The forests in Germany continue to suffer from high climate stress: Four out of five trees have visible damage to their crowns, according to a survey by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture for 2022 presented on Tuesday.

In view of more frequent periods of drought and heat, the crowns of about every third tree have already thinned considerably. Overall, there were no significant improvements in the condition of the forest, but also no significant deterioration compared to 2021. Environmentalists, forest owners and the government are pushing for a conversion to more resilient forests.

Minister Cem Özdemir said: “The forest is a patient that needs our help.” The valuable ecosystem is suffering from the consequences of the climate crisis. The “disturbing results” of the survey showed further need for action so that the forests could defy drought and higher temperatures in the future. “That means: mixed forest instead of monocultures,” explained the Green politician. To support such a conversion, the ministry is providing a total of 900 million euros from a funding program for the period from 2022 to 2026.

Only 21 percent of the trees still have full crowns

In general, damage to the trees “continues to be at a very high level”, according to the new forest condition survey. Last year, 35 percent of all species still had “significant” damage – compared to healthy trees, more than a quarter of the crown was bare. 44 percent of the trees belonged to the “warning level” with a weak crown thinning of 11 to 25 percent. Full crowns continued to have 21 percent. How dense foliage or needles are is considered an indicator of health.

The consequences of a dry and hot summer in many places in 2022 can now be seen, as the ministry explained. Rainy months at the beginning of the year and in autumn could not have compensated for a water deficit in the soil. After several dry years since 2018, the forest has still not been able to recover.

Four main species, which together make up three quarters of all trees, are particularly in focus. In the case of spruces, the proportion with significant crown damage fell by six percentage points to 40 percent compared to the previous year. For pines, it increased from 25 to 28 percent. With no gaps in the crown, only “historically low” 13 percent of the pines remained. In the case of beech, another 45 percent had significant damage. The share with full crowns rose from 16 to 21 percent. In the case of oaks, 40 percent showed significant damage, one point less than in 2021. In general, older trees more often have larger gaps in their crowns.

The negative development continues

The data comes from the annual forest condition survey, which, according to the ministry, has been carried out by the federal states since 1984 using a network of random samples. The condition of the crowns is assessed and assigned four “damage levels”. This time, 9727 trees at 409 points were included in the evaluation. The state-owned Thünen Institute then extrapolates the state data to a Germany-wide result. Forests cover around a third of the total area of ​​Germany.

The forest owner association AGDW explained that the negative development had unfortunately continued unabated. This was more than painful on “Forest Day”, which was supposed to emphasize the importance of climate protection and biodiversity on Tuesday. “The numbers are dramatic,” said President Andreas Bitter. In addition to the drought and heat, there were also problems with beetles. In addition, changes have already shown that tree species could not survive in locations where they have been for centuries. Forest owners can no longer bear the enormous costs for reforestation and forest conversion on their own.

Strengthening the water cycle of the forests

The environmental organization WWF criticized an overly intensive use for economic purposes. “Forests require more extensive and gentle treatment of habitats so that they can permanently fulfill their climate protection function, contribute to biodiversity and provide the valuable raw material wood.” The Nature Conservation Union (Nabu) called for the water cycle in the forests to be strengthened – for example by restoring more areas and moors to their natural state. This is because soils in healthy forests store large amounts of water and thus prevent forest fires and floods at the same time.

The German Forestry Council explained that a blanket expansion of unused forest areas would not be expedient in order to promote natural CO2 binding and to preserve the forest. Especially the sustainable management under already high standards promotes the health of the ecosystems. This also makes it possible for everyone to be able to enter the forests safely. From the point of view of the FDP forestry expert Karlheinz Busen, there should be no ban on thinking when it comes to arming the forests: “In addition to native trees, we also need tree species that have proven themselves in warmer latitudes.”