Forests in France

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One is tempted to conclude that the European sustainable forest management goal has been attained: forest surface area has increased in most countries. However, can one really believe this claim from the FAO with regards to France?

The Ministry of Agriculture regularly publishes reasonably complete management material concerning forests in France, which establish the IFN (National Forest Inventory).

Forest Surface Area

The latest IFN edition, in 2005, starts by presenting to the reader a precise evolution of forest surface area between 1993 and 2003. It is even the first indicator provided to the reader! Did it increase? Yes, the actual forest surface area increases by around 60,000 hectares each year and covers 15.4 million hectares, or 28.1%, of the national territory today. Nevertheless, forest borders made up of hedged farmland decrease by about 15,000 hectares per year, and other areas which the FAO considers wooded areas (heaths and scrublands) decrease by around 19,000 hectares per year.

The total area of wood formations and trees areas in France reached 18.4 million hectares in 1993 and 18.6 million hectares in 2003—an almost perfect stability.

Natural Forests

What are we talking about? The word forest covers a wide range of possibilities. How many primary or natural forests (that have not been touched by man) are left in France? The Ministry of Agriculture’s booklet provides this information in the third point of the fourth chapter: 30,000 hectares, which represents only 0.2% of French forests! And this only includes forests that have not been exploited for at least 50 years. Their protection is therefore a priority.

How many forests are strictly protected in France? According to the IFN, only 187,000 hectares, meaning only1.2% of forests! These are located in the central zones of national parks, natural reserves, and integral or managed biological reserves located in public forests. The IFN notes that “this rate is very low compared to Scandinavian countries or North America.

What makes up a Natural Forest?

According to ecologist Jacques Blondel, a natural forest is characterized foremost by the complexity of its vertical structure with five or six well-defined stratum of vegetation and an average canopy height of approximately 30 to 40 meters, with giant trees that emerge every now and again. Blondel adds that these “emerging trees” are reminiscent of those found in tropical forests, and that temperate forests are only an “epiphenomenon” of these! The second major characteristic is the importance of dead wood underfoot. For example, in the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, which is a natural forest of reference for European naturalists, the quantity of dead wood reaches more than 60 m3 per hectare and the large trunks that are cut down total more than one kilometer per hectare. In comparison, there is on average only 1.28 m3 of dead wood in the forests managed by the National Office of Forests!

Lastly the final characteristic of a natural forest is the structural heterogeneity of the surface area. In short, a natural forest is a real mosaic of various ages and structural compartments: the scale of wood forest alternates with gaps and glades regularly provoked by the ageing of trees or climatic disturbances with the more compact blocks.

A real natural forest needs a large surface area for its ecosystem to function correctly. However, this is not yet the case in France where this is no wood forest conservation.


High Selection Management

A high forest is a “forest composed of large trees.” The high selection management system, or the more general irregular selection, is based on what has been learnt from the operation of the natural forest ecosystem. Its principle is to optimize natural evolution processes, meaning how nature would progress without involved or costly interventions. For example, this means that there is never a “general” or “total” felling, only one that is considered on a case by case basis. […], the ecosystem, its flora, and fauna are conserved as well as financial profitability. This management system also enables forests to better withstand storms and vermin. However, this ideal management system was only implemented on 4.6% or 639,000 hectares of forest in France in 2004, which is less than the 5.5% or 729,000 hectares in 1989.

Coppice-with-Standards Management

This is a field-forest management system that has existed for the past five centuries, and as its name indicates, it works by exploiting the coppice-with-standards itself every ten to fifteen years. Since 1850, a continuous movement was introduced by the forest administration to convert these areas into regular woodland. Today, in 2004, the coppice-with-standards areas only represent 30.4% of French forests, as opposed to 32.7% in 1989.

The Management of Even-Aged Forest

This is a management system that boomed at the beginning of the 20th century. Let us recall the cycle of regular woodland: a plantation or a natural regeneration on bare soil, followed by several “sunny intervals” over the years where only the trees that will be clear cut survive. The soil is then cleared and the cycle starts again. This system is a lot simpler than general forest selection management, which explains its development. But it is also a management system that produces a lot of small wood shavings necessary for the paper industry, which therefore explains the pressure to favor this silviculture model. Today, in 2004, the surface of even-aged forest represents 49% of French forests, as opposed to 43.1% in 1989, thus showing a rapid evolution.


Artificial plantations cover 1.9 million hectares or 12.6% of forests (in 2004), as opposed to 1.7 million hectares in 1989.


The situation is no cause for celebration: a pathetic 0.2% of natural forests, barely 1% of strictly protected surface, a management system similar to nature for exploited forests in regression by 4.6%, the rate of artificial forest plantations rising to 12.6%. Yet, over the last decade, there has been a change of attitude regarding National and Community forests managed by the National Office of Forests which make-up 11% of French forests. However, in reality, the exploitation of wood to the detriment of all other consideration remains a priority even in the symbolic forests such as the Tronçais forest where the wise association Friends of the Forest declare that a massacre is taking place…

La forêt en France


July-September 2007

Published with Thierry Jaccaud’s authorization

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