Resist, survive, respond, restore

Exploring resilient forest responses across countries 

#RestorationStory from Jo O’Hara

The SUPERB project already touches many places and people through its demos and partners. Yet we must stretch its synergies even further if we are to achieve the scale of our European-wide forest restoration targets. Therefore, we planted new collaborative seeds in November 2023, when senior staff from the Irish state forest service, namely Coillte, were hosted by German SUPERB partners Wald und Holz NRW in North Rhine Westphalia to discuss forest resilience and prestoration approaches. While there is no formal Irish involvement with SUPERB, when introduced to the project, Coillte managers were extremely keen to learn from our work and establish new professional networks. 

Coillte forests are mostly plantation-based (Ireland had less than 1% forest cover at the start of the 20th century) and strongly dominated by non-native spruce (Picea sitchensis). The forests are mainly managed on a commercial clear-fell / replant system, and many are at the end of their first rotation. This gives the organisation great opportunities to re-structure and ‘prestore’ their land to become more resilient and ecologically positive, while maintaining their commercial performance. Recognising this, Coillte has just launched a new strategic plan (2023 – 2050) for managing the country’s forests. This plan includes specific ambitions to:  

  • Enhance and restore biodiversity by increasing the area of [the] estate managed primarily for biodiversity and environmental enhancement from 20% to 30% by 2025  
  • Transform areas of forests so that 50% of [the] estate is managed primarily for biodiversity and environmental enhancement in the long- term  

Discussions on and in the forest

Catharina Schmidt from the SUPERB NRW demo, worked with me to organise a packed and insightful programme surrounding the spruce-forest calamity area and the development of alternative silvicultural approaches. Over the course of two days the group visited public, communal and private forests, all of which had been hit by drought, windstorms, and beetles. We discussed all stages of the ‘resist, survive, respond, restore’ cycle – including a deep-dive evening discussion about the conditions leading to the explosion in bark beetle damage, and the operational challenges of the response (including contractors, sawmill, markets, and nursery stock).  

The SUPERB demo site was both a daunting and profound example of the actual reality and risks forests face: a huge area of ‘lost’ forest where tough decisions need to be made about how and what to regenerate. We could see and find insights into the resilience of alternative approaches nearby in the ‘Rothaargebirge Naturpark’ and on the ‘von Hatzfeldt’ estate. Wald und Holz NRW state forests, blown over 15 years ago in the ‘Rothaargebirge Naturpark’, managed to regenerate in a way that multiple species survived the beetle explosion quite well. Having been converted from single storey monocultures over the last 30 years, the ‘von Hatzfeldt’ private estate (despite losing much spruce) also proved more ecologically and financially resilient in the face of the calamity. 

Sharing experiences to anticipate risks and explore lessons-learned

It is essential to adopt a global perspective on forests to address the climate and biodiversity crisis effectively”, commented SUPERB demo coordinator from Wald und Holz NRW, Catharina Schmidt. “Forests offer a multitude of ecosystem services, serving as carbon sinks producing the sustainable raw material wood and providing habitats for numerous species. It is therefore important to preserve our forests globally. I am glad to share our experience, so others can learn from us to take proactive steps sooner to mitigate risks. Timely transformation of forests is important under global change”. 

Ireland has not yet been hit by significant forest damage due to climate or other environmental changes. This was hence a powerful opportunity for Coillte foresters to look into a potential future for their own forests and consider risks and mitigations by learning from what they saw. SUPERB brought to life the reality of the risks and set-up conversations between a fantastic range of professionals, all dealing with the challenge of multi-functional forest management in a changing and uncertain future environment.  

10 key learning points for Coillte

Coillte took away 10 key learning points from the visit that they aim to consider in the implementation of their strategic plan. As mentions Director Ciaran Fallon, “The visit was highly informative in terms of understanding lessons learned from the catastrophic Ips beetle outbreak of 2018 and how German foresters are creating more resilient forests in response to climate change impacts. Developing a strategy for resilience and adaptation to climate change, including the increasing risk of a major pest outbreak, for our estate is critical. Building on the learnings from continental Europe, we are working with partners to model, with the most accurate data, future climate scenarios and associated impacts. Identifying risks and testing scenarios will enable us to develop the best resilience and sustainability for our forest estate.” 

Finally, I would like to highlight the importance of engaging in collaborations such as this: Within SUPERB, much of the upscaling attention is focused on the Nature Restoration Gateway, an online portal offering a broad range of tools and best practice for ecosystem restoration. But it might be even more vital that we recognise the importance of networks and connections to bring our learnings to the field. Computer-based information will only get us so far – people will make it happen. 

Jo O’Hara is leading SUPERB’s WP8 on Further Upscaling.

Upcoming webinar: European forest restoration: urgently needed but where and how?

Forest restoration is not all roses – it comes with a range of challenges, too. Therefore, implementing and upscaling restoration measures is essential for their successful restoration. In our upcoming webinar “European forest restoration: urgently needed but where and how?” organized by SUPERB and IUFRO‘s Task Force ‘Transforming Forest Landscapes for Future Climates and Human Well-Being’ we will discuss how the habitat status of Europe’s forests is currently assessed, and what role data provided by National Forest Inventories can play to inform about forest restoration in Europe. We will also take a deep plunge into our SUPERB demo areas and discover the real-life challenges they are facing to implement restoration on the ground.

Join us on 8th February 4-6pm CET and register here.