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.

  • 7
    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.
    – MCW
    Sep 12, 2018 at 20:38
  • 4
    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, 2018 at 15:48
  • You mean the Meseta? Greece?
    – Greg
    Mar 16, 2019 at 15:09
  • I am not sure if a deficit in a specific type of wood counts: In the 14th century, the demands on yew (for bowmaking) were so great that British yew was basically nationalized in 1350. In the decades to come, Bavaria and Austria were basically stripped bare of any yew. The advent of firearms was at least partially fueled by the lack of wood for bows...
    – DevSolar
    Mar 18, 2019 at 12:15

7 Answers 7


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 planning 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 quite common.

Here is 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 was 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 told me 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 say that some of them were planted after a 'timber deficit'. (but this is local people talking and not proper 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.

  • About wood as fuel in the Mediterranean: until the early XX century, the main source of fuel for urban dwellers was charcoal (mostly live oak charcoal), which is just processed firewood. (Note: My sources are from Barcelona, but I suppose that can be generalised to a sizeable part of the Mediterranean basin).
    – Pere
    Mar 3, 2021 at 9:16

Wood has always been a limited resource, particularly in the colder climate of Europe. As time went on, the uses for wood got greater, whereas the forests got smaller.

Wood was the primary of providing heat and cooking over much of Europe. Vaclav Smil (‘Harvesting the Biomass’) gives statistics of typical fuelwood use in Sweden in the early 1800s as 5m3 per person per year, and 1.5m3 for warmer Piedmont in Italy. This is comparatively late, after various improvements such as slanted firesides and reflecting firebacks to improve heating efficiency. Smil has calculated that a pre-industrial city might need a woodland area more than 50 times the size of the urban area to provide fuelwood for that city – a major constraint on the size of the city.

Fuelwood was not the only use for wood. Many of the pre-industrial processes relied on the heat provided by kilns, fuelled by wood. Pottery was one, lime burning another. Another answer has already mentioned that in 17th century England, glass makers were forced to use coal instead of wood. The immediate reason for this was the demands of the Royal Navy. It took 6000 oak trees to build a 100-gun ship in the 19th century – and England had hundreds of ships (Smil again).

The iron industry was one of the biggest users of wood. This was compounded by the need to use charcoal rather than just wood, both the achieve the higher temperatures needed, and to supply the carbon needed for iron smelting. Charcoal is produced by heating wood to above 280°C.


In general, it takes about 5kg of wood to produce 1kg of charcoal, but the charcoal allows you to reach the sort of temperatures to smelt copper and iron. It takes about 90kg of wood to smelt 1kg of copper – this caused considerable deforestation across the Bronze Age Mediterranean. In 18th century England, 1kg of iron needed about 40kg of wood. A typical furnace would produce 300t of pig iron, needing a circle of forest of around 4km diameter. This was each year - a new area of wood would need cutting the next year. English iron production would have needed to consume about 1000km2 of forest every year. (Smil again.) England did not have enough wood – it was less than 15% wooded – and so imported iron from Sweden. England was short of wood: the price of firewood doubled between 1540 and 1570, and tripled again by the 1630s. (Priscilla Brewer: From Fireplace to Cookstove.)

What saved England’s economy was coal. The coal fields of North East England were both close to the surface and near to the sea. There was a flotilla of ships taking coal down to London from the 13th century onwards. The problem with coal is its weight: you really need ships to transport it, which limits where it can go. Coal was central to the Industrial Revolution in England, as it removed the energy constraints imposed by wood, but it needed a network of canals to be built to transport it, followed a few years later by the railways.


Even with coal, this did not immediately solve the iron-smelting problem, as burning coal with the iron produced too many impurities. The invention of coke by Abraham Darby finally allowed iron to be produced without charcoal. England was the first European country to make extensive use of coal, because it has the biggest problem with wood supplies. By 1800, it was producing 80% of the world’s coal (Smil). Fossil fuels (coal) were providing more than half of England’s energy by the 17th century (Smil). France passed this mark in the 1870s, Russia in the 1930s.

  • Many thanks for so much detail and references. Very informative and educational. Mar 22, 2019 at 10:29

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

  • 1
    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 ;) Sep 13, 2018 at 11:44

While not continental Europe, consider the case of England in the 16th and 17th century.

Glassmaking had blossomed in England, spurred on not the least by the 'little ice age' with its lower temperatures, and a desire for more windows in houses. Glassmaking had become so widespread, that the consumption of forest wood to fuel the glass furnaces was threatening to deforest England, and thus crippling their ability to build ships for their navy, which had achieved a position of considerable prominence in English commerce.

So it was in 1615, King James issued a proclamation forbidding the use of wood in the glass furnaces, specifying coal instead.

