EU: biodiversity and climate, natural allies

Thanks to the European network Natura 2000, 24% of EU territory is now protected, while human activity, such as agriculture and forestry, may continue subject to certain conditions. Extremely important, believes Gwenn Dodeur, in charge of Natura 2000 at the Walloon Natagriwal.

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Lush grassland with white flowers, trees and forest in the background

Calcareous prairies along the river Meuse, Natura 2000 zones. © Natagriwal

In this series, we give people the opportunity to demonstrate the positive impact of the EU, and do so for each of the 6 priorities in the current European Commission. Today part 1: the European Green Deal, of which biodiversity protection and Natura 2000 are an integral part.

Gwenn Dodeur

Gwenn Dodeur © Natagriwal

The European Union (EU) has devised a series of measures to protect the environment and biodiversity. This means that farmers receive subsidies when implementing eco-friendly measures: sowing the edge of the field with flowers, planting a hedge, digging a pool and so on.

Furthermore, thanks to Natura 2000, the EU is successfully protecting no less than 24% of its surface area: approximately 1 million km² or 30 times the surface of Belgium! Not as nature reserves placed under a protective dome, but zones where economic activities are carefully managed in an eco-friendly manner.

Farmers, forestry workers and owners employed in a Natura 2000 zone are required to respect a number of restrictions. For example, no fir trees may be planted within 12 metres of a water course. No exotic tree species may be planted in woods of ecological value. In other zones, organic and mineral fertilisers are forbidden.

Lake with dry grass and trees in the background

Also the fens in the Hautes Fagnes are included in Natura 2000. © Emily Hugo

13% of Wallonia

Not always an easy matter! That's why a non-profit association is active in Wallonia – Natagriwal - to guide farmers and forestry workers in correctly implementing the diverse rules. Gwenn Dodeur, in charge of Natura 2000 at Natagriwal, tells us more.

‘In Wallonia, 13% of the surface area comes under Natura 2000’, says Dodeur. ‘The total area comprises 41 types of habitat. For example, fens in the Hautes Fagnes, calcareous prairies along the river Meuse or sycamore bushes on the slopes. Moreover 65 bird species and 69 other animal species are protected: the violet copper butterfly (Lycaena helle), the crested newt, several species of bat, the corncrake… (see La biodiversité en Wallonie). Approximately 64,000 owners, forestry workers and farmers are required to respect a number of rules, however, they are rewarded for their efforts.’

Little brown bird

The corncrake is protected thanks to Natura 2000. © A. De Broyer

Biodiversity, more important than you think

Climate has gradually become a hot topic, while biodiversity remains more in the shadow. Wrongly so, believes Dodeur. ‘Natura 2000 is extremely important and essential! After all, biodiversity plays a prominent role in our lives. It is extremely useful in providing a diverse range of ecosystem services, including pollination. It also has an immediate economic value: wood, all kinds of plants, etc. Biodiversity can be used in agriculture to combat all kinds of diseases and plagues. Finally, we should not underestimate the recreational value: leisure activities, well-being, cultural identity, to name but a few.’

Despite its undeniable importance, we are rapidly losing our biodiversity. Dodeur: ‘An alarming 40% of all animal species in Belgium is faced with extinction or is in strong decline. In Europe, the birds in the agricultural environment have declined by 50% in 30 years, and ground-nesting birds by as much as 90%! Insects are also suffering enormously, due to pesticides, premature mowing of verges, a lack of flowers on arable land, and so on.’

For Gwenn Dodeur, there are no real disadvantages to Natura 2000, except for the fact that the complex federal structure in Belgium somehow complicates its execution. ‘The sums involved are quite considerable: about 50 million euros for the period 2014-2020, and 6.8 million euros in 2021-2022. And that's without counting the LIFE programmes.’

Red butterfly with dots and dark edge along the wings on pink flower

Pollination is an important free service provided by nature. In the picture: a violet copper butterfly, protected thanks to Natura 2000. © Ph. Goffart

Natura 2000, part of Green Deal

Natura 2000 is an integral part of the European Green Deal, which is most famous for its range of measures to combat climate change. Is that logical? ‘Certainly, there is actually a strong link between biodiversity and climate change. Therefore, many measures respected by Natagriwal have an impact on climate change as well. Take the ban on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, for example. That causes less emissions of nitrous oxide and ammoniac, while we also prevent CO2 from being released during the manufacture of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.’

‘With Natura 2000, we aim to diversify the countryside. Indeed, such ecological variation makes it easier for plants and animals to adapt to the changing climate. The planting of hedges and woods prevents fertile soil particles being lost during rain or wind. This allows the soil to hold on to more carbon. A final example: the farmer who grows his own cattle feed stores more carbon in the soil and biomass. At the same time he avoids CO2 emissions by purchasing less feed.’

Within the Green Deal, the EU aims to extend Natura 2000 even further: to protect 30% of the surface area, of which 10% very strictly. In short, with Natura 2000, the EU is making crucial and successful efforts to protect nature and tackle climate change. And that benefits everyone.

What is the European Green Deal?

The European Green Deal comprises a broad package of measures to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, ensuring (1) no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, (2) economic growth decoupled from resource use and (3) no person and no place left behind.

As such the Green Deal is more than just climate actions: reducing greenhouse gases and reinforcing natural (forests…) and artificial carbon storage. It also covers the protection of biodiversity, a sustainable agriculture and food chain, reducing all environmental contamination to zero, a cleaner building sector, clean energy and so on.

The maritime environment is also protected by Natura 2000

If you head off to the Belgian coast this summer for a breath of fresh air, you may not realise that all the stunning nature there is protected by the European network Natura 2000! In fact, 37% of the North Sea is recognised as a Natura 2000 region. This means that more than 2,000 animal and plant species are protected, including 140 types of fish and over 60 types of sea bird. Sea mammals, such as the porpoise and seal, are becoming more common.

In the marine spatial plan 2020-2026 a further natural area will be added at the Dutch border, the so-called 'Vlakte van de Raan'. Furthermore, the natural Heist Bay area will be included in the bird protection area in line with Zeebrugge.

The intention in these areas is not to exclude all activities, but to protect sea life. This means that any activities which may harm the relevant species and habitats must undergo a so-called ‘suitability assessment’. This activity may only go ahead if this assessment demonstrates there is no adverse impact on the natural area. A further three search zones have been pinpointed, two of which are within the sandbanks known as the 'Vlaamse Banken'. Within these zones, restrictions can be established for activities which affect the soil, in order to ensure the recovery and maintenance of nature.