European biodiversity indicators

Posted by Dr Alan Feest PhD on 14/12/2010

A. Feest (2010). Biodiversity Beyond 2010. IEEM In Practice. Pages 5-8


Living on an island means that it is very easy for us to forget that the UK is part of Europe and that we are part of initiatives relating to the whole continent. The EU has a strong commitment to biodiversity and the President of the Commission, Senor Baroso, (speech in Athens on 27 April 2009) has stated that the loss of biodiversity is of equal importance to Global Climate Change and the Life + programme shows how the Commission can provide very significant sums of money for biodiversity and habitat conservation.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) based on Copenhagen was tasked with setting up a system of indicators that could be used to show progress (or not) towards the 2010 international target (and EU commitment) to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity and the results of this process and the final indicators are the subject of this report.
The process of setting the indicators
The first indication of this process was a an email from Mr Martin Sharman from the EU Commission (Martin is the Policy Officer – Biodiversity and Ecosystems, at the European Commission) inviting people to Copenhagen for a preliminary meeting to set out working groups (following the headings set out by the Convention on Biological Diversity; CBD) who would report back in a year with recommendations for biodiversity indicators under the CBD headings (see Table 1). As I have been researching the measurement of biodiversity for a number of years I felt that I could contribute to this and attended this inaugural meeting.  It was packed with about 200 scientists and bureaucrats from the whole of Europe (EU members and non-member countries).  I had indicated that I would wish to be part of the status and trends of biodiversity group only to find that I was with about 25 % of the whole cohort.  Looking around I found Simon Bareham (CCW) as a sole member of the nitrogen deposition group and transferred to increase his group to two.  As it transpired this was a very lucky choice as I rapidly came to appreciate that in Northern Europe (and probably much of Europe) nitrogen deposition was a more severe threat to biodiversity than Global Climate Change and probably as important as land use change.
Groups were tasked with producing a list of possible indicators with the proviso that they must already be in use so that: a) historic trends can be indicated and b) time was not wasted employing more scientists to come up with yet more indicators. As it transpired the assembled groups came up with more than hundred ideas.
A series of meetings for each CBD group was set up through the next year where we were tasked to eliminate all but the most efficacious indicators.  Fortunately for the nitrogen group the indicator was soon found and settled (nitrogen Critical Load Exceedence; nCLE). At a final plenary session a battle of advocacy ended with a list of 26 biodiversity indicators that followed the CBD headings and ranged from the direct measurement of organisms to pressure, state or response indicators.
The indicators
Table 1 gives the final set of indicators and a preliminary report has been published by the EEA (EEA Report 4/2009; Progress towards the European 2010 biodiversity target) and I give below a review of how each of these indicators has been integrated with the others and how I see them relate to actual biodiversity measurement.
The first CBD focal area is Status and Trends of the components of biodiversity: trends in the abundance and distribution of selected species (SEBI 2010 Indicator 1) where clearly only two specific groups of organisms are proposed for measurement: Birds and Butterflies.  The basis of this decision is that they already have recognised and validated survey methods providing numerical data.  Other organisms might have been chosen but the restriction that the indicator had to already be functioning left only these two.  This is problematic because they are both limited as indicators of biodiversity; birds respond to vegetation architecture rather than other elements of biodiversity and butterflies are restricted in occurrence and number of species in many areas of Europe.  The advantage that some countries have significant time series of data for these groups is helpful but most European countries do not.  I advocated that a more ecosystem oriented approach might have resulted in different biodiversity indicators so that for  the soil ecosystem and decomposition processes one could have used macrofungi, for air quality and precipitation one could have used bryophytes/lichens, for temperature influence and climate change beetles (poikilotherms) might have been used.  This lack of validated biodiversity measurement methods for more sensitive indicators may well be the basis of the research outcomes of the process (see below).
Indicator 2 is the Red List Index for European species and utilises the well established systems for recording the populations of organisms that are considered rare and threatened.  These rare organisms are often charismatic and of wide interest to the public so that data is often freely available.  The problem occurs when dealing with the less glamorous organisms (slime moulds for example); how is the data to be obtained and used since one expert observer will influence the totality of results and the apparent status of an organism. That these Red List organisms might indicate the status of associated habitat and biodiversity elements is assumed and is coming to be backed by research data. For this indicator a reduction in the list indicates improving biodiversity i.e. a reduction in biodiversity loss so it has the complication that a counterintuitive reduction has to be interpreted.
Indicator 3 is Species of European Interest (those species which, within the territory of the European Union, are listed in Annexes II,IV an V of the Habitats Directive) and therefore fairly well defined.  Each species is assessed for population trends and classified as: Unfavourable – bad, Unfavourable- inadequate, Not Assessed, Unknown, and Favourable.  Preliminary results for bio-geographic region show the lack of data for marine ecosystems and quite a lot of variation between systems. Amphibians (60% unfavourable) to appear to be the most threatened group with marine species also showing poor status.
