Each year before Christmas, Environment Minister Renate Künast reports on the state of German forests. This year, she's releasing her report a month early, with the bad news that the forests are worse off than ever.
Bare treetops are a sign of sick forests
Germany's trees are stressed out. According to the foresters who trek through the country's woodlands each summer noting signs of illness, the top stress factor is climate change.
Summers in Germany have been much hotter than normal over the past few years. The excessive heat has not only dried out the trees, it's also provided ideal conditions for tree-damaging pests, such as the bark beetle, to multiply faster.
Bark beetles are expected to be an even bigger problem next summer
Bark beetles eat their way deep inside the tree's trunk, weakening it from the inside. If the coming spring is a mild one, then next summer could see a bark beetle epidemic -- a "ticking time-bomb," according to the Environment Ministry.
Beech, oak worst affected
The figures in its 2004 report are alarming. The ministry concluded that 31 percent of the nation's trees fall under the highest level of damage, meaning that the treetop is completely dead. It's the highest figure since Germany began producing the annual report in 1984. Beech trees are the worst affected, with over 50 percent of trees bearing damaged tops. Oak trees are the second worst affected.
The Association for the Protection of German Forests (SDW) said the figures in Künast's report don't come as a surprise.
"We expected this," SDW spokeswoman Sabine Krömer-Butz told Deutschlandfunk. "We've been saying for years that the apparent stabilization in the health of our forests was deceptive. As soon as something out of the ordinary happens -- a change in climate or a new kind of insect -- we've seen that the forests just can't react. The number of sick trees was instantly higher, the number of trees losing leaves and needles rose."
Pollution is another stress factor for Germany's forests
"There's not going to be an easy solution," Künast warned as she presented the report's findings at Greens state party conference. "It's probably going to take many years before the forests revert to their past state, assuming that they won't again be subjected to severe stress."
Government action plan
The federal government is now planning to rejuvenate the forests by cutting down sick trees and planting new ones. But it remains to be seen whether the plan can survive an unexpected threat -- the increasing numbers of wild boar and deer roaming the forests, who especially like to feed on tender saplings.
Künast's ministry has a plan to counter this threat too, namely by allowing more game hunting in future.