Today Germans Are Tree Huggers, But Weren’t Always
Germany has always been associated with woods and forests. Most people have heard of the ‘Black Forest’, and the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood are traditional German fairy tales most of us know from childhood.
Certainly the German forests have often been feared. This phenomenon dates back to Roman times, where the Roman historian Tacitus described the forests in Germany as, ‘terrible, filled with ugly swamps’, which led him to conclude that the Germanic tribes were similarly primitive (1). Throughout the Middle Ages, Germany’s inhospitable woodlands were believed to be full of robbers, ghosts and witches.
But the Romantic Movement in the 19th Century led to a transformation of the German forest’s image (2). Forests became a dominant theme in poetry, painting and music — including the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The forest became a political symbol for German unity, reinforcing the identity of Germans as a robust and nature-loving folk. After the second world war, the forest continued to gain in popularity as a place of respite from hectic city life. Today German forests are a central part of the country’s identity and culture. They are the defining symbol of Germany’s sustainable future.
Forests in Germany: Facts
Roughly one-third of Germany is covered with forests. This represents about 11.4 million hectares (3). The composition of German forests is 60% coniferous and 40% deciduous. The most common trees are spruce (28%), pine (23%), beech (15%) and oak (10%). Of these, beech and oak are the indigenous species, and would account for over 90% of all trees in German forests if conifers weren’t present. The reason that conifers are so prevalent in German forests today has to do with their relatively quick growing cycles and suitability for a quick sales cycle.
A conifer is mature and ready to be felled in just thirty years. The non-conifer deciduous species require much longer to mature before they can be felled and sold.
The reason that conifers grow quickly has to do with their relatively flat root system, which allows them to absorb water quickly to accelerate growth. Deciduous trees have much deeper root systems that absorb water more slowly. The advantages that deciduous trees have versus conifers are that they a) are more resistant to falling down in wind storms, and b) are more resistant to drought. With their shallow root systems, conifers are easily knocked over in a major wind storm and are prone to dryness in periods of drought.
Climate Change and German Forests
Germany has experienced sustained dryness in recent years that has severely weakened its forests. The years 2018-2019 were particularly bad. And due to their root system, as described above, the conifers suffered disproportionately.
According to German national television, roughly 400,000 hectares of forest were destroyed by the end of 2020, mainly conifers (4). To put this in perspective, the size of the area lost is roughly the size of Rhode Island, or if you prefer football, the size of 247,000 football fields!
Because the trees were weakened by drought, they produced less resin than needed to ward off insect predators. The bark beetle (Borkenkäfer), a widely disseminated predator beetle in the USA, had the perfect conditions to invade and cause a plague in the weakened German conifers.
How do the beetles kill the trees? First they lay their eggs in the bark. If the tree is too weak to produce enough protective resin, the eggs destroy the tree’s bast layer, which is the innermost vascular layer of the bark that transports sugar produced by photosynthesis to other parts of the tree. This interrupts the nutritional flow of the tree, slowly starving it. The second contribution bark beetles make toward destroying the tree relates to the fungi they carry when they settle in the bark to lay their eggs. Theses fungi accelerate the death process in the already weakened trees.
Trees breathe CO2 and release oxygen into the atmosphere. When a trees die, it not only reduces forestry revenue, but more importantly also reduces the possibility to absorb atmospheric CO2, a critical component of global warming.
America is Part of the Solution for German Forests
Global warming means that Germany’s forests must be made up of tree species that are better at resisting drought to survive and remain sustainable.
North America offers several tree species that are being introduced in Germany for their greater resistance to drought. Some of the prominent species include: Douglas Fir (NW America), Red Oak (East Coast USA), Eastern White Pine (East Coast USA) and Grand Firs (NW USA) (5).
In many parts of Germany, the government is subsidizing the planting of these hardy American species in the hope that the forests can be made better sustainable.
At the moment industrial wood is in short supply in both Germany and the United States. CNN reports that wood prices in the USA have risen by 500% since early April 2020, due to a boom in the housing market (6). The availability of wood for construction in Germany is also said to be in short supply.
In the relatively near future, the international wood crisis should ameliorate itself. However, a positive longterm outlook for German forests will depend on planting and maintaining sustainable forests worldwide as part of the fight to reduce CO2 levels around the planet. Here every nation in the world has an equal interest.