The vast majority of protected landscapes across Europe are rated as in poor or bad condition and vital species and their habitats continue to decline despite targets aimed at protecting them, according to a report.
Only a quarter of Europe’s species are rated as having a good conservation status, while 80% of key habitats are rated as being in poor or bad condition across the continent, in the State of Nature in the EU 2013-2018 assessment by the European Environment Agency.
Just under half of all bird species are thriving, at 47%, but this is a decline of five percentage points since 2015, showing that the trend is going in the wrong direction.
Virginijus Sinkevicius, the EU commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, said: “[This] shows very clearly that we are still losing our vital life support system. We urgently need to deliver on the commitments in the new EU biodiversity strategy to reverse this decline for the benefit of nature, people, climate and the economy.”
Much of the blame for the poor condition of Europe’s natural environment lies with intensive farming. The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) tends to reward intensive farming, despite moves to reward farmers for some measures that prioritise the environment.
“The pressures on nature are much greater than the solutions we are currently providing,” said Micheal O’Briain, of the European commission’s nature protection unit. “Agriculture on balance is still putting huge pressure on nature.”
Reforms that would reward farmers for doing more for the environment are under discussion, as part of the “farm to fork” strategy and the European Green Deal, but some face opposition from farmers’ groups in some member states. “I would not pretend this is going to be an easy debate [on CAP reform] as we have somehow to reconcile different objectives,” O’Briain said.
Key votes on CAP reform will take place this week in the European parliament, but two of the largest groupings of MEPs on the political right have come together to reject many of the measures that would prioritise environmental protections. Jabier Ruiz, senior policy officer at WWF, said: “As it stands, the future of the CAP looks grim. Neither council nor parliament appear to care about the climate and biodiversity crises as they strip away conditions for farm subsidies and push for greenwashing loopholes. Policy-makers must hit the emergency brakes and change direction before it is too late.”
Campaigners are also calling for member states’ environment ministers to endorse the EU’s 2030 biodiversity strategy later in the week.
The EU’s habitats directive lists 233 key habitat types, covering nearly a third of the EU’s land area, and only 15% of these are rated as in good condition. Coastal habitats, dunes and bog, mire and fen come out worst, according to Europe’s environment watchdog, though forest habitats are faring slightly better.
There has been little sign of improvement over most of the past decade, despite EU targets. Overall, about a third of listed habitats are in an unfavourable condition and deteriorating, with a similar number unfavourable but stable.
Among species types, reptiles and vascular plants are faring best, though half are still rated as in poor or bad condition, while the fate of mammals is showing improvement but for about half of fish species the outlook is unfavourable and deteriorating.
There are a few bright spots. Rewilding in some areas has brought wolves back as far as Germany and Belgium, though not without concerns from farmers and rural communities. Some bird species, such as the red kite and crane, have been improving markedly, and there has been good news for the ruddy shelduck and black guillemot. Sweden’s agile frog is on the up, as is the bearded vulture across the continent. The EEA also singled out the Italian wall lizard, the horseshoe whip snake, the hairy agrimony and the great yellow gentian as conservation success stories.
Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the EEA, called on EU member states to do more to reach the bloc’s biodiversity targets. “Our assessment shows that safeguarding the health and resilience of Europe’s nature, and people’s wellbeing, requires fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume food, manage and use forests, and build cities,” he said. “These efforts need to be coupled with better implementation and enforcement of conservation policies, a focus on nature restoration, as well as increasingly ambitious climate action, especially in the transport and energy sector.”
Agriculture is not the only problem: a lack of water in some areas, urbanisation and pollution are also harming wildlife and plants. Forestry is also showing mixed impacts, as some forests are thriving but in some areas forest management and clear-cutting are destroying habitats.
Birds face the additional pressure of hunting, which still accounts for at least 52 million bird deaths a year, and fish populations are under pressure from the common fisheries policy, reforms to which have not been fully implemented despite the 2020 deadline in law for bringing fishing quotas into line with scientific advice.
The assessment, published on Monday, was based on the work of 200,000 people, of whom about 60% were volunteers, reporting data to the EEA, and represents the largest dataset on nature ever compiled in Europe.
The UK will no longer be bound by the EU directives under Brexit, and is leaving the common agricultural policy. George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “We are moving to a fairer system now we have left the EU, with our agriculture bill fulfilling our ambitious plans for a system based on the principle of public money for public goods, such as improving air and water quality and driving biodiversity. We have consulted on this and have announced our intention to start phasing out the existing, unfair direct payment system in England from 2021.”