By Dr Natalie Sanders
For the last three years, NatureBureau were part of the Project Management Team for the first ever European Red List of all habitats on our land and in our seas. It has been a huge undertaking involving over 300 experts from some 35 countries across Europe, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, and in neighbouring coastal waters of the North Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas. NatureBureau have coordinated and led workshops across Europe, meeting with experts to gather data, discuss methodologies and complete assessments.
Working with these experts under the partnership formed by Wageningen Environmental Research (Alterra), IUCN, NatureBureau and consultants Susan Gubbay and John Rodwell, we have assessed 490 habitats to determine their level of threat. For each habitat, a full habitat description, map of distribution, photos, trends in quantity and quality, pressures and threats, conservation measures and their threat category was established.
The NatureBureau team at meetings of the marine Habitat Working Groups: Marine typology meeting all regions (left), North-East Atlantic (middle) and Mediterranean (right).
Sadly, the results of this intensive study are bleak. In our neighbouring seas, some habitats appear to be threatened across Europe, such as mussel beds, seagrass beds and many habitats in estuaries. In the Mediterranean Sea, almost a third of habitats are at risk of collapse; in the North-East Atlantic, nearly a quarter. It was anticipated that there would be a lot of marine habitats that we did not know much about. Given the relatively short timeframe, that research has been conducted at sea in comparison to land, and the logistical and financial constraints, marine monitoring is problematic. However, it was concerning to realise that there were more data deficient habitats than we expected, particularly in the Black Sea. It is now hoped that this list of Data Deficient habitats created by this project will help steer research goals in the future so that we can go back and re-assess their threat category to put protection in place if needed.
(Top left) Seagrass beds on Atlantic sand. Critically Endangered. © K. Hiscock. (Top right) Fine mud habitat in the circalittoral zone, with Dublin Bay prawn Nephrops norvegicus burrows visible. Loch Sween, Scotland, Endangered. © G. Saunders. (Bottom left) Coccotylus truncatus in Zernov's Phyllophora field, Ukraine, Critically Endangered. © T. Hetman
On land, the situation is no better. Over a third of land habitats are currently under threat: more than three-quarters of bogs, over half of grassland habitats, and almost half of our lakes, rivers and coasts. Forests, heaths and rocky habitats have fared better but are still of great concern.
There are many reasons why European habitats are declining in extent and quality, and many threats are having increasingly large impacts. Intensive farming and abandonment of traditional grazing lands, drainage and pollution, invasion of alien plants and animals, urbanisation and associated infrastructure development, all of these continue to pose dangers to terrestrial habitats. At sea, it is pollution, nutrient enrichment, destructive fishing practices and coastal defence and development that are most threatening. Some damaging effects of climate change are already apparent in both marine and terrestrial systems and are likely to worsen. By highlighting the threats, it is hoped that we can be more proactive in alleviating them or mitigating for them before irreversible damage is put upon these habitats.
Together, these habitats form the rich tapestry of our many different European landscapes and seascapes. They provide a home for many thousands of plants and animals and provide important ecosystem services, such as protecting soils, capturing carbon and helping alleviate global warming. These habitats can yield valuable crops, sustain livestock, game and fish and provide places for tourism and recreation. They offer inspiration and delight to all and are a precious heritage for future generations.
The European Red List of Habitats provides an entirely new and all-embracing tool to review commitments for protecting and restoring the land and seas of Europe. It covers a much wider range of habitats than those legally protected under the Habitats Directive and will help us measure progress towards the targets of the EU2020 Biodiversity Strategy.
Some of the deliverables from the European Red List of Habitats project: Marine report (top left), Terrestrial report (top right), Marine flyer (middle left), Terrestrial flyer (middle right) and a project poster (bottom). All items are downloadable from the link below.
This work was funded by the European Commission. Further information and the outputs of the Red List can be found at: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/knowledge/redlist_en.htm