Where Are Europe’s Fairytale Forests?


Dense clusters of old-growth forests exist in patches of the Amazon basin, Southeast Asia, and the Arctic taiga. Slivers of Europe are still luxuriant with trees, too, and very old ones at that. But they’re dwindling. (Atlas Obscura)

What does Europe’s land cover look like? Use our map layer to find out.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including today’s MapMaker Interactive map.

You will never, ever regret looking through illustrations of Arthur Rackham’s fairytale forests. No one imagined European primary forests better.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, from Imagina (1914)

Discussion Ideas

  • New research maps Europe’s “primary forests”, which account for less than 1% of forested area in Europe. What are primary forests?
    • Primary forests are more commonly called “old-growth forests” in the United States. According to the good folks at the Food and Agriculture Organization, primary forests are “Naturally regenerated forests of native species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.”
      • Some key characteristics of primary forests are:
        • they show natural forest dynamics, such as natural tree species composition, occurrence of dead wood, natural age structure and natural regeneration processes;
        • the area is large enough to maintain its natural characteristics;
        • there has been no known significant human intervention or the last significant human intervention was long enough ago to have allowed the natural species composition and processes to have become re-established.
      • Tracts of primary forests are found on every continent except Antarctica, with the largest swaths in South America, central Africa, and Southeast Asia. Some examples include:
      • Other types of forest include:



Forest types: FT1—boreal forest
FT2—hemiboreal and nemoral coniferous‐mixed forest
FT3—alpine coniferous
FT4‐5—mesophytic deciduous and acidophilus forest
FT6—beech forest
FT7—mountainous beech forest
FT8—thermophilus deciduous forest
FT9—broadleaved evergreen forest
FT10—coniferous Mediterranean forest
FT11‐12—mire and swamp forests and floodplain forest
FT13—nonriverine alder, birch or aspen
NA‐NC—no data/unclassified
Map from “Where are Europe’s last primary forests?” by Francesco Maria Sabatini et al. Diversity and Distributions. 24 May 2018. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12778
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
  • Where are Europe’s primary forests? Take a look at the map above for some help.
    • Most of the primary forests for which data were available were located in northern Europe, especially” Finland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania. “The countries having the highest proportion of primary forest were Finland (2.9% of national territory), Switzerland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Bulgaria (each about 0.5%.”
      • Big Caveat: The data did not include all forested land in Europe. In particular, data was missing for the vast taiga forests of Russia. Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Ireland, Sweden, Austria, the UK, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia also had incomplete or scattered information.
    • Overall, primary forests are are “small parcels—the median was 24 hectares, or roughly 0.09 square miles—largely scattered in northern latitudes, far from roads and among rugged terrain. Remote location and low density also makes it likely that the lumber industry hadn’t rumbled through town.”





Atlas Obscura: Where Are Europe’s Last Fairytale Forests?

Nat Geo: Land Cover map

(extra credit) Diversity and Distributions: Where are Europe’s last primary forests?

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