Europe`s ecological backbone: recognising the true value of our mountains


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Introduction and background

Europe's mountain areas have social, economic and environmental capital of significance for the entire continent. This importance has been recognised since the late 19th century through national legislation; since the 1970s through regional structures for cooperation; and since the 1990s through regional legal instruments for the Alps and Carpathians. The European Union (EU) first recognised the specific characteristics of mountain areas in 1975 through the designation of Less Favoured Areas (LFAs). During the last decade, EU cohesion policy and the Treaty of Lisbon have both focused specifically on mountains.

A wide range of policies, from numerous sectors and levels of governance, influence the management of Europe's mountains. The key EU policy domains address agriculture and rural development, forestry, regional and cohesion policy, and nature conservation and biodiversity, although numerous other relevant and interacting policy domains exist. Some European countries have enacted specific legislation areas addressing their mountainous regions; others address them through sectoral or multisectoral approaches. There are also two regional agreements for the Alps and the Carpathians. Given the range and complexity of these various policies, there is a need to understand their interactions in order to formulate effective policy responses to contribute to sustainable development.

Europe's mountains have been delineated in various ways, for example:

  • for the purposes of national and EU policies, particularly regarding agriculture and, more recently, territorial cohesion;
  • for the purposes of regional conventions;
  • for the purposes of studies commissioned by the European Commission in 2004 and the present EEA report.

The present report delineates Europe's mountain areas according to topography and altitude criteria, based on data from digital elevation models. For the purposes of this study, 36 % of Europe's area is defined as mountainous, including 29 % of the EU‑27. Massifs also served as a unit of analysis and 15 were defined.

This report is based on a highly variable evidence base. For certain variables, comprehensive datasets are only available for EU Member States. Comprehensive Europe-wide datasets are only available for a few variable and topics, often only for one point in time. To help overcome these data gaps, many issues are illustrated through regional, national or sub-national case studies.

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