A primary forest: what for ?

The rebirth of a primary forest in Western Europe: a challenge of major public interest

Most of the large countries located in temperate latitudes – the United States, Canada, Chile, Russia, China, Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – have managed to conserve lowland primary forests, whereas our ancestors in Western Europe have destroyed them, unaware that they were of irreplaceable ecological value. The only one left in Europe is Poland’s Białowieża Forest, however its existence is threatened in spite of warnings issued by the European Union.

The association I preside over refuses to accept that today Europe is only home to tree plantations and secondary forests, which are exploited, planted, artificial and with degraded biodiversity. Our goal is to establish the conditions for the revival of a primary lowland forest in Western Europe, together with the rich biodiversity that characterized our regions before they were deforested.

With the current massive greenhouse gas emissions and the dramatic decline of the planet’s biodiversity, such a project is, on its own scale, an issue of major public concern. It would furthermore open up an exceptional window of opportunity for scientific research.

Where will this project be located? The question is being addressed and we have already agreed that it should be a cross-border, therefore European, project.

Our project is ambitious, both in size and duration.

The land surface of 70,000 hectares (172,974 acres) is equal to that of Białowieża; this size is necessary to the presence of the great European forest fauna.

A remarkable tree in the early morning hours, Dębowy Grąd reserve, Białowieża Forest, Poland.

While it can take up to ten centuries to grow, it depends on how old the original forest is. That is the amount of time it takes for forests to reappear in cold winter climates where trees only grow five to six months a year. No one can shorten this period or accelerate the process. The return to high biodiversity requires letting nature and the forest take their time. The present-day rhythm of our lives is often frenetic, and this forestry project would allow us to rediscover a sense of time and transmission between human generations.

What will happen once the land is found and delimited, and the experiment begins? First, we will witness the natural death of pioneer (pine and birch) trees, whose dead wood will enrich the soil and promote the growth of a diversity of fungi and insects. Then, without any planting, we will witness the appearance of post-pioneer (ash, linden and maple) trees, which will take over the forest before aging and eventually disappearing in turn. That’s when it will be time to introduce large animals, such as bears and bison, that did not manage to reach the forest on their own. These will benefit from the clearings and the first windthrow. Lastly, the space will be filled with oak and beech trees, and the newfound primary forest will continue to grow in height and become richer in plant and animal life.

During this long period in which the forest will evolve freely and naturally, cutting plants and poaching must be prohibited. Still, the European primary forest should remain widely accessible / to visitors. Reconciling these two divergent imperatives, without them becoming contradictory, requires the collaboration of various areas of expertise.

The current goal is to ensure that our project is not merely a national one and that, for reasons of stability and security, it becomes a major European project, integrated as such to address the need for the rebirth of large primary forests, using existing mechanisms and measures or those currently being developed by Europe, such as the Green Deal proposed by Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen.

Above photo: Hornbeam freshly cut down by a colony of beavers in the heart of Poland’s Białowieża Forest. Downstream, a ten-meter-longdam retains water from a small stream, creating this vast wetland home to many other species. © Jessica Buczek

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