‘State of Nature’ report highlights farming impact on EU wildlife

The skylark is in decline. [Neil Smith/Flickr]

About half of wild birds have a “secure status” as EU programmes to protect endangered species have boosted numbers. But some of their habitats are cause for major concern, largely because of intensive farming, an EU report found on Wednesday (20 May).

The State of Nature in the European Union report for the years 2007-2012 found 17% of species, including some birds of prey, are threatened. Another 15% are near threatened, or are in decline. These include once common birds, such as the skylark.

Researchers from the European Environment Agency found in their most extensive six-year assessment yet that the state of natural habitats was even more worrying, and most have an unfavourable conservation status.

Grasslands, wetlands and dune habitats were of particular concern, the report found, adding that the main threats were agricultural practices, such as over-grazing, fertilisation and pesticides.

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said the research showed that efforts to improve vulnerable ecosystems can be very effective, but it “underlines the scale of the challenges that remain”.

“Targeted conservation actions have brought successes, but a much greater effort is required for the situation to improve significantly,” the European Commission said in a statement accompanying the report.

Among the birds to have benefited from targeted EU conservation efforts were bearded vultures and white-headed ducks, whose numbers have improved substantially, the report found.

Campaign groups said that the report showed the need for vigorous EU law to protect the environment, and that policymakers should not be distracted by Eurosceptic arguments against Brussels interference.

“A thriving natural world is crucial for everybody’s health and wellbeing, so the EU would be foolish to undermine nature protections in the name of cutting red tape,” said Friends of the Earth’s Robbie Blake.

Announced Tuesday (20 May), the Commission’s “Better Regulation” strategy is facing claims that it will be used to drive down environmental standards. That was denied by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.

>> Read: Commission denies power grab claims over ‘Better Regulation’

Campaigners hope that the report will “strongly contribute” to the current assessment of EU Birds and Habitats Directives carried out by the Commission, in order to decide whether they are fit for purpose.

Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office, said, “President Juncker should read carefully this report prepared by his own Commission and showing which are the proper tools to save Europe’s nature and by this to support the recovery of our economy. Europe has an enormous treasure in its hands that needs to be defended against increasing threats by intensive agriculture, and unsustainable energy and transport developments. There are good ways to work with nature, and they always pay off.

"We expect this piece of science to strongly feed into the current evaluation of the EU Nature Directives by proving with concrete examples from various countries that when nature is effectively protected, it can recover and deliver benefits to people".

Ariel Brunner, head of policy at BirdLife Europe, said, “The new report shows that conservation efforts are having an impact but that the overall situation of EU biodiversity is still dire. If we do not deal urgently with some of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, agriculture in particular, we are going to miss the 2020 target, lose precious habitats and species and pay a high price as a society”.

“On the positive side there are clear indications that the Natura 2000 network is having a positive impact. Over 100,000 European citizens in just one week have participated to the European Commission consultation on www.naturealert.eu to save Natura 2000. The findings of the State of Nature offer scientific support to these demands. Let’s hope the Commission takes both into consideration”.

The European Commission opened a consultation on Tuesday (12 May) into EU nature legislation as part of its Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT).

REFIT is part of the better regulation strategy led by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. It aims to simplify EU law and reduce regulatory costs, but has been criticised for endangering social and environmental standards.

Campaigners are worried that the consultation is a first step towards sacrificing the Birds and Habitats Directives in a bid to become more “business friendly”.

Designed to “maintain the population of all species of wild birds in the EU at a level which corresponds to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements”, the Birds Directive bans activities like collecting eggs and destroying nests. Hunting is also limited to specific seasons, methods and species.

The Habitats Directive aims to “maintain or restore natural habitats and species of EU interest” by providing special conservation status for over 1,000 species of plants and animals in some 230 different habitat types.

The European Union boasts some of the strongest nature protection laws in the world, supported by the extensive Natura 2000 network of conservation sites. It covers almost a fifth of the EU’s land area and 4% of its seas.

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