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OLD GROWTH FORESTS. Shelters of biodiversity

Forests have inhabited the Earth for millions of years. However, human intervention has considerably reduced the extension of virgin forests, those where human footprint does not exist. They are extremely rare in Europe today: pristine forests are mostly found in the Carpathian Mountains, in Scandinavia and Russia. There, in remote areas the lack of major human disturbances has helped to preserve all the phases of the complex mosaic of the forest landscape. Those are what we call old-growth forests.

Old-growth forests cover large extensions of land. They are made up of a mosaic of stands in different stages of the forest life cycle. From the youngest, to the mature, senescent, and even died. In the Mediterranean basin, few remote places can be found where the lack of major disturbances and a limited human presence have allowed small patches of forest to reach advanced stages of their life cycle.

In the process of natural development, without any major disturbance, a forest goes through various stages in its life cycle. This cycle begins when an old tree falls and opens up a gap in the forest. Regeneration then begins as new seedlings appear. A growth phase follows, in which the canopy closes. Then, the reduced solar radiation reaching the forest floor eliminates the species less tolerant to shade. Vertical space becomes occupied by different species, while the trees of the canopy grow older, and new shade-tolerant species occupy the intermediate layers.

This maturation period may last hundreds of years, as trees get older, and finally die.

When they fall, a new gap is opened and the cycle restarts.

Mature forest stands contain a unique diversity, particularly rich in lichens, fungi and insects, some specialized in the decomposition of dead wood, and others that use it as a refuge.

Forests provide essential services such as soil conservation, climate and hydrological control. Old growth stands represent the ultimate state that forests would reach without human intervention. For that reason, most of them are part of the Natura 2000 network.

In the Mediterranean, old-growth stands are incredibly important assets due to their scarcity and exclusive biodiversity. The LIFE RedBosques project promotes their identification and protection in Spain, along with a forest management system that allows both the use of its resources and the preservation of the features and values of old-growth stands.

Life RedBosques is coordinated by Fundación Fernando González Bernáldez, with the support of EUROPARC-España and the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union.

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