Ancient beech forests in 10 European countries have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, due to the efforts of a group of 120 international experts including a senior academic from Writtle University College.
The project has led to the protection of 63 ancient and primeval beech forests, which gives them the same legal status as historic landmarks such as the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu.
The European beech forest inscription is one of the most complicated and unusual proposals ever to be given World Heritage status by UNESCO because it represents the status of a single species across many countries. Pressure is already being put on the most significant example of ancient beech forests in Europe, with logging happening at an unprecedented rate.
The European Beech Forest project was funded by the German Ministry of Environment and coordinated by the Centre for Econics & Ecosystem Management, a partnership programme between Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development and Writtle University College, under the dual directorship of Professor Pierre Ibisch, of Eberswalde, and Professor Peter Hobson, of Writtle.
Professor Hobson said: “This is one of the most ambitious and one of the most extensive World Heritage inscriptions since the UNESCO World Heritage List was set up. It is a single species dominant ecosystem that is transboundary, cutting across many countries on a huge scale.
“The ancient beech forests are extremely important. Europe has less than 1% old growth forest left and they are responding very rapidly to climate change; there are many areas where the old growth beech forest is retreating but there are also areas that it is moving into.
“The World Heritage Committee recognised that these forests provide evidence of the exceptional evolutionary history as well as benefits and services the beech ecosystem has had in Europe since the last Ice Age.”
The 63 forests now form the serial property called 'Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions in Europe'.
The designation, made when the UNESCO Commission was in session in Krakow, Poland, is the culmination of six years of work, carried out by more than 120 experts from over 20 countries, responsible for mapping and classifying well-preserved beech forests in Europe. The international experts took into account location, soil condition, climate and genetic diversity of beech trees.
Professor Hobson said: “Unfortunately the UK, which has some of the most westerly examples of old beech forest, specifically in the New Forest, felt they were not in a position to commit or engage with the UNESCO designation.
“We had intended that only the very best forest sites would be nominated for the status and the New Forest came out as the best fit against the UNESCO criteria, with the average age of some of its beech trees being 400-years-old and the fact that some of the beech stands had not been managed since 1880. Without Britain in the project, the Sonian Forest in Belgium was nominated as the candidate for the Atlantic region.”
A group of experts from the UNESCO beech forest project team, including Professor Peter Hobson, have established a registered society, the European Beech Forest Network to continue with the job of promoting the value and importance of beech forests across Europe. It will map the best sites, set up a baseline of research and understanding, and act as a watchdog to ensure they are maintained.