Indicator 4 is Ecosystem coverage and this is assessed by percentage change and can be well observed by GIS methods.  A  preliminary result shows clearly that between 1990 and 2000 for example mires, bogs and fen habitats declined by over 3% whilst constructed, industrial and artificial habitats expanded by around 5%.  This indicator also shows that for Europe expansion of woodland and forest has expanded by nearly 1%.  This indicator shows strongly the threats to natural habitats and analysis of what ecosystem has converted to another shows that expansion of woodland and forest is larger than indicated since nearly on third  of the urban expansion has been into forested land bringing the new forested land expansion to a 3% level.
Indicator 5 is Habitats of European Interest and the indicator classifies habitats in the range of Favourable to Unfavourable – Bad as in indicator 4.  This indicator shows that between 40 to 80% of the habitats of Community interest (Annexe 1 of the Habitats Directive) have an unfavourable conservation status. Bio-geographic analysis show that around 70% Atlantic, continental, Macronesian and Pannonian habitats are unfavourable and a similar % of bogs, fresh water, grassland and dunes are unfavourable. As I will show below this is a critical indicator through its relationship with other indicators.
Indicator 6 is Livestock genetic diversity which is a clear interpretation of the definition of biodiversity (the variability of genes, species and ecosystems) but has also the implied recording of agricultural intensification.  The analysis relates to an assessment of the number of native breeds that are endangered. This analysis shows that for countries like Greece and the Netherlands cattle native species are close to extinction which is the opposite of the situation in Poland.  The use of this indicator carries the caution that definition of what constitutes a native breeds is not common to all countries!
Indicator 7 is Nationally designated protected areas which is measured by area and for 2007 had reached over 1 million km2  and nearly 80,000 sites giving in 39 countries an average of 16% coverage as protected areas (but note the very large areas included in the Russian Federation and some other East European countries.  For Western Europe the figure is much lower. The trend for this indicator is for a continuing increase of sites but they are becoming smaller in extent. 
Indicator 8 is Sites designated under the EU Habitats and Birds Directive.  By mid 2008 most EU member states had designated enough Natura 2000 sites to protect habitats and species targeted by the Habitats Directive thus around 10% of the terrestrial territory is designated under the Birds Directive a and under 13% the Habitats Directive (there is overlap). Overall the net area continues to increase but this is largely due to the accession of new member states. Marine ecosystems have not yet showed the progress, made for terrestrial ecosystems.  
Thus the CBD focal area on status and trends of the components of biological biodiversity is represented by a number of indicators most of which are easy to compile but there is a clear deficiency in the measurement of species other than birds and butterflies.
The next CBD focal area is Threats to biodiversity consists of three indicators of which Indicator 9 is Nitrogen Critical Load Exceedence.  Nitrogen is an insidious pollutant causing eutrophication and acidification  which, for the most part, is invisible and we only detect it when ammonia levels are high enough.  The critical load exceedence level is a modelled level where the nitrogen deposition is above the ability of the vegetation and soil (geology) to absorb without harmful effect on ecosystems.  Thus different habitats have different levels of nCLE.  Any level of exceedence indicates ecosystem damage and the aim obviously is to achieve negative levels such as would exist in a natural situation. Agriculture (increasingly) and transport (decreasingly) are the main sources of nitrogen deposition. Ecosystem maps are overlain by remote sensing data of nitrogen levels to provide data that can be allocated to precise locations.  This Indicator therefore combines the uncertainties of the need to accept a model with the precision of location. Generally the levels in Northern Europe are declining (sometimes sharply) but are still well above the threshold level for exceedence. In work commissioned by the EEA I have shown that this indicator has a strong relationship with butterfly biodiversity in the Netherlands and that whilst butterfly species richness for individual sites is not declining greatly there is a change from nitrophobic species to nitrophilic species. Overall species richness for the Netherlands is therefore continuing to decline as site butterfly species come to be dominated by the same nitrophilic species.  On these data it is clear that butterflies in the Netherlands are being strongly influenced by nitrogen whilst there is not a detectable effect of GCC.
Indicator 10 is Invasive Alien Species and clearly any alien species has an ecosystem effect.  The aim therefore is reduce the number of alien species and, whilst the majority of around 10,000 alien species recorded in Europe have not (yet) been found to have major impacts, some are highly invasive. Currently the list of “worst invasive alien species threatening biodiversity in Europe” consists of 163 species and many of the worst “culprits” are marine/ freshwater species. Nevertheless 39 of the 163 species are vascular plants.  This is an indicator which may become worse through time if current transport trends continue.
Indicator 11 is Occurrence of temperature-sensitive species which currently has been compiled for birds. Some birds have are predicted to declined in range (92 species) and others to have expanded  (30) and change in extent of the ranges of these two groups of birds is calculated to provide a Climatic Impact Indicator.  In 2005 this indicator was at a value of about 125 having started with at a base value of 100 in  1980. Initially the indicator declined due to a series of cold years but since 1990 the trend is quite distinctly upwards. The methodology is said to be applicable to other taxonomic groups but apart from butterflies the data does not really exist. Birds are probably not good climate indicators and invertebrates should be better since they are poikilotherms. UK experience of a number of insects colonising  and expanding their range is clear and a Climate Impact Indicator for Orthopterans for example would be very interesting to compile.
