Roads, motorways, railways, intensive agriculture and urban developments are breaking up Europe’s landscapes into ever-smaller pieces, with potentially devastating consequences for flora and fauna across the continent, according to a new joint report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). The report, 'Landscape fragmentation in Europe', demonstrates how areas of land are often unable to support high levels of biodiversity when they are split into smaller and smaller parcels.
As new roads and railways criss-cross Europe, the further fragmentation of the landscape increases the isolation of animal populations in smaller and more vulnerable fractions. This also increases the number of animals killed in collisions with vehicles, and transport routes block their access to resources and breeding mates. These problems are compounded by the growing area taken up by transport infrastructure and the area bordering these developments – many animals cannot live in the fringe areas. Moreover, landscape fragmentation also facilitates the spread of invasive species and reduces the ecosystem services that human society relies on.
Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), said: 'Landscapes change constantly but in recent decades humans have often shaped them with little thought to the cumulative impacts and at a pace that is unprecedented.'
'For the first time, this report presents the extent of landscape fragmentation across an entire continent using a scientifically sound method. It reveals the most relevant driving forces behind fragmentation, demonstrating that varying factors are relevant in different parts of Europe. The picture it paints is worrying.'
The brown hare in Switzerland is an example of a species which has been pushed to the brink of extinction by landscape fragmentation in combination with other human impacts such as intensive agriculture. The animals' movement has been blocked by roads, so they find it more difficult to escape bad weather, and they are often killed by vehicles.
Extinction of the Swiss brown hare may be impossible to avoid as the 'point of no-return' may have been crossed. Indeed, animal populations often react slowly to changes in their habitat, so the current decline may be due to changes that occurred several decades ago, with further decline in animal populations across Europe to come as a result of more recent increases in landscape fragmentation.
However, it is not all bad news - the report also presents some positive stories. For example, badgers in the Netherlands were in decline for many years, until a 'defragmentation policy' was established in 1984, encouraging developers to build 'badger pipes' to allow easier and safer movement of these shy animals. The Dutch badger population has since increased slightly.
Landscape fragmentation: a mixed picture across Europe
- The highest levels of fragmentation are found in the Benelux countries, followed by Malta, Germany and France.
- Romania, dominated by the Carpathian Mountains, has successfully avoided large-scale landscape fragmentation. The country's 13 national parks and more than 500 hundred protected areas mean that the country provides the habitat for 60 % of bears, 40 % of wolves and 35 % of lynx in Europe.
- The UK is extremely varied – it has the some of Europe’s highest levels of fragmentation around London, while the Scottish Highlands are some of the least fragmented areas.
- Low population densities, mountains and remote areas mean Scandinavia has generally very low levels of landscape fragmentation.
- Mediterranean countries like Spain, Greece and Italy have a medium level of landscape fragmentation overall, with greater fragmentation in many built-up coastal areas.
- In East and Central Europe, there are ambitious road building plans. For example, Poland has an unprecedented motorway building programme, representing 40 % of the road building market in the region in coming years. This may further divide the remaining patches of habitat unless measures are taken to preserve connectivity and compensate for the habitat loss.
Although the situation is critical, there are several proactive policies for more effective protection of remaining unfragmented areas, and wildlife corridors which could successfully reverse the trend of growing fragmentation. Developers should build more tunnels, passages and bridges to allow animals to move more freely, the report says. In addition, planners should aim to upgrade old roads instead of building new roads, and ‘bundle’ new infrastructure, for example by building bypasses close to settlements or constructing road and rail routes next to each other.
Where the volume of traffic has fallen, roads should be reduced in size or dismantled completely. Most importantly, cumulative effects need to be considered more effectively in the future, based on the precautionary principle, to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. The problem of landscape fragmentation is also considered by the recently-adopted European Union Strategy on Biodiversity and Ecosystems, where green infrastructure features prominently.