’ve been capturing moments, places and landscapes that no longer exist.”

Intensive forestry practices spell trouble for biodiversity

From above, the landscape reveals an image more normally associated with South America and parts of Asia. The ground is furrowed and churned, and there are only a few isolated trees left standing, perhaps in the name of ‘selective logging’. Yet this scene is commonplace across Europe, including in Estonia where this photograph was taken.

“For the time being nature is not safe even in Natura 2000 sites, where destructive timber harvests happen daily."
- Siim Kuresoo, Estonian Fund for Nature

Unprotected EU forests are being logged for pulp, paper, and bioenergy, though even protected forests sometimes suffer the same fate. The European Environment Agency’s 2019 State of the Environment report shows that 80 per cent of EU forests with protected status are in an unfavourable or bad conservation state. The trend towards short-rotation clearcutting means the planting of fast-growing trees such as spruce, which will be cut down after a few years.

Not all EU ‘forests’ are the same. FAO data shows that in 2015, 70 million hectares, about 38 per cent of Europe’s total forest-cover of 182 million hectares, was composed of plantations. These plantations, which often only contain one species of tree, support a limited amount of wildlife and cannot match older forests in terms of carbon stored in the soil and biomass. Meanwhile, remaining natural forests continue to be cut.

Adami says, “There are still people who think that the forest, which is a habitat for thousands of species, is ripe at some point and should be harvested like crops. I support protecting the forests, but at the same time I support real sustainable forestry. I feel that forestry is on its way to monoculture fast profit, where forestry companies and their investors treat forests as carrot fields where every single carrot is counted and that state-owned forests are just to feed growing demand. That has led to resentment among citizens in Estonia and it’s one of the reasons why biodiversity is experiencing massive loss.”

“Wood is great [as a resource], but it’s not great to think that the habitat of a Capercaillie, which is not doing that well, is just chopped, pressed into pellets and transported to the other end of Europe.”

Complex natural ecosystems support diverse species and store more carbon

The most biodiverse forests support an almost incalculable range of life and relationships. Every branch, tree and rotting log provides shelter and nutrients, while helping to hold soil and other plants in place. Some species are adapted to very specific conditions and coexist in incredible ways. Adami reveals this through his photography.

“There are tons of species that have special requirements and can’t live in every forest. For example, hazel grouse or red-breasted flycatchers tend to live in mixed older forests with some spruce undergrowth, not in 20-year old birch forest.”

Intact ecosystems also work hard for the climate. When you safeguard forest biodiversity and restore degraded ecosystems, you also increase forest carbon sinks. The best way to deal with the twin biodiversity and climate crises is therefore to protect and restore forests.

Two-thirds of Europeans “totally agree” that we have to take care of nature in order to fight climate change, and that “biodiversity is indispensable for producing food, fuel and medicines”.

"Our forests are able to offer much more in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises, if we decrease the pressure to use them just for our wasteful consumption habits. So why not embrace the pleasure of knowing we share the planet with thousands of amazing creatures? They are our best allies as a community in securing our wellbeing in times of environmental hardship." - Siim Kuresoo, Estonian Fund for Nature

“The forest, the REAL forest, the “hundred-year-old-forest” in its imperceptible richness, is a non-renewable treasure. You cannot grow a hundred-year-old forest in 20, 30 or even 60 years. It's not possible to grow a hundred-year-old forest at all. It will only grow on its own, if it is given 100 years of peace. And by growing this way, it will provide a life to us, the humans, among others.” - Pille Tammur, a health professional local to Alam-Pedja nature reserve in Estonia.

To meet our biodiversity and climate targets, we need to protect and restore the most biodiverse forests and change the way we manage production forests. Rotation periods need to be increased and clearcutting reduced.

Forest lessons

We are constantly learning from the forest, and there is no doubt that future generations will learn even more, but only if we protect the forests now standing.

“33 years ago I went to a forest with my three-year old daughter. I put her down and she stepped close to the nearest big spruce, took hold of its branch... and said hello. A few years ago, I took my son's four-year-old daughter to a forest. She too went to the first branch she could reach and said hello. When children keep greeting the forest this way, we have hope. But we need to have forests for them to greet.”  Pille Tammur

"The more I look at nature, at plants and animals, the more it seems to me that there is something there we don’t know yet. You can’t learn it all at school. You can’t insert it all into Excel." Eleri Lopp-Valdma, a nature guide and local forest activist in northern Estonia

Member States and the EU must step up

The European Green Deal presents a political opportunity to protect, restore and manage forests in a way that maintains and increases their ability to support rich biodiversity, and remove and store carbon.

It includes the recently published EU Biodiversity Strategy, which is a step in the right direction: the Strategy proposes binding protection for primary and old-growth forests, the strict protection of 10 per cent of EU land, new targets for ecosystem restoration, a review of EU bioenergy policy, and ‘closer-to-nature’ forestry. Forests which are not protected can still be harvested, supporting jobs and the economy, but those foresters will be trained in ecological principles to ensure that harvesting does not go beyond the limits of what each forest can provide while still remaining healthy.

Yet this is only the beginning. The EU must ensure that climate, energy and environmental policies work together to achieve climate and biodiversity goals, while ensuring sustainable jobs for foresters. National and regional governments in Europe and elsewhere also have a role to play in designing and implementing forest policies that respond to local conditions whilst helping achieve wider targets. Meanwhile, decision-makers in international spaces such as the Conference on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change must prioritise enabling forests to deliver for biodiversity and the climate.

Biodiversity is not simply a box to check. It has deep connections to many aspects of our society and to real climate action. Our success or failure in protecting and restoring forests will have long-lasting implications.

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