Tree Extinction

European Native Trees Under Threat

written by

Ioana Mihala

Reading time: 5minTable of contents

The sixth mass extension, climate change, the accelerated loss of habitats and species, continues to unfold and threatens Europe’s native woodlands. According to the latest report by IUCN, more than half of Europe’s endemic tree species – those that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet – face extinction!

The Problem

Forest covers approximately 33% of land in Europe. In 2019, IUCN report 454 native tree species have been evaluated leading to some frightening results: 42% of native species are threatened with extinction (assessed as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered) and 58% of endemic trees are threatened.

The highest impact is suffered by the Sorbus genus with more than three-quarters of its species threatened and about one-third critically endangered. Among these trees are the mountain-ash and Ley’s whitebeam, of which there are currently only 9 trees left in Wales. Other affected species are the horse-chestnut, well known for its polished brown fruits used in the children’s game conkers, the Balkan pine, and the Serbian spruce.

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The Causes

What threatens our native European species and therefore our ecosystems? Here are some of the main causes:

Alien invasive and problematic species – This is the most severe threat, affecting 38% of tree species. It includes pests, diseases, and alien invasive plants, often introduced by humans as a result of the increased global trade.

Deforestation, degradation, and wood harvesting – Trees are harvested for timber and non-wood products or entire forests and woodlands are clear-felled and converted to agricultural fields.

Climate change – Though climate change is an indirect threat, it has the potential to affect many tree species. Extreme weather events, floods, droughts, fires – all have an impact on biodiversity. Furthermore, the changing climate can favour invasive species, which then can spread and compete with the native species

Fire – This could be the result of climate change events or anthropogenic in nature, in the case of deliberate forest wildfires.

Land abandonment, ecosystem modifications, and urban development – Traditional management practices are being abandoned, affecting the environment. Moreover, natural habitats are reduced, disturbed or even destroyed by the expansions of urban, tourism, and industrial areas.

A horse chestnut tree, which are listed as endangered on the European tree extinction list.
A horse chestnut tree, which are listed as endangered on the European tree extinction list.

How does it affect us?

It is important that we continue to have these tree species on our continent. Native and endemic species play an important role for the entire ecosystem. They enhance biodiversity, which means that if they cease to exist, other organism such as fungi or insects, that are associated and depend on these trees will disappear too. Native species are adapted to site conditions and are more resistant and can help boost the entire ecosystem resilience. They also have an effect on soil quality and can help conserve water. According to the IUCN report, most European trees have at least one recorded use: food, medicine, construction, fuel, cultural etc. so it is important to try to save and restore these species.

To learn more about how we are planting native tree species to address the threats of tree extinction, follow our reforestation projects.

The beautiful white flowers of a Ley's whitebeam tree.
Ley’s whitebeam, of which there are currently only 9 trees left in Wales.

This report has shown how dire the situation is for many overlooked, undervalued species that form the backbone of Europe's ecosystems and contribute to a healthy planet.

Luc Bas, director of IUCN’s Europe Office.

The Laurisilva forest, a thriving native forest in Europe. But such woodlands are under threat from tree extinction.

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. European Red List of Trees - IUCNExternal linkIcon Peer Review
  2. More than half of native European trees face extinction, warns study - The GuardianExternal link
  3. Why forest and tree genetic diversity matters - Biodiversity InternationalExternal link
  4. FAO Stresses Importance of Native Tree Species in Restoration - SDG Knowledge HubExternal linkIcon Peer Review
  5. Learn about the value of indigenous trees—and plant one! - UN Environment ProgrammeExternal link
  6. Deforestation - Mossy EarthExternal link
  7. Our Reforestation methodology - Mossy EarthExternal link

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