The biodiversity challenge in Europe

Yesterday evening I attended the 43rd Annual Bristol University Alumni Convocation Lecture. The subject chosen was something of great interest to me personally, ‘Biodiversity in Europe’, delivered by Dr Hans Friedrich, who only recently left his post as the European Regional Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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Dr Friedrich, a Dutch geographer by training (phD at University of Bristol, 1982), has had a very diverse career, from studying cave systems to negotiating multi-million-dollar contracts for wetlands programmes in Uganda and Vietnam, for national environmental policy assistance programmes in Ethiopia and Tanzania, and for water management programmes in the Mekong River basin.

Europe was illustrated as a fragmented landscape, lacking the large areas of wilderness that all other continents have to some extent. It is a criss-cross of agricultural production systems, forest and woodland, moors, marshes, mountainous areas and beaches. However, there are very few areas where human contact has been wholly minimised over history. It is here that on a side note I want to plug my interest in environmental history. To manage our biodiversity effectively; and after all as we have a managed landscape we will have to ‘manage’ it, we should be undertaking local environmental history studies in all areas of management. Pollen analysis, dendrochronology and other techniques can be carried out to understand how habitats have changed and how we can best manage them.

Anyway, back to the lecture. Dr Friedrich explained how Europe is leading the world in terms of understanding its various landscapes and trying to build its biodiversity. However, there are still major issues. £10 billion annually is the cost of the damage from invasive species and only 11% of habitats are described by a European Commission document as being in ‘a favourable state’.

When it comes down to it, Dr Friedrich lay the blame on ‘communication’. In a time of recession nature simply isn’t that high on the list of priorities. People need to be taught about how important it is to sustain our ecosystems and maintain our biodiversity. People need to learn to love nature (for want of a better phrase). A new marketing strategy is required to sell the importance of nature to the wider public. Dr Friedrich raised the example of WWF (World Wildlife  Fund) being created in the 1960s. A similarly positive marketing framework is required to be created for the biodiversity problem today.

Europe is doing a lot of things that are good when it comes to biodiversity management. An army of academics, NGOs, politicians, farmers, wildlife charities and volunteers are each doing their bit. However, there is little connection between all of these groups. I disliked the fact that Dr Friedrich didn’t seem to offer forth any particularly ‘new’ suggestions for how we can improve our biodiversity. Farmers especially tend to be blamed for the loss of habitat and yet, they are being put under enormous pressure for higher yields and are facing higher input costs. Many farmers go out of their way to improve habitat on their farms as a healthy ‘agro-ecosystem’ generally equates to a higher number of pollinators and hence higher yields and a ‘healthier’ and more profitable enterprise.

Will the new biodiversity strategy in Europe (2011-2020) work? To use an age old cliché – time will tell.

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