During the last five years, climate change has struck Germany hard. Storms, drought, and the bark-beetle have since the dry year 2018 killed more than 550,000 hectares of forests. 255 million cubic meters have been emergency felled. The damages are estimated to be some 20 billion EURO and about 20 percent of the total spruce stands (Norway spruce, Picea Abies) had been felled. That is about 5 percent of Germany’s total forest land.
Germany – the share of spruce in the new forests decreases
The damages are concentrated in central Germany around a belt that stretches from Saxony in the east to Eifel in the west, where the western parts and Harz are particularly affected. When over half a million hectares are to be reforested, a new type of forestry will be introduced. One that is adapted to future climate changes. It’s mainly about essentially decreasing the share of spruce.
Originally, the shade-tolerant beech dominated the German forest. Spruce was mainly found in the highlands above 900 meters above sea level. However, spruce was later planted in areas where the conditions for it weren’t the best. Until 2018, some 25 percent of the German forest land was Norway spruce.
Unadaptable spruce became the drought’s first victim
“The Norway spruce needs a cool and moist environment,” says Sonja Klotz and continues. “This became obvious during the dry summer of 2018. The drought broke all boundaries and was measured down to 1,8 meters depth in large parts of Germany. That the following years also were dry didn’t make anything better. Drought and heat waves gave us some tough wildfire seasons in 2018 and 2019, but worst of all was that the weakened spruce forest was easy prey for the bark-beetle,” says Sonja.
She and her husband Timo Schmitt live in Hümmel in Rheinland-Pfalz. Both have been active in several places in German forestry. Timo is currently the forestry manager in the municipality-owned forests of Hümmel in Eifel. A spot where a large share of hardwood species has spared the forest from bark-beetle damage.
“So far,” says Sonja. “But we see a lot of damaged spruce forest in our surroundings.”
Post-war planting in Germany
To understand the background for all the softwood planting we need to go back 75 years in time. When Germany lost World War 2, they were imposed vast war indemnities. One of the most important assets the country had was timber which was used to pay off. Vast areas were felled at the end of the 40s and the 50s. Areas that later were reforested.
In the northern and eastern lowlands, the first-hand choice was pine (Scots pine, Picea abies). But the species that was the most profitable was the Norway spruce. Just like Norway, Germany was struck by “spruce fever” after the war.
“If you have a spare square meter – plant a spruce tree,” was the mantra at the time. For many years this seemed to work out just fine even though the Germans knew that the spruce was most suitable in the moist and cool conditions over 600 meters above sea level. The summer of 2018 turned however out to be fatal, and the spruce suffered hard. Several dry summers followed, and the bark-beetle killed an increasing number of the weakened spruce trees.
In March 2023, German authorities summarized the damages: 20 percent of the total volume of Norway spruce in the country had been emergency felled. That corresponds to 5 percent of the total forested area of Germany.
Norway spruce is being phased out in favor of beech
Until now, the war against the bark-beetle has been about saving as much valuable timber as possible. But the result of the massive fallings is that over 500,000 hectares now must be reforested. What will the Germans go for? No one seems to believe that Norway spruce has a future here due to the predictions about global warming and climate change. No one knows what climate we have when what we plant today is ready for harvest.
“That’s why hardly any Norway spruce is planted in this area anymore, but that doesn’t prevent the spruce from growing naturally. The trick is to manage forest stands that can cope with more extreme climates than monocultures can,” Sonja Klotz explains.
The solution seems to be more variation and trying new species. Timo Schmitt, who is responsible for 750 hectares of municipality forest in Hümmel has a goal to “keep the forest vital and stable”.
“Today more than a third in our area is spruce,” says Timo, “but it constitutes a larger share of the forest that is ready for clear-cut. Partly because the spruce forests are damaged. This means that the share of spruce will decrease essentially in the future. Figures from the latest forest management plan show that the share of beech will increase from 23 to 38 percent in our area in the next 20 years.”
“Also, the share of oak must increase, especially in dry areas. It’s the domestic species that likes the conditions here,” he adds.
Is there a future for softwood species?
