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The State of Nature in the EU: an unfavourable picture for freshwaters

May 26, 2015
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Avon Meadows Community Wetlands in Worcestershire, England have been created on the rural-urban fringe to encourage biodiversity, reduce flooding and improve water quality on the nearby River Avon. Image: Geoff Moore | Flickr | Creative Commons

Last week the European Environment Agency released their ‘State of Nature in the EU‘ report, which uses comprehensive data collected across the continent between 2008-2012 assess the status of and trends in biodiversity and natural habitats across Europe.  Data on Europe’s species and habitats was collected by individual countries (or member states) as part of monitoring for the Birds Directive and the Habitat Directive – European environmental policies designed to help guide conservation, protected area management and environmental restoration across the continent (more information on these at the bottom of the post).

Hans Bruyninckx, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency said, “This unique assessment is a first of its kind, building on extensive observation networks of experts and citizens alike. Despite some information gaps, it provides the most complete picture of Europe’s biodiversity to date.  The results are mixed but clear. When implemented well, conservation measures work and improve the status of habitats and species on the ground. Such improvements remain limited and patchy, and unfortunately Europe’s biodiversity is still being eroded overall and the pressures continue”

The results of the study for freshwaters are largely unfavourable.  Around half of the conservation status of river and lake habitats and species reported to the Habitats Directive are deemed ‘unfavourable-inadequate‘.  It is worth noting that the habitats and species assessed by the Habitats Directive were already deemed rare, endangered or otherwise threatened.  However, the picture is still not positive: around a third of these conservation statuses are in decline, suggesting that a significant proportion of Europe’s freshwater species and habitats face significant threats to their health and diversity.

Rivers and lakes were found to be most impacted by modifications to natural conditions (for example: river channel modification and fragmentation, water abstraction, draining of wetlands), water pollution and the impact of agriculture (e.g. fertiliser run-off).  Changes to natural conditions were particularly damaging pressures for birds which live in freshwater habitats, presumably due to a reduction in available nesting and feeding sites.

Protected area designation was reported as the most popular conservation measure implemented by member states to mitigate the identified threats for both birds and wider habitats.  For non-bird species – largely fish, invertebrates and amphibians – conservation measures were more diverse, including restoring hydrological regimes, legally protecting habitats and species, and improving water quality.

MARS project leader Daniel Hering commented on the findings, suggesting that whilst water quality in Europe is improving, any widespread improvements in freshwater biodiversity and habitat quality lag well behind:

“The negative assessment of river and lake conservation status is in line with the results of the Water Framework Directive monitoring. Both the assessment under the Habitats Directive and under the Water Framework Directive rate the status of lakes and rivers quite negatively.

The results are consistent but also quite surprising for many people who acknowledge the great improvement of water quality in recent decades. Strong pollution has vanished from European rivers and lakes – but biodiversity and ecosystem functions are still impoverished.

Freshwater ecosystems in most parts of Europe are still stressed, but the stressors are less visible than in former times. Eutrophication, pesticides, removal of riparian vegetation, water abstraction – all these stressors affect a large proportion of Europe’s waters. In former times the wastewater from households and industries were the main threat; nowadays, it is the way we practise agriculture.”

Read the State of Nature in the EU Report online

The Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive

The Birds Directive was set up in 1979, and aims to protect all wild birds with natural ranges inside Europe, and identifies 193 species which are in need of special conservation measures due variously to rarity, threat of extinction or loss of habitat.  The Birds Directive also requires European member states to designate Special Protection Areas for the conservation of endangered bird species.

The Habitats Directive was set up in 1992 with the aim of ensuring the conservation of rare, threatened or endemic species of plants and animals across Europe.  The Directive covers over 1,250 species and 233 habitat types across the continent, and requires member states to designate and manage Special Areas of Conservation and implement other management measures to restrict the taking, capturing or killing of important plant and animal species.

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