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You are here: Home / News / Urban sprawl eating into wildlife habitats in Europe

Urban sprawl eating into wildlife habitats in Europe

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As cities expand into the countryside, the habitats of many animals and plants are reduced. Roads, railways, car parks and buildings also split up habitats, dividing wildlife populations into increasingly smaller groups.

Our high-consumption lifestyles are putting more pressure on the land. But beyond the proportion of land we are covering with concrete, there is another important effect – roads and other infrastructure are carving valuable habitats into increasingly smaller fragments, with serious consequences for some of Europe’s most endangered species.

EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx

Land is a limited resource, and in Europe we are using more and more previously wild areas for agriculture, forestry, roads and settlements, according to Earth satellite observations of land cover from 1990 to 2006. Some of these data only became available recently and are detailed in a new land cover assessment published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). Although current trends may differ due to the changing economic situation in much of Europe, the data tells an interesting story about Europe’s changing landscape.

Roads, buildings and other artificial surfaces are spreading in Europe, and almost half of this spread was on to farmland between 2000 and 2006. To a lesser extent, these
areas also encroached on forests, semi-natural and natural areas. Almost half of these surfaces were new residential areas, services and recreation facilities.

However, urban sprawl seemed to be slowing according to the data. Artificial land cover, such as roads and buildings, increased 2.3 % per year between 1990 and 2000, but this rate fell to 1.5 % between 2000 and 2006.

While only 4 % of Europe’s land is covered by artificial surfaces, according to the data, this seems to be the only type of land cover which is increasing significantly in Europe. Forested areas cover 34 % of Europe. Grassland and other semi-natural vegetation makes up just 8 % of Europe’s surface, while bare soils and wetlands cover 6 % and 2 % respectively. 

Approximately 43 % of land is covered by agricultural areas, of which the most common types are non-irrigated arable land (50 %) and pasture (16 %). Both these types increased since 1990, according to the most recent data.

The fastest land use change happened in Portugal, Ireland, Hungary, Finland and Sweden. In contrast, the most stable landscape structure is found in mountainous areas such as the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Romanian part of the Carpathians and in the Scandinavian mountains (Norway). Most conversions to forest occurred in Finland and Norway, while most agricultural land conversions took place in Spain.

“Our high-consumption lifestyles are putting more pressure on the land,” EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx said. “But beyond the proportion of land we are covering with concrete, there is another important effect – roads and other infrastructure are carving valuable habitats into increasingly smaller fragments, with serious consequences for some of Europe’s most endangered species.”

Alongside the analysis, the EEA presents more information on land use changes in different European countries in its land take indicator.

A new Corine Land Cover dataset is expected to be available in 2014. It will provide information on land cover change in the period 2006-2012.

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