Following the news of the UK’s disappearing biodiversity, a new report from the EU does not give great grounds for hope. Europe’s nature is disappearing under unsustainable farming and expanding towns.
The European Environment Agency’s and the European Commission’s new report on the State of Nature in the EU is released. This is an important document and dataset that will help guide decision- and policy-making in many sectors over the next decade.
The State of Nature report gathers the information reported by Member States under the Birds and Habitats Directives. It showcases analyses and insights based on this information and describes the state of nature in the EU between 2013 and 2018. This includes the EU population status of birds and the conservation status of habitats and non-bird species, and the very serious pressures and threats all face. It also highlights the successes and shortcomings of current measures being undertaken in nature conservation, and the urgent need for restoration to improve specific species and habitats. The report also looks at the contribution of the Natura 2000 network to protecting and conserving habitats and species, and evaluates the EU’s progress towards Target 1 and Target 3 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.
State of Nature in the EU – overall highlights
Overall the statistics in the State of Nature report tell a sorry tale. It shows that with regard to birds, four in ten bird species in Europe have a poor or bad status, with almost a third of all bird species experiencing continuous declines over the last 12 years.
At the top of the list of the pressures and threats responsible for this sad state of biodiversity in the EU are unsustainable agriculture and forestry practices, urbanisation and pollution. Each of these threaten species and habitats, and when combined can cause even greater damage. Looking at birds in particular, unsustainable agriculture tops the bill, closely followed by urbanisation and then unsustainable forestry practices. Many EU protected species and habitats, such as the saker falcon, the Danube salmon, grasslands and dunes, face an uncertain future unless more is urgently done to reverse the situation.
On top of this, environmental laws and policies such as the EU Nature Directives, are often not well implemented in certain Member States. The fact that eight in ten habitats and over six in ten non-bird species which are protected under Annex I of the Habitats Directive as well as four out of ten bird species in the EU have a poor or bad EU status means that not enough is being done to ensure their protection and conservation and it is high time for everyone to up their nature conservation game if we are to survive.
Reasons to worry – genuine and non-genuine changes, top pressures and threats causing declines in birds
Regarding birds, initially the situation could be seen as more positive than for other species groups or for habitats, but these groups are not comparable as only species and habitats protected on Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive were assessed compared to all birds species. Around half of the bird species in the EU having a good EU status, however, this proportion is actually slightly smaller than that from the last reporting period (State of Nature in the EU 2007-2012). Reflecting this, the proportion of bird species in poor and bad status has slightly increased in the last six years, now reaching 40%; and although some of this change is due in part to a mix of changes in data quality and survey and analysis methods, genuine species deterioration is also a key factor.
Examples from case studies
Not all the news is bad however. Conservation efforts all over the world have shown that species can bounce back from the brink and conservation in the EU is no exception. Thanks to huge policy and on-the-ground conservation effort including LIFE projects, the elaboration of international Species Action Plans, international Memoranda of Understanding on specific species under the Bonn Convention for Migratory Species, and protection under the Natura 2000 Network, species like the aquatic warbler that almost entirely disappeared from the EU as fens and mires were drained, ploughed over and lost to agriculture, have seen population improvement since 2011. The red kite has made a spectacular comeback after suffering huge declines in the past due to persecution, pesticides and changes in agricultural practices. Although still small, thanks to supplementary feeding and specific captive breeding and reintroduction schemes, the population of bearded vultures is also on the increase in the EU.
These examples show however that a huge amount of resources need to be invested to improve these species’ plight. Nature restoration will always be more demanding and expensive than maintaining nature in a good state, and it is therefore doubly important, not just on an ecological level but economically, to make the most of the healthy patches of nature we have left and make sure we do not lose or degrade them further.
Nevertheless, we are overall losing species on a large scale and fast. Birds of prey for example, such as harriers and falcons, are seeing their numbers decline, with half of the harrier species present in the EU and six out of ten falcon species having decreasing population trends.
Seabirds are also suffering from an increasing number of pressures and threats. Although some seabirds have improved in status, most are not only pressured by invasive species and bycatch, but also by disturbance from recreational activities and marine harvesting of fish and shellfish, the latter which also impacts them by decreasing the overall availability of food, and all of which have led to many seabirds species having a poor or bad EU status.
This is why we need to take immediate action to tackle the most widespread and concerning threats to biodiversity. On top of these widespread threats, more species-specific or upcoming threats like those specific to marine species, or those related to climate change can quickly tip the scales and add to the myriad of other widespread threats already present. Governments need to take action immediately and efficiently if we do not want to see the trends we are seeing now precipitate our European species and ecosystems to the point of no return.
The State of Nature in EU and the EU biodiversity Strategies
It is clear from the new State of Nature report that the aims of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 have not been achieved, with only the non-bird species group almost meeting the set target whilst the habitats and birds targets are still well behind.
The new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the Farm to Fork Strategy, both of which are core elements of the European Green Deal set new ambitious targets for the coming decades and bring hope in the form of new goals and targets. The biodiversity strategy in particular, with its new aims to strengthen and enlarge the existing network of protected areas, and restore and maintain healthy ecosystems, will help ensure that bird and non-bird species alike will continue to have a sustainable home in the EU.
Download the complete report State of nature in the EU: Results from reporting under the nature directives 2013-2018 here