Winner of a near-natural forestry.
Its long ongoing growth and shadow adaptability turn beech into one of the most competitive wood species.
In sylvan botany, beech is known as a shade bearing species, a wood species, which can still grow while being subjected to considerably reduced daylight. Apart from beech, white fir and yew trees are typical central-European shade bearing species, which are able to get by with but little light from youth until a very advanced age.
As opposed to light demanding tree species (oak, pine, poplar, willow etc), shade bearing species are characterized by growing slowly in their youth. However, beech features good volume gains until a very high age. This long enduring growth and its adaptability to shadow turn beech into one of the most competitive wood species.
Young beech trees are able to naturally regenerate the forest stand under the protection of older trees. Beech is generally seen as the most important wood species used for natural regeneration in central Europe. In the shadow of old trees, the seeds are sprouting and the seedlings often cover the whole forest soil like a blanket. This form of natural rejuvenation enables the forester to initiate a generation change in beech forests with a relatively low effort. Generally, natural regeneration should have priority over tree planting, because it uses the natural processes of development and well established local provenances in addtition to being considerably less expensive than sowing or planting trees.
In forest stands populated solely by softwood, the plantation of beech seedlings under an umbrella of old trees is a proven method to gradually transform monocultures into mixed stands. These plantations have to be fenced in very often in order to protect them from game bite by high wildlife population.
In open areas, plantation of beech trees is rather an exception due to beechen sensitivity towards direct sunlight and tardy freezing temperatures in spring.
Beech trees are typically forming a heart root system with a notedly high density of fine roots. By penetrating the forest soil intensively with its roots, beech trees are contributing significantly to soil protection (stabilization of forest soil). They increase the soil's ability to store and retain water and thus prevent surface waters from quickly draining off which in turn would lead to erosion.
For the last 200 years, softwood species like spruce and pine have been planted even in original hardwood forests because they are demanding little and growing faster. As a consequence, large forest areas today in Western and Central Europe are dominated by softwood species. These forests are a lot more prone to infestation by pests (mainly bark-beetle), wet snow, storms and dry spells.
With the transition to near-natural concepts of sylviculture in the past decades, converting the forests from purely softwood stands to more stable mixed species forests is getting very important.
In this scenario, Beech is playing a central role as both, main wood species (overall) and mixed wood species. Thus, the area of beech forests in Germany has increased in the last 20 years by 150.000 hectares*.
(*source: Brochure „Beech Forests“ by the DFWR – German Forestry Council)
It is the goal of today's beech forestry to bring up stands, that are stable, rich in structure and that will deliver high-quality beech logs. These are mainly characterised by large dimensions and sufficiently long usable lengths without defects and knots. Logs with strong dimensions are lowering harvesting costs while at the same time increasing the yield in processing the logs.
When possible, mature logs are harvested on a one to one basis or in small groups (so called „Zielstärkenutzung“ - harvesting minimum diameters). Thus, small clearances are created in the treetop layer of the whole forest area, which open up space for growth not only for beech trees in the middle and understorey of the forest but also for other wood species with a higher need for light. This type of sustainable forest management succeeds in preserving the vitality, diversity of species and productiviy of the forest stands even in the future.
Furthermore, it should be observed in forestry use of beech forests that a certain number of trees will live to the age of natural decay. These could be for ex. old trees of low wood quality, where the harvesting costs would be higher than the sales profit. This dead wood serves as an important habitat for many a species of animals and plants.
Today's area of occurrence of European beech extends from the southern parts of Scandinavia to Sicily and from the French Atlantic coast to the lowlands of the river Vistula in Poland respectively. By nature, beech forests would be the most prevalent form of vegetation in Central-Europe including the Carpathian Mountains, in large parts of Western Europe as well as in the mountain ranges of Southern Europe.
In the northern and eastern parts of Europe, common beech is a species growing in the lowlands, uplands and the lower mountainous areas. In South and Southeastern Europe, however, beech is found in higher mountains (even as high as the forest line), for ex. in the Carpathians, the Dinarian Mountains (in the Balkans) or in Southern Italy. In Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor it is replaced by the oriental beech species (fagus orientalis).
Due to the adaptability and wide ecological amplitude of beech, near-natural beech- and mixed species forests with beech are well prepared for changes in climatic conditions like temperature, volume and distribution of precipitation, according to the opinion of specialists. It is predicted, that beech will gain additional areas in higher mountainous locations. This means, that beech can be grown in areas, which have up to now been only adequate for coniferous species.
It is also assumed, that beech in border line locations of Central-Europe with high levels of aridity in the summer will lose ground. In such locations, however, apart from other hardwood species, special southeast European eco-types of beech could be interesting.