In Western Germany, oak-hornbeam forests on wet soils are cultural landscapes that uniquely encompass human influence and nature. Centuries of human use (coppicing, selective felling and wood pastures) have created a mosaic of oak-hornbeam forest patches featuring trees that are up to 250 years old, ponds and small meadows. They are home to protected species such as the middle spotted woodpecker, black woodpecker and great crested newt.
Today, most oak-hornbeam forests are under threat due to improper forest management, drainage and climate change. With support from the EU LIFE financing programme, the state forest agency of Northern Rhine-Westphalia in cooperation with a local nature conservation organisation implemented the Ville forests project, which has established the effective management of around 1 000 hectares of oak forests in four Natura 2000 sites.
Key activities include setting aside 10% of the forest area for protection, and developing a standardised procedure for identifying and designating “habitat trees” - i.e. trees with cavities, crevices or bird nests - to be protected in the otherwise commercially-used forests. In total, 12 400 habitat trees are now permanently preserved.
Additionally, the project restored natural hydrological conditions on 447 hectares by closing drainage ditches, converted 214 hectares of non-native spruce plantations into species-rich oak-hornbeam forests, reintroduced traditional coppicing on 40 hectares - which provides open forest habitat for the middle spotted woodpecker - and built 41 amphibian ponds for great crested newts.
Through guided tours, lectures and planting campaigns, the project educated 3 200 citizens and experts on the importance of oak forests and Natura 2000, and involved 970 schoolchildren in forest education activities.