The problem there is that England is an island surrounded by water... the coal mines were flooding. To address that, Thomas Newcomen invented the first practical steam engine, to pump the mines out.

And the rest is history...


In at least a few cases, yes. Some of Europe's forests, both temperate and coniferous, experienced severe strains during the 17th and 18th c. due to naval construction. (The demands of metallurgy, which required processing wood into charcoal, being the other major industrial usage.)

Among the natural resources needed for the construction of sailing ships, two came directly from forests. The timbers making up the ships' hulls took up vast quantities of oak. This could be sourced from England, Germany, France, Italy, and the eastern Mediterranean. All suffered major deforestation. Firs were needed for masts, and pine or spruce for spars and yard-arms, and could come from either Russia, the Baltic, the Pyrenees, the Alps, or the New World. As with the other sources mentioned just above, these too suffered serious depletion from naval use. Two more major materials were secondary products of the forests: tar, derived from naturally occurring resins in the trees, and iron, whose production required first turning enormous quantities of wood into charcoal for the smelting process.

The latter was responsible to a significant degree for the exhaustion of Norwegian forests by the mid-1600's. Denmark-Norway had long been a prime source both for masts and timbers for Spain, England, the United Provinces and the Hanseatic city-states. But over the course of the 17th c. a growing share of Norway's wood resources were directed to smelting, and Norwegian forests basically suffered a collapse by the 1670's which took decades to recover from. (The slack was quickly taken up by forests further east, in Sweden, Russia, and Poland, the latter two areas duly suffering their own forest exhaustions by the late 18th c.)

Elsewhere, major forest crises occurred in virtually all regions of France--most notably in Languedoc, Provence, Auvergne and Burgundy, which were heavily exploited for oak trees, and in the Pyrenees, which were used (with only mixed success) as a source of wood for ship masts. France, like every other power, used to source its timbers and naval stores from the Baltic, but this began to change somewhat at the accession of Louis XIV. Before large-scale domestic exploitation of French forests could begin, an inventory of the resources at-hand was undertaken in July 1661 at the instigation of Colbert, Louis' controller-general (French equivalent to a finance minister). Colbert was actuated partly by the prevailing economic theory of the time, mercantilism, which called for high tariffs to promote domestic industries (lumbering, in this case) from foreign competition and keep precious gold from flowing out to pay for imports; and partly because in a broader sense he viewed the chaotic governance of the French kingdom, with its decentralized administration and morass of age-old customs and regional privileges that often led to forest exhaustion, as a threat to the powerful state which he sought to build up. The 1661 statute was intended to centralize the administration of France's forest and give the navy a sustainable source of domestic timber and masts. The details are intricate, but in broad strokes, Colbert sought to impose strict controls on the cutting down of forests, which had occurred at an alarming rate to make way for agriculture and to feed new industry.

Unfortunately, both for the environment and for the French navy, the law wasn't terribly effective. For one thing, in classic French fashion, it was often ignored, so deforestation continued apace. Furthermore, it was useless in many parts of the country since canals and rivers were the only practical means of transporting large, heavy pieces of lumber, and they didn't always flow near the forests. And most concerning, from the navy's perspective, was the quality of domestic forests, which in the opinion of France's own naval architects weren't capable of producing wood on nearly the same plane [hehe] as that sourced from the Baltic. No carpentry expert I, but it seems that the climate of Northern Europe and the tall, dense forests, yielded trees with an even grain and few knots or kinks. Trees from the Pyrenees weren't as good; and the best ones had been cut down anyway. By the 1700's, the French also found that their sources of oak were dangerously depleted; it turns out that the best oak trees for shipbuilding were between 100-200 years old, and deforestation meant that few of these grew in areas which allowed for economically viable transport to the major dockyards.

All of this took place in the context of what has to be the most-active century of sustained naval warfare in human history (1670's - 1815); Great Britain made some use of the forests of its North American colonies, but for everyone else, and particularly the French, the only options were domestic (mediocre quality, and severely depleted), parts of the Mediterranean including Italy and the Balkans (ditto, plus far away), or the Baltic (all of the above, plus subject to British interdiction). Wartime emergencies (1744-48, 1755-63, and 1778-83) drove ghastly forest-cutting efforts in France, with the navy only picking out the scant bits that were suitable for shipbuilding and letting the rest rot away. Europe's forests only recovered gradually in the century after 1815.


Sources: Bamford, Paul Walden. Forests and French Seapower, 1600-1789. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1956.

Pourchasse, Pierrick. "Les Munitions navales du nord: Produits et circuits d'approvisionnement". In Les marines de la guerre d'independance americaine (1763-1783) - L'operationnel, Chaline, Olivier, Bonnichon, Philippe & Charles-Philippe de Vergennes, eds. Paris: Sorbonne UP, 2013.

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