State of Nature in the EU: unsustainable farming and urban sprawl are devouring Europe’s biodiversity

04 November 2020

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The new ‘State of Nature in the EU’, a landmark report published every six years by the European Environment Agency and the EU Commission, shows that nature in the EU is in a sorry state and that we have failed to meet the targets set out by the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2020. Over 60% of protected non-bird species and 80% of key habitats have a poor or bad EU status, despite targets that are in place for their protection.

When we look at birds, around half of species are rated as having a good status, which may at first sound like a more positive picture compared to other species and habitats. However, when we compare with the results of the previous reporting period (2008-2012) and realise that birds are in fact slightly worse off today than they were six years ago. The proportion of bird species in poor and bad status has slightly increased in the last six years and is now 40%, up from around 30% in 2008-2012. It is also worth noting that all bird species are assessed, whereas for non-bird species and habitats, only those protected under Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive are assessed.

Unsustainable farming and forestry practices, urban sprawl and pollution are the top threats responsible for the drastic decline in Europe’s biodiversity and threaten the survival of thousands of species and habitats. For birds, unsustainable agriculture tops the bill, closely followed by urbanisation and then unsustainable forestry practices. To make matters worse, environmental laws and policies such as the EU Nature Directives are often poorly implemented in certain Member States. The worrying state of habitats and species (both birds and non-birds) highlighted in the report points clearly to the fact that not enough is being done to ensure their conservation.

We are losing species fast and on a large scale. We are seeing birds of prey declining in numbers, 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 invasive species and bycatch as well as from disturbance from recreational activities. Farmland birds meanwhile are under huge pressure from intensive agriculture, which continues to be the most important driver of bird biodiversity loss across Europe.

It is vital that we protect the nature we have left in Europe and make sure we do not lose or degrade it further. There are some good news stories: species being saved from extinction and populations bouncing back through concerted conservation efforts, such as the Aquatic Warbler, the Red Kite and the Bearded Vulture. These examples demonstrates that is not all doom and gloom, but they also highlight the huge amount of resources that are needed to achieve these positive results. It is clear that immediate action is needed by Member State governments to ensure that the trends we are seeing now do not continue and push European nature to the point of no return.

Ongoing discussions in the EU about the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) provide little hope that things will change for the better. Just a few days after the State of Nature in the EU report was published, the European Council and EU Parliament voted in favour of a proposal of a new CAP devoid of any real environmental benefits, despite an outcry from scientists, the environmental community and European citizens. If we are to turn this sorry state of affairs around, the European Commission has to withdraw this disastrous proposal and look towards the European Green Deal to reform the CAP into an instrument that effectively supports farmers to move towards a nature-friendly future.

The new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, a core part of the European Green Deal, which aims to strengthen and enlarge the existing network of protected areas, and restore and maintain healthy ecosystems, offers a beacon of hope that bird and non-bird species alike will continue to have a sustainable home in the EU.

The State of Nature in the EU is a result of the largest and most extensive data gathering and reporting exercise carried out in Europe on the State of Nature in the EU. The report, published in October, gathers data reported by all Member States under the Birds and Habitats Directives, and documents the status and trends of habitats and species during the period 2013-2018. The assessment was based on the work of 200,000 people, most of whom volunteers, and represents the largest dataset on nature ever compiled in Europe.

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