Hard- or softwood – What’s your choice?

What is the best to grow on your forest land? Hard- or softwood species? A biologist would say that is dependent on the soil. An industrialist would say what’s most commercially viable. Who should you listen to? 

Hard- or softwood

When I was a harvester operator in Germany (and an educated forester) in the mid-90s, a German forester asked me: “How can you Swedes know what your industry will need 100 years from now?” 

Log Max Harvester Heads

He was referring to Swedish forestry, which for more than 150 years has only grown Norway spruce (Picea abies) and Scots pine (Pinus silvestris). Some 50 years ago, we even tried to exterminate birch and other unwanted hardwoods by spraying chemicals from aircraft. 

We don’t do that anymore. On the contrary, we try to recreate the biological balance in nature, which was disturbed by extremely uniform forestry for 150 + years. This is done using modern management methods that aim to be as similar as possible to natural forests. The education of forest workers is an essential part of this process. A process that started in the mid-90s and that must continue for a long time to restore the balance. 

Nevertheless, our industry still wants spruce and pine, period! Hardwood species are saved only to meet the demands of the certification standards and the public (who understands little of this).

Mainly spruce and pine in sight – and some windmills. Photo: Per Jonsson

All eggs in one basket

I understand the above mentioned forester’s concern. He has a point. There are, however, some big differences between Swedish and German forestry. Simplified, you can say that one of them is that in Sweden, the forest industry decides, and the forest (the forest management/forestry) must adapt to that. In Germany, it’s the other way around. The industry must adapt to what the forest offers. 

So, when you ask Swedish forest industry people, they will say we have it all in hand. We know what we are doing. But do we? 

Let’s have another look at Germany. 

The bark-beetle loves spruce

Approximately 80 percent of the Swedish forest is pine or spruce (about 40/40). In Germany, about 25 percent is spruce and 23 percent is pine today. In 2018 and the following years, drought struck Germany hard, which opened the gate for the bark-beetle (Ips typographus) to invade the spruce forests. Since then, some 5 percent of the German forest land has been emergency felled due to the bark-beetle. That is about 20 percent of the spruce forests in Germany. 

Luckily for the Germans, they are not as dependent on the spruce as we Swedes are, and they have lots of other species, both hard- and softwoods, that can replace the lost spruce forests. To plant Norway spruce again, like we most likely would have done in Sweden, is no option for the Germans. 

A future bark-beetle farm? Photo: Per Jonsson

Really – Is it that difficult? 

And that seems sound to me. Why should we keep feeding the bark-beetle? No one wants it here. It’s just an unwanted insect pest. The choice should be easy when it comes to avoiding spruce. The tricky question is what to choose instead. As the forester above indicated: It’s difficult to know what will be needed in the future. 

Again, I recall working in Northern Germany where I saw five or six species of both hard- and softwood being planted on the same site. Not only that, but it was also planted very dense, some 6000 plants per hectare. It seemed someone wanted to be sure to sell something when the time comes – in 100 years or so. But wait a minute … Before the new forest is ready for harvest, some 60 – 100 years have passed. That means anyone has plenty of time to adapt and develop suitable materials to produce from whatever is planted today. Doesn’t it? 

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