Wisdom for Nature?
Today is International Biodiversity Day. Instead of being out and about enjoying biodiversity (or nature as I prefer to call it), I’m sitting at my computer writing this. Does that make any sense?
biodiversity nature doing in Europe? A weighty report has appeared from the Eco-gnomes at the European Environment Agency, entitled State of Nature in the EU.
Thank goodness they have not forgotten that people care about nature, but may well not know what biodiversity means. One UK survey found 80% of people thought it was a washing powder. Whether this is true or a factoid, I cannot say, but it has been quoted extensively.
The State of Europe’s Nature report is based on each country’s reporting on what is happening to the Birds and Habitats (and species other than birds) listed under the Birds and Habitats Directive, which occur in those countries. So this reporting is assessing the status of the species and habitats in the EU which are regarded as needing the most protection. It is not a report about all nature across Europe, far from it. In the UK, Birds and Habitats Directive listed habitats and species are protected in sites covering just 7% of the land surface.
Birds Directive Reporting
Recording of data on bird populations is very good in most countries, with the exception of Greece, who did not provide any data either for Birds of Habitats.
For birds listed on the Birds Directive, the most recent reporting found that populations of just over half of all bird species were stable, while a third were either near threatened or really threatened. For breeding birds, the short term trends were that half the species were stable or increasing, and just under a third were decreasing. The long term trends were 44% stable or increasing, 27% decreasing. For those birds whose populations are under pressure, Agriculture was identified as the main cause of pressure, followed by “modification of natural conditions” which I suspect is Eurospeak for loss of habitat quality.
Habitats Directive Reporting
The Habitats Directive story is very different. While there were 7259 reports on the Birds Directive across the EU, there were only 10,100 for all habitats and non-bird species, despite there being many more habitats and species listed on the Habitats Directive, than on the Birds Directive. In some countries, more reports for birds were sent in to the EC than for habitats and non-bird species together. The picture painted by the reported data is also less positive. For the 26 countries which have reported back, only nine reported that more than 25% of all their habitat assessments were favourable; and these nine included the very small countries of Cyprus and Malta. The UK was third from bottom in reporting a positive assessment, with only about 5% of assessments being favourable and 90% unfavourable/inadequate or unfavourable/bad. Only the Netherlands and Denmark fared worse.
The reporting of non-bird species was more positive, with only nine countries reporting less than 25% of species assessments as favourable; and the UK doing relatively well here, coming 7th in the ranking.
The overall assessment for Habitats Directive listed habitats across the EU found 20% in favourable or unfavourable improving, 30% unfavourable declining and 33% unfavourable stable. There is also a big difference between EU biogeographical regions in the proportion of positive assessments; Macaronesia, Alpine and Steppic bioregions (26-50% favourable) fared much better than the Atlantic and Boreal regions (over 50% unfavourable status).
For groups of habitats, the assessment also reveals changing fortunes. Dunes, coastal habitats and grasslands are doing badly, while heath, scrub and Alpine habitats are doing best. Even so, those habitats doing best still only score 25-30% favourable, and 45-75% unfavourable.
Non-bird species again are doing better than habitats, but not as well as birds. 27% of assessments were favourable or unfavourable improving, while 20% were unfavourable stable and 22% unfavourable declining.
Once again Agriculture was identified as the principal pressure on Habitats Directive listed habitats, followed by “modification of natural conditions”; and the same result was found for non-bird species, although Forestry was also identified as a significant pressure.
There is wealth of detail in the report which I have just skimmed across here, but you can go and look for yourself.
So, the picture is that birds are generally doing better than species other than birds, and both are doing considerably better than habitats. And these species and habitats are the highest priority for conservation action. So one conclusion could be that the Birds and Habitats Directives are not really doing very well at protecting or restoring population of top priority species or habitats. However, the extent to which these Directives have achieved what they set out to or not, has to be considered in light of all the other things that are happening to prevent or promote those achievements.
It is no coincidence that the EU pays out billions of euros in farm subsidies on the one hand, and that agriculture is far and away the single most significant pressure on the future survival of Europe’s “finest” species and habitats. Despite 36 years of implementing the Birds Directive and 23 years of the Habitats Directive, there has been little success in altering the course of the Common Agricultural Policy Supertanker.
The new European Commission last year announced a review of the Birds and Habitats Directive, a so called Fitness Check. The RSPB have launched a campaign to protect the Birds (and Habitats) Directive from what they perceive to be a serious threat to weaken the measures currently available to protect nature. The bells of doom are being rung, and 100 organisations under the Joint Links banner have signed up to a statement that this refit is “the biggest single threat to UK and European nature in a generation”.
But if these Nature Directives really are doing such a fantastic job that any changes to them would be so threatening, why are their own reporting mechanisms showing that the highest priority birds, other species and habitats are still declining? Could it be because these Directives are not helping with the conservation of Europe’s nature, as much as RSPB would like us to think they are?
Certainly in the UK, where only 7% of the land surface is protected under these Nature Directives, it has to be said that positive action for nature brought about by the Directives has been very limited and mostly restricted to that 7%. There has still been some fantastic work done under the auspices of the Nature Directives, including many projects funded through LIFE; and the extra protection afforded these sites through things like the planning process has done some good in preventing impacts from new housing developments or roads, for example. But, as the Directives own reporting shows, there has been little to stop the continuing damage to nature from intensive agriculture or forestry, or unsustainable fishing practices promoted by the Common Fisheries Policy.
Elsewhere in Europe the Nature Directives have had more of a positive effect, especially in countries which had little in the way of domestic nature protection legislation. Some EU countries have declared large areas as protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives – Slovakia has 29% coverage of SACs/SPAs while Slovenia has 36% coverage. In fact every single other country in the EU has a larger proportion of land protected under the Nature Directives than the UK, even large countries like Spain have 27% land area protected. To what extent these are really protected is moot, but designation is certainly a step further along the road towards nature recovering or thriving.
It seems we will be voting in a referendum next year to decide whether the UK (or the rump UK minus Scotland) stays in the EU or not. Given the UK Government’s lack of enthusiasm for all things regulatory, including nature protection laws, there is certainly a risk that implementation of the Nature Directives (or get out clauses from that implementation) is used as a bargaining chip in the coming negotiations.
Actually of all the countries in the EU, given our paltry implementation of these Directives, nature would lose out least were we to lose the protections afforded by the EU legislation, assuming we continued with the domestic nature legislation that was there before. That may not be a particularly popular statement with the conservation NGOs, but it is still true.
It was almost a year ago that I wrote about the pros and cons of being in Europe, for the environment. I am still none the wiser. It would be great if we could have an open honest debate about the EU and whether it has helped nature (in the UK and more widely in Europe) or not, and what would need to happen for it to be a strong force for nature, before the referendum.
The least we can do is all try and make the environment and nature a prominent part of that debate, something which frustratingly did not happen in the general election.