Philip von Oldershausen picks his way past tree stumps and dead wood, a lush forest of spruce trees turned into a landscape of devastation.
In his family’s forest, near the Harz mountains in Lower Saxony, entire hillsides have been destroyed, part of a national environmental crisis and a huge blow to Germans brought up on the fairytale woodlands of the Brothers Grimm.
The tree trunks will eventually be removed and sold at a steep discount as so-called calamity timber. The real calamity, however, is here to stay: climate change.
“Over the past year we have had long periods without rain as well as periods of tremendous heat. Water deposits are exhausted, and all those factors together have weakened the trees,” said Mr von Oldershausen, an aristocrat whose family has owned forests in the region for more than 800 years. “The trees can no longer defend themselves.”
At least 110,000 hectares of German woodland have been destroyed this year alone by heat and lack of water, which leave the weakened trees at the mercy of storms and parasites such as the bark beetle. Some forest owners say they stand to lose more than half their holdings. Even without further losses this year, the cost of replanting the trees destroyed so far runs to €660m.
For the German public, the sight of razed woodlands and dead trees has brought home in unusually stark fashion the impact of climate change. “This is a wake-up call,” said Nicola Uhde, a forest expert at BUND, the environmental group. “For most Germans climate change is something that felt distant. We thought of polar bears and flooding in Bangladesh. But now the forests are dying, and it is happening right outside our doorstep.”
Green campaigners have dubbed the phenomenon Waldsterben 2.0, in a pointed reference to the so-called Waldsterben, or forest dying, that gripped the imagination of the German public in the early 1980s. The principal cause of the woodland demise then was acid rain caused by pollutants in the air — a problem that would ultimately be solved through tougher environmental standards for cars and factories.
The 1980s forest fightback was one of the first environmental campaigns in Germany to garner widespread political support. This time, too, the dramatic images of dead and dying trees seem to have spurred political action: agriculture minister Julia Klöckner this week vowed to spend at least €1.5bn in public funds to help repair the damage. Next month, the German government is expected to answer the growing political clamour for climate action with a wide-ranging “climate package” aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
Germans have long prided themselves on their special attachment to the forest, which forms an elementary part of national culture, from the tales of the Brothers Grimm to the poems of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
“The forest has a special meaning for Germans. It is the place they yearn to be in, and it has been like this for centuries,” said Hans-Georg von der Marwitz, the president of the German association of forest owners.
Today, however, the forest is also a place of ideological battle. Environmental groups say that forest owners are at least partly to blame for the current malaise — and point to the widespread planting of profitable but vulnerable conifer trees in recent decades. Such trees, including the ubiquitous spruce, have suffered far more from the recent heatwave than beech and oak.
“The forest owners say this is all down to the climate crisis and has nothing to do with our forest management. We say: Yes, this is a consequence of the climate crisis but it also has to do with what you did, and in particular the fact that in many areas we now have a spruce monoculture,” said Ms Uhde.
According to official data, conifer trees like spruce and pine, which grow relatively fast and are sought after by the construction industry, account for almost 50 per cent of Germany’s 11.4m hectare of woodland. Beech and oak trees make up just 25 per cent.
Forest owners like Mr von Oldershausen agree that vulnerable tree types such as spruce and pine will probably play a much smaller role in German forests in the years ahead. But they also warn that a full-scale return to the beech and oak forests that dominated Germany centuries ago — as suggested by the environmental movement — would be no less misguided. “There is no tree type that is not showing signs of problems,” said Mr von Oldershausen.
In economic terms, the collapse of so much forest has been a disaster. Timber prices have dropped sharply in response to the sudden surge in logging this year. The impact on the environment has been no less calamitous. In Germany, forests absorb 62m tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, equivalent to 7 per cent of all emissions. When trees rot or burn, however, carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere.
For the moment, forest owners say there is little they can do. Looking further ahead, however, difficult decisions loom, as owners ponder what types of tree — and what kind of forest — will survive more extreme weather patterns. Only one thing is clear, as Mr von der Marwitz admitted: “The forest of the future will look different.”