Old growth beech forests identified in Albania

Abdulla Diku, forest expert from PSEDA-ILIRIA organisation, and Lulezim Shuka, Professor at the Department of Biology of the University of Tirana, recently published a comprehensive 144-page paper about old beech forests in Albania. The paper deals with the ongoing forest degradation in Albania. It further indentifies old growth beech forests and discusses their protective status as well as the necessity to protect them.

Please also read: Wilderness in Albania?

Forest degradation in Albania

Albania is currently ranked as the country with the least forest resources in Europe. Based on data from the national forest cadastre and INSTAT (2017) the country has about 1,05 Mio. ha of forest, covering 36.6% of the country’s territory.  In the last 20 years, the average timber volume per hectare has decreased by 40%. At the moment the cutting of the forests exceeds their growth by about 2-3 times. This is especially visible if you compare the percentages of virgin forests from 1997 and 2017: in 1997 about 7% of the national forestry stock area was virgin forest, in 2017, only 1% accounts for virgin forests. This drastic decrease of virgin forests over the last 20 years is an alarming signal. Next to logging, old-growth forest ecosystems are threatened by fire, grazing, hunting, waste, erosion, road construction, Hydro-power plants and complicated land ownership situations.

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Definition and Identification of Old Growth Beech Forests 

The Albanian forestry terminology describes old growth or virgin forests as cluster of mature and over-mature trees, usually over 120 years old, in a natural structure. The authors of this paper propose the following definition:

(i) Naturally generated forests, (ii) forests which have not experienced significant human impact during their development, (iii) forests where trees of age ≥120 years prevail, (iv) forests that are located in uniform territorial units (unfragmented) and (v) forests that occupy a minimum area of 100 ha.

To identify old growth forests, in particular beech forests, in Albania the following indicators where used by the authors:

  1. Age of forest clusters (over 120 years old);
  2. A minimum area ≥ 150 ha;
  3. Topography and homogeneity of the area (unfragmented);
  4. Lack of human influence in the development of forest ecosystems (no human influence exist in the dynamics of forest development).
  5. The opportunity to guarantee the management and protection of these forest clusters under the current, undisturbed conditions

Wilderness potential of the Albanian old growth beech forests

Old growth forests without human intervention are an essential part of Wilderness in Europe. The indicators used by the authors of the presented paper overlap strongly with the indicators of the European Wilderness and Quality Standard and Audit System. It is important to highlight that the authors not only took the natural conditions of the forests into consideration. They also included the opportunity to manage and protect the forests (5.) in the set of indicators. This combination of natural features and management commitment is essential for proper Wilderness protection and is the backbone of the EWQA.

The authors further pick up three of the Wilderness qualities: A minimum size and in this case also a minimum age (1. and 2.); undisturbedness, meaning that the forests are unfragmented and not disturbed by any infrastructure or settlements (3.); undevelopment, meaning no human influences to the natural development of the forest ecosystem (4.); The fourth Wilderness quality, naturalness, is partly included in the age indicator (1.), as trees will mostly just reach this age in a natural forest without forestry operation.

 Location of the beech forests

This process identified six old growth beech forests in Albania, shown in the map below.

  1. Livadhi i Harushës/ She-bear’s Meadow (Malësi e Madhe Municipality)
  2. Lumi i Gashit/ Gash River (Tropoje Municipality)
  3. Curraj i Epërm/Upper Curraj (Tropoje Municipality)
  4. Lumi i Tropojës/ Tropoje River (Tropoje Municipality)
  5. Zall-Gjoçaj (Mat Municipality)
  6. Rrajcë (Përrenjas Municipality)

These six old growth beech forest clusters represent unique natural areas. So far, these forests have not experienced any significant human impacts. Four of these six forests (Livadhi i Harushës, Lumi i Gashit, Curraj i Epërm, Lumi i Tropojës) are located in the southern region Albanian Alps. Surveys from 2016 from students from the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences (Czech University of Life Sciences Prague) show that two of the forests host trees older than 250 years. In Lumi i Gashit, the largest identified beech forest cluster, the students surveyed 35 trees. They found nine trees to be older than 250 years, two of them are even between 401-450 years old. In Curraj i Epërm the students surveyed 32 trees. They found 8 trees to be more than 250 years old, four of them between 300-350 years old.

Protective status of Albanian old growth beech forests

Only two of the six forests are currently under protection and are part of the national system of protected areas: Lumi i Gashit is protected as IUCN category Ia and Rrajca as IUCN category II. Livadhi i Harushës and Lumi i Tropojës have been proposed as the core zone of the “Albanian Alps” National Park in 2016. This National Park would be IUCN category II. Curraj i Epërm has been proposed as the core zone of the “Nikaj-Mertur” Natural Municipal Park in 2014. This park would be IUCN category IV. However, none of these three proposals have been approved yet.

Importance of protecting the Albanian old growth beech forests

The six forests are the only areas in Albania that are home to bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx ssp. balcanicus). They furthermore host chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and the European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Numerous endangered species, many included in the national red list, inhabit these old growth forests as well. Additionally, the diverse beech forests host at least 81 endangered and red-listed plant species.

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Europe-wide networks, such as the UNESCO Ancient Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Parts of Europe, highlight the international importance of old growth beech forests in Europe. The European Wilderness Network also includes several primeval and old growth beech forests, such as Uholka-Shyrokyy Luh  WILDForest, the Maramarosh WILDForest as well as the Kalkalpen WILDForest. The category of WILDForests protects undisturbed and untouched remnants of primeval or old growth forests in Europe. The six identified Albanian old growth beech forests show potential to meet the criteria of the EWQA. The European Wilderness Society will support the authors in their effort to protect these unique ecosystems from any harm. EWS further aims to plan a visit to these areas to verify and confirm their potential to become a partner of the European Wilderness Network. 

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