State of nature in the EU - Results from reporting under the nature directives 2007–2012

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

This report describing the state of nature in the EU is based on reports from Member States under the Birds (2009/147/EC) and the Habitats (92/43/EEC) directives and on subsequent assessments at EU or EU biogeographical levels. This is the first time that the Member States' reports required by the Birds Directive have included information on population sizes and trends of birds; it is the second report under the Habitats Directive to provide information on the conservation status of habitats and species listed in the annexes to the directive. Although the bird reports cover all species of naturally occurring wild birds in the EU, reports under the Habitats Directive only cover a selection of habitats and species that were considered rare and/or endangered; therefore, it should not be surprising that the proportion of species with an unfavourable conservation status is higher for the Habitats Directive than for the Birds Directive.

In addition to an overview on species and habitats status, both at national and EU levels, this report analyses the situation per main ecosystem type. It also addresses the status of the Natura 2000 network and its possible contribution to the status of species and habitats. Finally, the report provides results on progress towards Targets 1 and 3 of the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy.

Therefore, this report provides, for the first time, comprehensive facts and figures on the status and trends of the species and habitats covered by the two EU nature directives, fully underpinned by the numerous reports submitted by Member States in 2013. However, there are still deficiencies in the quality and completeness of the data reported by Member States; these were communicated to Member States who, subsequently, submitted improved reports. In addition, further streamlining and harmonisation are needed at EU level to reduce differences in methodologies used by Member States that difficult aggregation and interpretation of data at the EU level. The quality of the data reported (often based on simple expert judgement) also indicates that Member States need to further develop or complement their inventories and monitoring schemes.

Birds Directive (Chapter 2)
This chapter provides an overview of bird population sizes and trends at national level (under Article 12) and EU population statuses for all bird species naturally occurring in Europe. Over half of the bird species in the EU (52%) are considered to be 'secure' (no foreseeable risk of extinction), and in general, wintering birds (mostly waterbirds) show increasing populations.

Many of the birds listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive, for which Special Protection Areas (SPAs) must be designated, have populations which are increasing, although often these species are not considered secure. This suggests that setting Natura 2000 sites is an effective conservation measure which also benefits non‑target species, as illustrated in Chapter 4. Additionally, birds for which a Species Action Plan (SPA) has been agreed have a slightly higher proportion, with increasing populations. Unfortunately, many of the species listed in Annex II (species which may be hunted) are decreasing; the reasons for this are not clear.

The most frequently reported threats and pressures on EU birds are agriculture (including both intensification and abandonment), changes in hydrology (especially for wetlands) and exploitation (including hunting).

Member States reported for all naturally occurring breeding bird species, usually at species level, but sometimes for subspecies or populations (e.g. flyway populations), using a checklist agreed in advance. The number of breeding species and other taxa reported by the countries ranges from 27 (Malta) to 340 (Spain), with a considerable variation in bird statuses and trends reported. The countries also reported winter and passage populations for a selection of species, mostly waterbirds.

Habitats Directive (Chapter 3)
This chapter provides an overview of data and assessments reported by Member States (under Article 17) as well as of conservation status assessments at the EU biogeographical level. Assessments of EU conservation status were made for all habitats and taxa (mostly species but also some subspecies or other taxonomic levels) which are listed in Annexes I, II, IV and V of the Habitats Directive, based on the reports received from Member States. A separate assessment was made for each biogeographical or marine region in which the habitat or species occurs. The conservation status can be favourable, unfavourable‑inadequate and unfavourable‑bad, or unknown, where data are not sufficient to allow an assessment. Additionally, trend of the conservation status was evaluated for unfavourable assessments and classified as unfavourable-improving, unfavourable-stable, unfavourable-declining, and unfavourable-unknown.

Species (Annexes II, IV and V)
Under a quarter of EU biogeographical species assessments (23%) are favourable, while more than half are unfavourable. Of the species assessments which are unfavourable, approximately a quarter (26%) are improving or stable, but 22% are deteriorating. More than one sixth (17%) of species assessments overall are unknown, with data on marine species being particularly incomplete, as over 50% of assessments are unknown for cetaceans and turtles.

There is considerable variation across biogeographical and marine regions. The biogeographical regions with the highest proportion of favourable assessments are the Alpine and the Black Sea regions; the Atlantic and the Boreal regions have the largest proportion of unfavourable-bad assessments. There is less variation across the taxonomic groups, with the proportion of assessments as favourable ranging between 29% for vascular plants and 17% for fish.

