I would like to understand if there were issues with forests in Europe prior to 19th century and, if so, what were the reasons behind them?

Two versions that I have are overusing forests as the energy source (sounds questionable due to availability of coal) and eradicating forests for cultivation areas.

Both options seems viable due to high population density in Europe and low temperatures in the winter, at least in the north.

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    What is a forest deficit? I'm not sure what this term means. It may be helpful to research how historians date wooden artifacts by the width of the planks, or the prices of ship keels in colonial America, or the rise in regulation of aristocratic hunting preserves. Any of these are solid evidence that the amount of old growth forest in Europe declined steadily. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 12 '18 at 20:38
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    It is not necessary to mention the use, as wood was scarce for ANY use in W. Europe. Maybe, for toothpicks only there was enough of it. But it is strange that the author, obviously, does not count western Russian Empire as a part of Europe. For Finland or Vologda region, for example, has no wood deficit even in 21th century. – Gangnus Sep 13 '18 at 15:48

You did not specify what you mean by 'forest deficit'. Wood for shipbuilding was a finite and important resource. Many places had royal forests that were reserved for the king, specifically for shipbuilding, which required planing over decades-long time frames and vigilance against timber thieves.

Even when there were not reserved forests, legislation, restrictions and privileges related to cutting wood were much common.

Here a reference with many little details about Portuguese law:


Some scattered translated points from this document, you can find much more if you read everything and follow the references:


XV c. common formula in letters patent for privileges "lá onde mais lhes apraz" to indicate permission to cut wood in determined places

1471: prohibits export of wood to Castile and africa

1474: shipbuilders get privileges: they can cut wood anywhere, including royal forests, and do not pay taxes over wood


Shipbuilders in Vianna had many difficulties in obtaining wood. In the XV c., massive quantities of wood were imported without dizima (tax). (from Galiza and Asturias)

wood was needed for building vines, and there competition with shipbuilders. Farmers were obliged to plant oaks, etc. Prohibition of new shipbuilding companies for lack of wood


Almodovar people ask the king to cut woods to have more agricultural land (after the war is over). Their request is denied.


the leiria Council complains that many farmers stop working and go cut and transport wood, and this is why their crop yields are bad.

although there were vigilance and fines, the woods of alcobaça had many trespassers who cut wood.

To finish with an example from personal hearsay: in Quiaios, Portugal, local people tell that some of their woods were artificially planted and managed by the navy, and this is why they have so many big trees. They also tell that some of them were planted after a 'timber deficit'. (but this is local people talking and not hardcore documentation)

I guess that it were easier/cheaper to plant a forest with the correct species for shipbuilding in an accessible place, and to care for this forest (heavy criminal penalties for timber thieves) for some decades, than to search for the right species scattered in natural forests, or to buy timber elsewhere at wartime prices.

for a modern conservationist it may be frustrating to discover that a forest is not "native" or "natural". But it is common in european shipbuilding countries. It was also a relevant issue in England too.

PS: remember that import/export tax were the main taxes at that time (no income tax). To import/export something without tax was a huge privilege.


About coal: Without sophisticated mining efforts coal is hard to come by, since surface deposits are not too common, while its transportation in bulk is inefficient with preindustrial technology (especially over land). So most communities either burned wood, or used (at least in part) peat and animal waste.

The Mediterranean was largely deforested by the Romans: they used a lot of wood for heating, for construction, shipbuilding, sieges, and as you also notice, they were quite hungry for agricultural space too.

So the answer is yes. There was forest depletion is some parts of Europe even in the antiquity, and it slowly progressed northwards (of course the great forests of Germania were more or less safe from the Romans, as they could not economically carry away large amounts of timber, and caused only localized damage through military campaigns) and eastwards during the Late Middle Ages and the Modern Age.


Braudel, in his Civilization and Capitalism, stresses greatly, that during all 15-18 cent. period, the wood, even merely as fuel for cooking, was very limited in Western Europe. Let alone great amounts for metallurgy and houses warming or high quality wood for ships.


Industrial activity was fueled by charcoal for a very long period. This caused e.g. the Germans in the early 18-th century to adopt principles of sustainable forrestry.

The English article on sustainable forest management on Wikipedia deals a lot with tropical forests. The German article, on the other hand, has a section on the historical development of the principle of sustainable forest management in Europe. Please consult the translation service of your trust

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    Why not take the early edicts (Speyer 1400s etc) into this? For a short quote from these beginning you are our translation service of trust in this answer ;) – LangLangC Sep 13 '18 at 11:44

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