Beech Forests

By nature, the beech would be the predominant tree species throughout Germany. Of its original distribution area, only around 8% remains. Currently, beech accounts for around 15% of Germany’s forest area. Beech forests older than 160 years account for just 6%, however.

The genus Fagus thrives in the northern hemisphere in temperate climatic zones and forms deciduous forests. There are 11 species of Fagus. Seven of them are native to East Asia, two to North America and two to Europe/Asia Minor (Fagus orientalis and Fagus silvatica). The beech forests were cleared to make way for arable land and pasturage. Only Fagus silvatica, the red beech, still occupies larger areas of Central Europe, especially in Germany and Slovenia.

After the ice age beech has been successful to colonise vast areas of Europe. This dominance has developed during the last 4.000 years – a geological and evolutionary extremely short time frame. The ecological process is still on-going, beech is still expanding. This is a globally unique example how a single tree species can establish itself and dominate on a large area.

These are lowland beech forests, found at altitudes below 400 m. In Germany, they occur in Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg. They have come under particular pressure in recent centuries, as their relatively even topography made these areas particularly accessible for agriculture (arable and pasturage). The remnants of these forests are therefore in particular need of protection.

In managed forests, beech is generally used, i.e. felled, at the age of 160 years. Its natural life span, however, is upwards of 400 years. It is only with increasing age that beech trees increase in girth, their trunks develop more cracks, branches break off and cavities develop. This provides a habitat for fungi and lichens, small mammals, insects and birds. Dead trees or parts of them are colonised by specialised species and are ultimately absorbed into the natural cycle through decay. If an old tree dies in an unmanaged beech forest, it creates space for new life. It is this close proximity of old and young forest components that makes these forests so diverse. In a managed forest, there would be no suitable wood nearby, and so the spores would go to waste.

The beech recolonised Central Europe after the last Ice Age, and was the latest of our present-day native tree species to do so. Its refuge areas are assumed to have lain beyond the Alps, in the Apennines, the southern Balkans and the Pyrenees. Recolonisation took place around 7,000 years ago from what is now Slovenia, via the Eastern Alps, the Danube valley and Bohemia into the North German Plain and from there via Denmark to southern Sweden. The migration of the beech is still ongoing and is likely to accelerate as a result of climate change.

In beech forests, beech is the dominant tree species and may comprise more than 90% of the tree layer. Oak forests, for example, have a higher proportion of mixed tree species. In optimal site conditions (soil nutrients, moisture), beech barely tolerates any other species of tree alongside it; in other words, it is the winner in the competition for light. It is better able than most tree species to close gaps in the stand by swiftly replenishing its crown. It thus restores the density of the canopy, with the result that other tree species fail to thrive due to lack of light. Beech itself can tolerate a great deal of shade; this applies especially to juvenile trees, which remain in the shady lower tree layer for a very long time, shooting up rapidly when some form of disturbance lets in more light. Another reason why beech is so successful in terms of its distribution is that it can tolerate a broad range of sites, thriving on almost every type of soil other than highly acidic or very dry soils. 300 to 400 beech trees plus several thousand young plants can grow on one hectare.

The forests in the North are relatively young. The beech forests on Jasmund only developed 800 years ago. In contrast, the beech forests in the middle range mountains are several thousands of years old. It is assumed that Hainich and Kellerwald have been timbered by beech forests since then.

Inscription as World Heritage

The decision on whether a nominated cultural or natural property is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List is taken by the World Heritage Committee at its annual session. The Committee consists of elected representatives from 21 of the States Parties to the Convention who, as far as possible, represent all continents and cultures. In order to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, the proposed sites must fulfil the criteria set out in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. To prepare the decision, the Advisory Bodies – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (Natural Heritage) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) (Cultural Heritage) – provide the World Heritage Committee with a report containing the findings of the evaluation as to whether the properties proposed for inscription on the World Heritage List fulfil the relevant criteria.

The recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage means an enormous image gain fort he individual areas and their regions. Visitors form Germany and from abroad would like to get to know the World Natural Heritage properties and the region gains attractiveness for present and future inhabitants. This may result in a rise in nature tourism and an increase in value added for regional businesses and tourism.

The inscription doesn’t imply money, but a title and recognition. But the effects of this designation are big (for example increased tourism, increased awareness and recognition, higher priority in funding programmes), so that the designation has indirect financial impacts.

No limitations for inhabitants (or visitors) exist beyond those already in place. This means, if an area was accessible before the inscription or could be traversed on a hiking trail, this is still possible.

Yes. If an area does longer have the quality for which it had been inscribed in the List, the World Heritage Committee can inscribe the property in the World Heritage List in Danger and later – if no adequate measures to preserve or restore the values have been taken – decide to delist the property. So far this has happened only two times globally.

No, Only the most valuable parts of the five protected areas have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. These are the parts which have been use-free for the longest time and are most close to “primeval” forests. Here, the oldest and biggest trees grow.

No. The inscribe beech forests have an adequate protection status as national parks or core zone of a biosphere reserve and are use-free. A management plan has been elaborated during the nomination process in order to guarantee integrity and long-term protection. The plan determines measures to secure preservation and protection of the World Heritage property. This also includes the planning of specific offers to allow visitors to discover the areas.