Plenary Panel: Habitat and species protection through active conservation

Aidan Whitfield, Policy Advisor, Butterfly Conservation Europe

Since 1992, the EU Habitats Directive has provided the legal framework for the conservation of special habitats and rare species of animals and plants. It established the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and strict protection for over 400 species including the Apollo Parnassius apollo and Clouded Apollo Parnassius mnemosyne.

The Directive has been successful in protecting some habitats and species, but many species have declined due to pressures such as agricultural intensification and pollution from pesticides and fertilisers.

The European Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (eBMS) has provided evidence for the decline of butterflies including a Grassland Butterfly Index which shows a 39% decrease in abundance since the 1990s.

Since 2015, the EU has used the eBMS data to develop new policies for the protection of butterflies and other pollinators:

  • In 2018 the EU adopted the Pollinators Initiative, that has funded the ABLE and SPRING projects to increase butterfly and pollinator monitoring across Europe.
  • In 2021 the EU adopted the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030, to protect nature and reverse the degradation of ecosystems.
  • In June 2022 the EU Commission proposed a Nature Restoration Law which aims to restore at least 20% of EU land and sea by 2030, and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. It will also require Member States to develop National Restoration Plans (which could include species reintroductions). It is an EU regulation which will have immediate effect in all Member States when it is adopted by the European Parliament and Council.

Habitat management & protection

David Cíp, Czech Union of Nature Conservation & Zdeněk Faltýnek Fric, Biology Centre AS CR &Czech Society for Butterfly and Moth Conservation (SOM)

David Číp, chairman of the International conservation group JARO and Zdeněk Fric from the Institute of Entomology together outlined main reasons of the massive decrease of mosaic landscape diversity and related insect loss and brought up some innovative conservation methods of active management.

The most threatened habitats nowadays are variations of grasslands, which were historically formed and maintained by various types of disturbances caused by both abiotic and biotic conditions, including human activities.  Factors like e.g. ice and snow avalanches, wildfires, seasonal massive river spills, windfalls or bark beetle calamities were named, as well as the impact of large diversity of megaherbivores, such as wild horses, aurochs (Bos primigenius), European bison (Bison bonasus), elks, etc. Until cca beginning of 20. century humans with traditional ways of managing the landscape and farming were able to cover the loss of most of these factors. That changed drastically with the arrival of large-scale monoculture-based agriculture, intensification and massive use of chemicals, also conversions of meadows into arable land, afforestation, and natural succession due to abandonment of use of extensive grazing.

That led to the massive loss of biodiversity and bush and woody plant encroachment of the valuable open habitats. On top of that, as a result of climate change, increased nitrogen pollution supports the faster growth of green biomass. Rare species tied to natural forest-free areas (including Apollo) are dying out, hand in hand with insect loss.Urgent need of developing effective conservation methods for keeping natural open habitats in protected areas has brought back also the traditional ways of managing the landscape with the scythes, combined grazing of sheep, goats, also large herbivors such as back bred aurochs, wild horses and bison, as well as taking advantage of the masses of tourists and sportsmen for stepping down the vegetation or using heavy machinery such as bulldozers or tanks. Each of these management methods has its own limitations, and it is necessary to know how to use the right combination of them even for the protection of such a fragile species as the Parnassius apollo.

New faces of traditional mowing techniques

Max Rossberg, CEO of the European Wilderness Society.

Before the invention of automatic mowing techniques, the use of scythes or other manual cutting tools allowed insects, ground-nesting birds and small mammals to escape from under the blade when the meadow was cut. These days however, modern rotary mowers or rotary mulchers are far less lenient, and so less animals are able to escape our management of grass areas. Automatic mowers were developed to be quicker and more efficient, saving the landowner time and thus, money. The blades rotate too fast for animals to flip through and are usually much closer to the ground then before, meaning there is less space to hide from it. Additionally, the moving blades of rotary mowers create a suction force that pulls in almost all organisms currently inhabiting this patch of grass. If a hay conditioner or grass shredder is attached to the system, those few insects who survived the cutting process are often stuck inside the hay, and then locked into the hay bales. Modern mowing machines thus influence all aspects of meadow fauna, sometimes impacting entire local populations of a certain species.

But mowing in itself does not have to be this detrimental for wildlife. There are ways to adjust meadow management to allow the proliferation of small animals, for example by:

  • Creating a wildlife-friendly mowing regime, where mowing occurs outside of their breeding season.
  • Using mosaic or rotation mowing to allow animals to move from one area to the next before this is cut. For this a staggered management is also useful.
  • Use a cutting height of at least 8cm, allowing animals to escape under the blades.
  • Avoid the use of mulchers or vacuum mowers.
  • Keep driving on wildlife-rich meadows to a minimum.

Of course, this depends on the landowner’s willingness to adjust and their economic standing – therefore it is important to create fairly priced end products through which consumers can support more sustainable land management.

#followapollo and the efforts of our team! Combined skills in breeding, conservation of habitats, research, environmental education, and project management constitute a great combination for the success of our LIFE project

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