Ecosystem in Europe

The Report n. 3/2016 released by the European Environment Agency provides us with a geographical map of the European ecosystems, which tackles the evolution of land usage and the corresponding consequences on the ecological integrity of natural ecosystems.

The ecosystems map (pic. n. 4) gives on idea of their distribution in Europe and, more in specific, in each member State, together with the some hints about the safeguard protocol activated.

Generally speaking (even though there are some differences from one area to another), the most common ecosystem is represented by forests and woodlands (40%), but just a 4% of these areas is protected and show an untouched natural status.

45% of the European territory is used for agriculture and farming, plus another 5% occupied by urban and industrial areas.

Fig. 7 European Ecosystems mapping
Source: Millenium Ecosystem Assessment-EEA

Figure n. 7 shows that urban areas have been gradually occupying natural areas and cultivated land, leading to high discontinuity in the ecologic net and, therefore, to a real ecosystem fragmentation.

In the report n. 2/2011 “Landscape Fragmentation in Europe” released by the European Environment Agency, the phonomenon of landscape fragmentation is defined as “the result of transforming large habitat patches into smaller, more isolated fragments of habitat. This process is most evident in urbanised or otherwise intensively used regions, where fragmentation is the product of the linkage of built-up areas via linear infrastructure, such as roads and railroads (e.g. Saunders et al., 1991; Forman 1995).”

The expansion of urban areas - to the detriment of woodlands, damp areas and meadows - is progressively reducing the habitats dimension, i.e. the "house" of many species that tend to migrate or even disappear from the environment because of the antropic pressure.

Bushes, water streams and forest belts represent a sort of "ecological corridors" that facilitate wild fauna's migration.

The first consequence of the ecological dispersion is the food chains’ disintegration and the consequent weakening of ecological networks, the reduction of the resilience capacity and resistance to environmental distress in flora and fauna and, more in general, repercussions on the ecosystem services.The recent reports entitled 'Road construction market in central Europe 2010: Development forecasts and planned investments' (PMR publications, 2010) and 'Deployment on the transEuropean transport network (TEN-T)' (European Commission, 2010a) presented calculations according to which the road construction market in central and eastern Europe will increase at the average nominal rate of 5 % in the years 2010-2015. For example, Poland will exert the strongest influence on the road construction market by representing 40 % of the market's value due to sizeable investments in motorways unprecedented in Poland's history.

In addition, between 2010-2013, 1 700 km of new motorways were constructed in the five newly incorporated EU member countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary,Romania and Slovakia. These trends in landscape change threaten many wildlife populations by reduced connectivity among the remaining habitat patches (e.g. Marzluff et al., 2001; Forman et al., 2003).

Fig. 8 Road constructions impact on ecosystem fragmentation
Source: Millenium Ecosystem Assessment-EEA

Habitat patches are broken apart, reduced in size and increasingly isolated. In addition to the direct loss of habitat along linear infrastructure (area taken up by the infrastructure), an even higher amount of core habitat is lost due to edge effects Smaller habitat patches easily lose keystone species, which contributes to the loss of biodiversity in many industrialised countries.

Many species need access to different types of habitat to be able to complete their life cycle. Roads also enhance human access to wildlife habitats and facilitate the spread of invasive species, and reduces genetic variability (Forman and Alexander, 1998; IUCN, 2001).

Landscape fragmentation is a major cause of the rapid decline of many wildlife populations. This is the reason why it’s really useful buildt ecological corridors for animals movings.

Fig. 9 Illustration of the loss of core habitat (or interior habitat) caused by road construction cutting through a patch of habitat
Source: Fragmentation Ecosystem Report - EEA

Not only road net amplification, but also urban sprawl is one of the major fragmentation factors. Land take as a result of the expansion of residential areas and construction sites is the main cause of the increase in urban land coverage in Europe.

Agricultural zones and, to a lesser extent, forests and semi-natural and natural areas are disappearing in favour of the development of artificial surfaces.

Between 2006 and 2012, the annual land take in the European countries assessed in the 2012 Corine land cover project was approximately 107 000 ha/year.

In absolute values, the annual land take in these 28 countries was 114 000 ha/year (1990-2000), 102 000 ha/year (2000-2006) and 98 500 ha/year (2006-2012), of which the 46,2% belongs to Arable Land and permanent crops category, the 26,7% to Pasture and Mixed Agricultural areas and the 16,3 % to Forest and transitional Woodland.(Data source: Corine Land Cover changes 2006-2012).

The construction of residential areas, infrastructures, commercial and industrial districts is the main cause for land consumption and ecosystem fragmentation.

The loss of land due to the infrastructural expansion affects the ecosystem service, both directly (biomass and food supply) and indirectly (climate regulation, storage of carbon emissions, control of erosion and hydrogeological instability, water purification, preservation of biodiversity).

Fig. 10,11,12,13 Building site for the construction of a new infrastructure in Northern Italy, near Treviso to the left the area in 2015, to the right the same area in 2016
Source: Landtake Report 2017, ISPRA Italian Institute for environment protection and research

In Italy the loss of ecosystem services due to land consumption has been evaluated (from an economical point of view) by the Italian Institute for environmental protection (ISPRA), and the report issued shows the approximate cost varies between 30.591 and 44.400 euros per hectar lost. As for the distribution of this cost, the highest amount is connected to agriculture (45%), erosion (20%), storage of carbon emissions (14%) and water percolation (14%). In conclusion, it can be reasonably stated that land consumption for agro-forestry affects exactly those basic functions that the environment should provide for this usage: raw material supply (i.e. food and water) and waste absorption (i.e. CO2 from productive processes).

Fig 14 Example of eco-bridges as artificial ecological corridors for wildlife
Source: Landscape fragmentation in Europe -EEA Report 2/11

The ecosystem fragmentation and the biodiversity loss are phenomena closely related to the spread of intensive farming. Since the first post-war period, intensive farming has been characterized by mono-cropping (especially cereals and forage), the reduction of variety and diversity of cultures, the mechanization of the production chain, the use of protection products and chemical fertilizers and the removal of all natural (or-semi-natural) elements that could be an obstacle to farm machinery (See Pict. 15-16).

Fig. 15, 16 Maize crop in a conventional agricoltural farm in Padana Plane region. Northern Italy

In order to restore the ecosystem balance, it is necessary to re-create the landscape’s traditional pattern, where thick hedges enclose cultivated fields.

Fig. 17, 18 Crop of vegetables in a organic farm in Modena, Northern Italy surrounded by thick hedges.

Long rows of indigenous trees and bushes (varying according to the local climate) increase the crop resistance against parasites. The presence of a big variety of bushes favors the animal biodiversity, more in particular of entomophagous (i.e. insect-eating) insects and consist in a necessary ecological corridors for wildlife like birds and mammals.

Little island of bushes became a core areas where biodiversity can find their specific habitat and create stable community. A remarkable presence of insects and other animal species living in hedges and bushes makes the agro-ecosystem not only richer in terms of biodiversity but also stronger against parasites, and it supports food chains by favoring soil’s biodiversity and fertility and by attracting pollinators, which increase farming productivity too.