The two most frequently reported pressures and threats for species are associated with modification of natural conditions (mostly changes to hydrology) and agriculture, followed by natural processes. 'Modification of natural conditions', for example, is credited with over two-thirds of the reported pressures on fish, a third of the pressure on molluscs and a quarter of the pressure on amphibians. Pressures due to agriculture include both intensification and abandonment. 'Disturbances due to human activities', on the other hand, comprise less than a tenth of the high-ranked pressures, but account for a fifth of the pressures on mammals.

There is considerable variation across Member States, in both reported conservation status and trends. For example, the proportion of Member State assessments as favourable ranges from 16% (Austria) to 69% (Cyprus). The proportion of unfavourable assessments which are improving is particularly high in the Netherlands (41%), while the proportion those deteriorating is highest in Italy (40%).

Habitats (Annex I)
Of the EU assessments of Annex I habitats, 16% are favourable, with most being either unfavourableinadequate (47%) or unfavourable-bad (30%). One-third of the unfavourable assessments are stable, with only 4% improving.

For the terrestrial biogeographical regions, the Alpine, Macaronesian and Steppic regions have the largest proportion of habitat assessments as favourable. The Atlantic biogeographical region has the lowest proportion of favourable assessments (9%), although it also has the highest proportion of unfavourable assessments which are improving (11%). The Boreal region has the highest proportion of unfavourable assessments which are deteriorating (close to 50%). The number of marine habitats listed in Annex I of the directive is very low (6 to 8 per region), and although there is variation between the regions, it is difficult to draw any reliable conclusions.

The two most frequently reported pressures and threats for habitats (both mentioned in 19% of Member State reports) are associated with agriculture (including both intensification and abandonment) and modification of natural conditions of waterbodies, mostly changes to hydrology.

As for species, there is considerable variation across countries, with the proportion of assessments reported as favourable ranging from 4% (the Netherlands) to 98% (Cyprus). The proportion of habitats reported as unfavourable-bad was highest (approximately 70%) in Belgium, Denmark and the United Kingdom, while Bulgaria reported no habitats as unfavourable-bad.

An ecosystem approach (Chapter 4)
This chapter examines the species and habitat assessments by ecosystem, using the typology developed for the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) initiative of the European Commission. This typology divides ecosystems into three major groups: terrestrial (seven types), freshwater (one type) and marine (four types).

The statistics provided in the chapter concern the species and habitats associated with each of the ecosystems (although many species occur in more than one ecosystem), but they can be used as a proxy for the ecosystem 'condition'.

The 'sparsely vegetated land' ecosystem has the highest proportion of Habitats Directive assessments as favourable, although its proportion of secure bird assessments is the lowest. Amongst the non‑marine ecosystems, 'rivers and lakes' and 'grassland' have the lowest proportion of Habitats Directive assessments as favourable and the highest as unfavourable.

The most frequently reported pressures and threats for terrestrial ecosystems are associated with agriculture and changes to hydrology. For freshwater ecosystems, changes in hydrology are most frequently reported as being important, although 'loss of habitat features or prey availability' is frequently reported for species, as is 'pollution to surface waters' for habitats.

Although marine ecosystems cover approximately half of the EU's area, there are very few Annex I habitats and a relatively small number of species listed in the annexes of the Habitats Directive. In addition, many of these species are considered 'occasional' or are reported as unknown (up to 83% in the open ocean ecosystem). The findings should thus be treated with caution, as they may not be representative of all marine ecosystems. The proportion of birds assessed as secure is relatively high (61%), compared to the other ecosystem groups.

The pressures and threats most frequently reported as important for marine ecosystems are fishing, particularly for species, followed by 'modification of natural conditions' (particularly for habitats) and 'pollution'. The two most commonly reported conservation measures are those to 'establish protected areas/sites' and for 'legal protection of habitats and species'.

Natura 2000 (Chapter 5)
Covering 18% of the EU's land surface and about 4% of its seas, the Natura 2000 network is the world's largest coordinated network of nature conservation areas. The network, formed by SPAs designated under the Birds Directive and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the Habitats Directive, aims to contribute to the maintenance and/or restoration of a favourable conservation status for the target habitats and species. Although almost half the network was in place by 2000, it continued to grow during the reporting period (2007–2012), with the number of sites designated under the Habitats Directive increasing by over 9%, and the number of sites classified under the Birds Directive by near 12%. Some of this increase was attributable to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, but there were also important additions from other countries, particularly those who had joined the EU in 2004, such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Although the network is considered almost complete on land, its marine component is far from complete, particularly for offshore sites (i.e. those more than 12 nautical miles from the coast). However, there have been significant increases in the number and area of marine sites during the reporting period, particularly from France and the United Kingdom. The network continues to grow, for example with sites from Croatia when they joined the EU in 2013, and additional marine sites from Spain in 2014.

