Forest death 2.0: Why Germany’s love for trees ain’t easy

Berlin Letter: Forests are a cultural touchstone, so climate change’s effects have hit hard

Beech trees suffering from drought stress in a forest in Warburg, western Germany.  Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Beech trees suffering from drought stress in a forest in Warburg, western Germany. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

 

You can tell a lot about a country and culture by how its language is taught. Back in university I remember the French students returning from classes where they had learned flirting techniques and vocabulary en français.

Our German class was more sobre, discussing overkill, environmental pollution, and Waldsterben which, translated literally, means forest death.

Germans are good at selling themselves as a nation of rational engineers, but it’s all an act. Deep down they are hopeless romantics and, if you want to see a German swoon, ask them about their favourite forest.

Whether the Black Forest in the southwest or the Grunewald at the western fringe of Berlin, Germans cannot get enough of trees. About a third of the country is covered with forest. Many of the Germans’ favourite poems are about the myth and magic of forests. Today, city-dwelling Germans love to take a Waldbad, a bath in the forest, to de-stress.

Given that, it’s not surprising that many people here were beside themselves when they heard in the 1980s of the Waldsterben or “forest death” epidemic. Studies in 1984 showed about half of trees in German forests were showing signs of distress or disease. There were multiple causes, from heat damage caused by drought to disease and insect infestation, but public attention focused on man-made causes: in particular acid rain caused by man-made air pollution.

The fear that German industrialisation was killing a cultural touchstone caused a radical shift in the country’s environmental consciousness and gave a shot in the arm to the burgeoning Green Party.

Flash forward three decades and, to the untrained eye, Germany’s forests resemble that man in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: not dead yet. But years of extreme heat, storms and new insect plagues have prompted what many are calling Waldsterben 2.0.

5,000 football pitches

Federal agriculture minister Julia Klöckner last week announced that forest fires last year alone destroyed more than 5,000 football pitches worth of forest. Rain shortages, winter storms and a beetle plague in the last year have killed off one million trees and 114,000 hectares of forest. An area the size of Berlin is now dead and has to be cleared. That will rob wildlife of habitat and the country of carbon sink capacity. German forests absorb 120 million tonnes of CO2 annually, or 14 per cent of the total.

“Our green lung and most important ally in climate protection is in danger,” wrote Klöckner in the Welt daily. “If we lose parts of our forest, other climate measures to compensate for the loss will come only at great difficulty.”

She had an emergency forest meeting last week, promising €800 million in emergency funding, and will hold a national summit in September to discuss short- and medium-term measures to save forests.

Ulrich Dohle, chairman of the 10,000-member forestry trade union BDF, says German forests are “close to collapsing” due to environmental changes. Precipitation was down from one metre in 2017 to just 483 millimetres last year. That in turn increases the risk of fires in parched forests.

“These are no longer single unusual weather events – this is climate change,” he said.

Experts are calling for greater research into the risks, more diverse forests – including tree varieties native to hotter climates. Others are calling for additional spending to restore forestry personnel, which were pared back in recent decades.

Fire trucks

German civil protection services have begun a roll-out of 300 special fire trucks to Germany’s 16 states at a cost of €223,000 each to fight forest fires. But all these measures may be for nought: if dramatic climate change continues, biodiversity experts warn that swathes of Germany may soon no longer be forestable.

What’s clear is that Waldsterben 2.0 is getting under Germans’ skins. This isn’t about trees, but culture. Most threatened forests include the Teutoburger Wald near today’s western city of Bielefeld where, in 7AD, a local chieftain routed three Romans divisions.

Also hard hit is northern Hesse and the forests that were the origins of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. For many Germans, Waldsterben is no longer a fairytale. And Little Red Riding Hood is now called Greta Thunberg.

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