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Project context

Context_forest_expansion_Europe

Europe has historically faced more habitat fragmentation than any other continent, and around 30% of the EU territory consist today of moderately to very highly fragmented landscapes. However, the region was also the first to undergo a turnaround from diminishing to increasing forest cover, with several countries reaching this so-called ‘forest transition’ already in the 19th century. Since 1950, Europe's forests have increased by >300 000 km2 (about the size of Italy) as a consequence of farmland abandonment and rural exodus. Projections of the European Commission estimate that a further 200,000 km2 of EU farmlands are under high risk of abandonment by 2030. The increment in forest area is favoured by European and national policies that have invested billions of euros in the afforestation of former farmlands. Forests play a key role in the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 as well as in the upcoming Biodiversity Strategy 2030, Strategy for Sustainable Development 2030 and European Partnership 'Rescuing Biodiversity to Safeguard Life on Earth'. The European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives launched in 2019 with the overarching aim of making Europe climate neutral in 2050, foresees to commit further extensive efforts to planting more than three billion trees and restoring damaged or depleted forests. This engagement reflects that forests are now valued as much for their diverse ecological services and their role in mitigating climate change as for their wood production.  

Context_fig1_trees_recolonize_pastures

At the same time, policy makers have neglected opportunities to implement passive forest restoration as a cost-efficient and politically feasible tool for increasing the extent and multifunctionality of European forests. Spontaneous forest regrowth is a widespread phenomenon in many economically marginal or sparsely populated rural landscapes. Second-growth forests are often hardly perceived as landscape units of their own by local stakeholders, managers and administrations, and they are usually not systematically managed. Yet such forests form a network of habitats that act as stepping-stones for biodiversity conservation and can deliver a broad suite of ecosystem services. Spontaneous forest regrowth hence can contribute to fostering multifunctional, diverse landscapes. Yet, to date the process is commonly conceptualized rather as a challenge than as an opportunity for landscape conservation and management. Implementing passive forest restoration approaches hence requires a careful analysis of forest functioning and of the services and disservices that second-growth forests can deliver, as well as of their perception and demand by local population, stakeholders and the greater public.