Though there is some variation between regions, coverage by the network of Annex I habitats and Annex II species is generally high for habitats and species with a more restricted area of distribution, but lower for habitats with large total areas and for species with large and widespread populations. No significant differences in coverage were found between biogeographic regions, habitats with different conservation status, or reported population size of Annex II non‑bird species. Moreover, no clear pattern was found between coverage of bird species populations by Natura 2000 and EU bird population status, but bird species which have stable or fluctuating population trends at a national level tend to have a higher coverage by the network than those which are deteriorating.

Measuring the ecological effectiveness of a network of protected areas is difficult, as there are rarely baseline data and it is very difficult to find controls. As a result, there have been very few published studies of the effectiveness of international networks. However, a review of literature on Natura 2000 shows that while the network adequately covers most of the targeted terrestrial species and habitats, it could be improved in some areas. The review also demonstrates the role of Natura 2000 in improving the status of birds, including for common bird species, but it can find no similar studies for habitats or non‑bird species. Natura 2000 hosts a large number of other species not covered by EU nature legislation, but the proportion of the populations in the network varies across species groups. Many studies highlight the need for improved and more regular monitoring of the habitats and species covered by the two directives.

Progress in implementing the EU 2020 biodiversity strategy (Chapter 6)
The EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy includes 6 targets and 20 actions. Two of the targets make specific mention of the status of species and habitats: Target 1 addresses nature conservation objectives through proper implementation of the nature directives, and Target 3 aims at increasing the contribution of agriculture and forestry to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. Chapter 6 presents an assessment of progress to date.

Target 1 aims at halting the deterioration in the status of all species and habitats covered by the EU nature legislation and achieving a significant and measurable improvement in their status so that, by 2020, and as compared to the baseline (set in the previous Article 17 reporting period), 50% more species assessments of the Habitats Directive be either 'favourable' or 'improving', and 100% more habitat types assessments be 'favourable' or 'improving'. It also calls for a 50% increase in the number of bird species which are 'secure' or 'improving', as compared to the 2004 assessment (BirdLife International, 2004).

At this stage, only 21% of habitat assessments are favourable (over 16%) or improving (over 4%), which means there is still significant progress needed to meet the target (i.e. 34% in 2020). For non‑bird species, the target (i.e. 25% in 2020) appears to have already been met, at first glance, with 23% of favourable assessments and a further 5% which are improving; however this is largely attributable to improved data and changes in methodology for the Member State assessments. In particular, many species assessments which were unknown in the 2001–2006 period are now either favourable or unfavourable. Additionally, significant proportions of the unfavourable assessments have further deteriorated (30% for habitats and 22% for species); even higher proportions of unfavourable assessments did not improve, or even deteriorated (42% for habitats and 33% for species).

Similarly there has been little progress towards Target 1 for birds (i.e. 78% in 2020), with no increase in the number of secure assessments (52%) and under 9% of the non‑secure assessments improving. More than 16% of the bird species have both short-term and longterm population trends that are declining.

Habitats and species from the Habitats Directive related to 'agricultural ecosystems' (1) are doing worse than those related to other terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, and there is no real improvement in their conservation status since the last reporting period. Almost 40% of habitat assessments and 22% of species assessments have further deteriorated. Nearly half (48%) of the bird species associated with agricultural habitats hold secure status, and 8% are not secure but improved, while 28% are not secure and have deteriorated. This is worse than for birds in other ecosystems. The threats and pressures most frequently reported as important for agricultural habitats and species include both intensification and abandonment.

Habitats and species from the Habitats Directive related to the woodland and forest ecosystems have a similar conservation status to habitats and species in general. From the unfavourable assessments, only 3% of habitats and 6% of species have improved, while 28% of habitats and 17% of species have deteriorated. Near two-thirds (64%) of bird species associated with the woodland and forest ecosystem hold secure status, and among the non‑secure species, 7% are improving.

Therefore, the status of species and habitats is in general more positive for those associated with 'woodland and forest' ecosystems than for those associated with 'agricultural' ecosystems.

In short, progress towards Target 1 and Target 3, as measured by the status of species and habitats from the nature directives, has not been substantial; however, there is also a substantial proportion of unfavourable assessments that stabilised (neither improving nor deteriorating). The relatively high proportion of 'deteriorating' assessments indicate that substantial conservation efforts need to be implemented to revert current trends, particularly in common policies like agriculture and other land use policies.

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