The next CBD focal area is Ecosystem integrity and ecosystem goods and services and Indicator 12 is the Marine Trophic Index  and results from the tendency to selectively fish for those large species at the top if the trophic chain (tuna, cod, sea bass and swordfish) and as they decline through overfishing those species lower down the trophic chain increase. A mean trophic level of the abundance of species caught expresses therefore the intensity of fishing and the ecosystem impact.  This seems to be a very well founded indicator and data from 1950 to date shows levels not to have declined (albeit that they were already heavily impacted in 1950).
Indicator 13 is Fragmentation of natural and semi-natural areas and relates to colonisation processes, minimum viable population levels  and home territory size. This is a GIS (CORINE) based assessment with a grain of 1 ha elements located in 50 ha  neighbourhoods.  Much of the change registered is due to forestry operations (felling and planting) but the overall connectivity of, for example, woodland yields valuable information on the limitations to populations and colonisation. 
Indicator 14 is Fragmentation of river systems and whilst the data has not yet been assembled it clearly relates to the previous indicator with the same implications.  European rivers are highly modified and flood prevention activity might increase this along with hydro-electricity schemes which on a small scale are popular in the UK.
Indicator 15 is Nutrients in transitional, coastal and marine waters based on the concentrations of oxidised nitrogen and orthophosphate.  Surprisingly over 80% of all recording stations indicate no increase or even a decline in levels  (albeit they are much above natural levels).  This indicator may become a very interesting one as the impact of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) affects nutrient levels in European rivers.  This indicator is closely linked therefore to indicator 16 Freshwater Quality where the recorded levels of Biochemical Oxidation Demand (BOD), Nitrate and Orthophosphate are available for European river from 1992.  All three show a downward trend and this should continue under the influence of  the WFD.
The next CBD focal area is Sustainable Use and there are six indicators for this as follows:
17 Forest growing stock, increment and fellings; the balance of which shows  a consistent increase in stock but this might not continue if timber demand continues to increase in Eastern Europe..
18 Forest deadwood which is encouraged in northern Europe and strongly discouraged in Southern Europe (fire). Overall the amount of deadwood has a positive influence on biodiversity by enlarging the decomposition biomass. Excessive tidiness in the UK for example results in there being only about 4 cubic metres per hectare compared to 23 in Lithuania.
19  Agricultural nitrogen balance shows that the surplus nitrogen inputs to land are declining reducing pressure on soil, water and air.  The current levels are still high for some countries such as Belgium.
20 Agricultural area under management practices potential supporting biodiversity has two elements: distribution of high nature value farmland and area under agri-environment and organic farming. The range of country % of agriculture under these headings is very wide ranging from 5% in the Netherlands to 80% in Austria.  This indicator is obviously very susceptible to political decisions but currently is increasing.
21 and 22 concern fishing fisheries (European commercial stocks; 45% outside safe biological limits) and fish-farming (Aquacultural effluent quality from fish farms; increasing intensity but the practice of feeding fish on fish protein may undermine the long-term sustainability of the industry) both show there are serious problems if current trends continue.
23 Ecological Footprint of European countries has been increasing globally since 1961 whilst Europe’s biocapacity has decreased.  The assumption of economic growth indicates that this trend will increase.
CBD focal area Status of access and benefits sharing Indicator 24 Patent applications based on genetic resources seems to me a cynical attempt to persuade industry and commerce that biodiversity has a money value.  It does have a money value in the Ecosystem Services  that are provided but the ethical and moral imperative to protect and conserve biodiversity should be a much stronger argument.
CBD focal area Status of resource transfers and use indicator 25 Financing Biodiversity Management measures the public funds committed to conservation of biodiversity. Despite the statement by Senor Baroso the LIFE + fund of the EU is still a very small proportion of the overall budget so the commitment of EU ministers can be easily tested.  This could be the same test for each country.
Lastly CBD focal area Public Opinion indicator 26 Public Awareness is a test of the impact of policies, decisions and actions. Currently 35% of EU respondents have heard of and know what biodiversity is; 30% have heard of it and do not know what it is  and 34% have never heard of it.  This seems quite encouraging until the effect of the creation of the Natura 2000 Network is surveyed where 6% of respondents  have heard of Natura 2000 and know what it is; 12% have heard of it and do not know what it is and 81% have never heard of it. Obviously some way to go.
The above 26 indicators form a complex set of direct and indirect  indicators of which the value of some seems to be dubious (patents for example) although all of them carry some significance. Figure 1.  shows how I conceive the linkage between the indicators and their strength as indicators of biodiversity could be viewed for terrestrial indicators.  This shows a) that much of biodiversity is not being currently directly monitored in a standardised way b) the central importance of Habitats of European Interest and nCLE.  This makes sense to an ecologist and assists in the targeting of resources.
What next
The results of this work will be published in full by the EEA in the near future and a re-assessment of the data in 2013. The next target of reducing the loss of biodiversity by 2020 will be tested using these indicators and the mixed picture of success (declining n level and expansion of forest stock) and failure (fishing impact) will hopefully be better.