The State of Nature in the EU: worrying figures and an uncertain future?

The results of the latest round of reporting under the European Birds and Habitats Directives, published last week as the State of Nature in the EU report, offer a sobering assessment of the condition of the natural world across the continent. Based on over 17,000 datasets and encompassing information on 1650 species and 231 habitat types, the report concludes that if current trends continue, we will fail to meet the target of “halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020”.

Many of the headline figures make for worrying reading. Of protected species listed under the Habitats Directive, only 23% were found to be in favourable conservation status. The situation for habitats is even worse, with just 16% of habitat assessments deemed favourable. Since the previous reporting round in 2006, there has been no significant improvement to these figures in terms of habitats, and only a slight increase of around 2% in favourable assessments for species. The results from the Birds Directive are slightly more encouraging, with the populations of 52% of all bird species deemed secure, although 32% are still classed as threatened, near threatened, declining or depleted.

There are however, significant glimmers of hope amongst this doom and gloom. Where targeted conservation measures have been applied, species and habitats have clearly benefitted, and the report identified a number of success stories, predominantly at the local or national level. From the recovery of the great bustard across Europe due to agri-environmental and land management programmes, to the improvement in status of habitats such as calcareous grassland in Poland or wetlands in Belgium, the positive  impact of effective implementation of appropriate conservation efforts are clear.

The Natura 2000 network of protected sites designated under the Birds and Habitats Directives, described as the “centrepiece of EU nature and biodiversity policy”, now covers over 18% of the EU’s land area, and the report concludes that there are clear indications that this network is “playing a major role in stabilising habitats and species with an unfavourable status, especially where the necessary conservation measures have been implemented on an adequate scale”. In general terms, the report finds that the better a species or habitat is covered by Natura 2000, the better its conservation status. Yet full implementation of the conservation measures that Natura 2000 demands remains an elusive goal. As the report finds, “insufficient progress has been made in introducing conservation objectives and measures that fully respond to the needs of the protected habitats and species”; just 50% of sites have comprehensive management plans in place.

In short, the report demonstrates that while European nature legislation provides an effective framework for protecting species and habitats, these tools are not yet being applied at the level required to halt the loss of biodiversity across the continent. Scaling up our conservation efforts is essential if we are to meet our 2020 goals.

The future of the Birds and Habitats directives

This finding chimes with the recent evidence submitted to the European Commission by 100 NGOs – including the BES – as part of the current “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives being undertaken by the European Commission. Part of the Commission’s REFIT programme, the fitness check seeks to assess whether the Directives are “fit for purpose”, and while stated to be “evidence-based”, sits against a political backdrop of increasing deregulatory pressure. The submission by the UK’s “Joint Links” (Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link), which included contributions from the BES, found that the Directives are scientifically proven to be effective where properly implemented, delivering environmental, social and economic benefits that far outweigh the costs of implementation.

However, as the Joint Links position statement makes apparent, to subject the Birds and Habitats Directives to review at a time when implementation remains far from complete, with the accompanying uncertainty about their future, could be bad for nature, bad for people, and bad for business, potentially jeopardising the currently stable regulatory framework as well as vital protection for species and habitats, and the accompanying benefits to people. The message is clear: whilst the Directives may not be perfect, if we are to stand the best chance of halting biodiversity loss in Europe by 2020, the focus should be on implementing them to the full, rather than opening them up to revision, uncertainty, and possible weakening.

Have your say

The second part of the REFIT fitness check is now underway, with the European Commission opening a public consultation on the Directives. In response, a number of conservation NGOS from across Europe and the UK have launched a campaign to “Defend Nature”, with an online tool allowing people to respond quickly to the consultation.

We encourage members to respond directly to the consultation here, or get in touch if you would like to contribute to the BES’s organisational response.