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Beech Forests – Europe’s Primeval Forests

As diverse as their sites and the species communities inhabiting them may be, beech forests all have one thing in common: they are impressive forests. The face of Europe is by nature shaped by its beech forests. For most Central Europeans, beech forests thus embody their perceptions of what “forest” means.

Beech forests: the changing seasons

Over the course of the year, and indeed throughout their life cycle, beech forests undergo highly diverse stages and processes. In spring, it is the colourful aspect of the carpet of early-flowering plants beneath the still leafless beech canopy which is striking. This is followed by the appearance of fresh green foliage and an almost ominous gloom at the forest floor during the summer months. It is now that the dominance of the beech becomes apparent: very few species can thrive at this time in the shade of this dense canopy. Then with the interplay of bright colours and the leaf drop in autumn, the beech forest acquires yet another and very different aspect.

Life cycles of a beech forest

The stages through which a beech forest passes with increasing age are no less impressive: germination, the densely packed juvenile trees during their early years, the decades of competition for space, water and light, maturation into an imposing tree, followed by death and decay.
Due to human intervention and because timber use is complete long before the onset of decay, we have grown unaccustomed to the sight of ageing and dying trees. And yet dead wood is just as much a part of life in the beech forest as the small, dark-green shoots which take the place of the old tree.
In near-natural beech forests, the various senescence stages can be observed in close proximity to one another. Near-natural beech forests develop their own dynamic and are notable for their great structural diversity.

Species diversity of beech forests

Beech forests are shady and seem dark in summer, and may even appear to be species-poor compared with some mixed deciduous forests. In reality, however, this certainly does not apply to a beech forest in its natural state. Beech forests with a high proportion of old growth and standing and lying dead wood provide an ideal habitat for many species of flora and fauna. This type of forest contains numerous natural cavities in which hollow-breeders, bats and many other creatures find refuge and a place to breed. Much of the species diversity of beech forests only develops fully in the later stages of senescence. The entire regeneration cycle of beech forests – from the time a beech grows, bears fruit, ages, dies and decays – lasts between 250 and 300 years, and in some cases even more.
It is precisely this regeneration cycle, as well as the broad range of sites occupied by beech forests, which permit the occurrence of almost every Central European species of tree somewhere, or at some time, in the beech forest. Thus the total number of species of flora in the various locational and biogeographical formations of beech forest is remarkably high. A wealth of specific sites such as springs, streams, small water bodies, marshes, rocks, hollows or boulder fields further enrich the structural diversity of the beech forest.
Estimates of species richness assume about 6000 different species of fauna living in beech forests. Due to its significance for many species, including some at risk of extinction, beech forest was chosen as Biotope of the Year in 1995.