What's next for the German forest?

Wie geht's mit dem deutschen Wald weiter?

A conversation with Michelle Sundermann from the State Forestry Office of Hesse

by Tanita Steckel

Photo: private

Climate change is in full swing, there is no longer any doubt about it. Heat and prolonged drought are just one of the many results. And that also has an impact on our local forests. So we wanted to know: How are the trees in Germany doing? And what does the future hold?

The forest scientist and press spokeswoman for the State Forestry Office of Hesse, Michelle Sundermann, answered our questions. Today we continue with part 2 of our conversation. If you missed part one last week, you can catch up on it here.

Ms. Sundermann, what changes have you observed in the Hessian forest in recent years?

The extreme weather conditions of the past three years caused by climate change have had a lasting impact on most forest trees. The trees are more susceptible to biotic pathogens such as the bark beetle. Many show clear symptoms of the disease, e.g. thin crowns, or they die. The number of forest fires has increased due to the drought in the past growing seasons.

The spruce as the "bread tree of forestry" suffers in particular. In many places it is failing and must be replaced by tree species that are better adapted to climate change. The damage to the European beech in the last two years caused by drought and heat is especially worrying. The native climax tree species beech, whose main distribution area is Hesse, shows clear signs of die-back, especially in older stands. Together with the spruce, it has shaped a large part of our forest's image until now.

In large parts of the Hessian forest, climate-related changes are currently taking place to an extent that we did not know until then. Within a few years, the forest changes like in fast motion. The consequences of climate change were to be expected, but not that they would become reality at this rapid pace.

What is your prognosis for the coming years?

Our forest is doing badly. How its state of health develops depends heavily on the climate. Reforesting the newly created, large open spaces in a climate-adapted manner is a real challenge, but at the same time offers the opportunity to convert monocultures that have not been adapted to the location into stable mixed forest.

We are currently planting many young trees of different species in the open spaces that have been created. We take into account data from calculation models for our future climate. After all, the little trees that we plant today are supposed to survive and grow in their place for a hundred or more years.

In order to be forested in the best possible way for the future, we aim for mixed stands with four or more tree species. If a tree species fails for any reason, forest still remains on the soil and protects it. The forest functions remain stable.

Many of the trees that are currently dying have previously developed seeds that will germinate on the land. We care for the trees that are created, so-called natural regeneration, and supplement them with other tree species if necessary.

Our forest needs a lot of attention and care in the coming years. Both the reforestation of open spaces and the maintenance of young forest stands are of great importance. Because here we can significantly and sustainably influence the stability and resilience of our future forests.

And how do I recognize a stable, healthy tree?

There are a few things to look out for:

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
  1. The tree is upright. The ground around the base of the trunk is firm.
  2. The bark of the tree shows no cracks or bumps, it is tight and does not peel off. It does not show any insect holes.
  3. The crown is well developed, i.e. it has intact branches that develop many healthy leaves or needles at their ends (when leafy or needled).
  4. No dry branches can be seen in the green crown. Neither branches nor parts of the crown have broken off or broken out of the crown.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

How can you show consideration for nature when you are out and about? 

In the forest, you should only ever move on designated paths. This applies to hiking as well as horse riding or climbing. The advantage: the risk of ticks and oak processionary moths is lower on the paths than off-road. Car, quad and motorcycle rides are generally taboo in the forest. And if a path is blocked, then you should accept that too. They protect forest visitors from possible dangers. This also applies to designated nature reserves. Especially there - but of course also everywhere else in the forest - it is also important not to disturb wild animals. Therefore please avoid noise and keep your own dog on a leash.

Basically you should leave the forest as you would like to find it yourself. That means: Do not leave any rubbish behind, avoid forest fires - i.e. do not barbecue or smoke - and do not pick wild plants. Please do not camp in the forest either. 

And last but not least: show consideration for other forest visitors!

Ms. Sundermann, thank you very much for the informative interview!