Oak and beech are ok, but the challenge is that the industry wants spruce or other softwood species. One part of the plan is therefore to try out other softwood species, those that have had better resistance over the past five years. Sonja and Timo tell us that more within German forestry are looking south for species that could be mixed into the German forest and that are suitable for a warmer climate in the future. And they are not afraid to introduce new species.
“It’s more important that the species are suitable for the area than domestic, and we can’t wait for the species to move by themselves. In forestry, nature needs help to move forward in the establishment of new tree species that can cope with new climate conditions,” says Sonja Klotz.
Each state has however its recommendations concerning suitable species for different areas. Timo Schmitt has his very own lists to handle in Rheinland-Pfalz.
“Of softwood species, we use for example Douglas fir, Giant fir/Grand fir (Abies grandis), and European silver fir, or Silver fir (Abies alba). Those have deeper roots and are more resistant to drought. Furthermore, they are not interesting for the bark-beetle,” Timo explains.
“The same goes for Larch (Larix) which is also used for reforestation of the large bark-beetle clear-cuts in Germany. Like the Silver fir, it’s seen as domestic as we only move it within Germany, from the south to the north. Other provenances of spruce could be of interest as well. But generally, we follow the rule that no spruce is to be planted in this area below 600 meters above sea level. It’s too dry,” Timo concludes.
Product development for new raw materials
Even though the industry wants spruce and other softwoods it must be prepared to adapt to climate challenges. Also the industry prepares for a future with less spruce wood and Sonja Klotz tells us how a product development that will increase the demand for hardwoods could happen:
“For example, the business has developed a new product based on laminated beech: “BauBuche” (construction beech). It’s a new type of Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) that could replace construction wood where spruce today is dominating,” she says. “In only five years the climate calamity has forced the Germans to think of new ways for their forestry and which consequences it will have for the future asset of raw material.”
German forests – 900 million EURO adjustment grant
Because of the hard consequences for the German forestry business due to climate change over the last five years, the state has introduced a grant fund for 900 million EURO for climate-adapted forestry. As the country’s forestry business has been forced to vast emergency felling due to the bark-beetle calamity the state has seen the need for action to meet climate change.
In November 2022, a special investment was therefore introduced for climate-adapted forestry, whereas the grant shall contribute to the creation of climate-robust future forests.
According to the 12 criteria, the new forestry shall lead to a continuity of forestry. Shortly that means a transfer to a multi-layered and hardwood-dominated forest. In other words, a significant change in tree species from the south to cope with climate change. The purpose is to avoid losing large forest areas to climate calamities. Something the Germans have experienced a lot over the last five years and the solution has been to fell large areas of damaged forest.
That kind of loss should be decreased by spreading the risks with several tree species and forests of various ages, with reforestation through shelterwood systems. This process started 30 years ago, but there are still large areas that must become more resistant to extreme climate. The goal is to secure a steady asset of raw materials in the future.
According to German forestry policy, climate-robust forests are created by conservation, development, and management that maintain a larger diversity of forest functions than earlier considered. That contains, among other things, so-called eco-system services like water management, but also better protection of biodiversity.
For the project, 12 criteria were created that should contribute to making the forest more climate-robust and providing forest owners with the needed funds to fulfill the project according to the criteria. The demands are harder than the certification standards or the law.
12 criteria for natural forests in Germany
Among the criteria, some demands say that all reforestations should take place with shelterwood systems or on clear-cuts smaller than 0,3 hectares. Furthermore, natural regeneration should be prioritized if it’s possible with suitable tree species. But, if necessary, more climate-robust species should be added by planting.
Increased volume of standing and lying dead wood, including high stumps. The shortest distance between strip roads is 30 meters or 40 meters on compaction-sensitive soils. Fertilizers and pesticides are not allowed. Actions to keep more water in the forest are also prioritized. Everything from rewetting of drained land to active creation of obstacles for fast water flows. Forest estates of over 100 hectares should leave at least 5 percent of the area for free development, for at least 20 years.
This article is signed Line Venn at the magazine Norsk Skogbruk in Norway. The text was published in Norsk Skogbruk No 9 and is here translated with permission from Norsk Skogbruk. The original article can be found here (in the Norwegian language and behind a paywall).