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Sound and independent information
on the environment

14. Wetlands


indicator policy issue DPSIR assessment
designated area under the Ramsar convention how much wetland is protected from damage or loss? response
land cover in and around Ramsar areas what are the pressures on wetlands? pressure
proximity of transport infrastructure to Ramsar areas - " - pressure
wintering waterbirds how are pressures influencing the existence and distribution of flora and fauna? state

Despite global and national recognition of their importance, Europe’s wetlands remain under severe pressure from land use and pollution. Many wetland areas border agricultural land and most are near transport infrastructure. One positive sign is the increase in the population of a number of wintering waterbirds, but this may be partly due to recent mild winters. All EEA member countries have now ratified the Ramsar Convention, but the process of designation to protect important wetlands takes many years to complete.

Wetlands are a characteristic feature of many landscapes, either as a major landform or as small and scattered areas. Their wide range covers marine, coastal and freshwater wetlands (lakes, rivers, bogs and marshes). Wetlands depend completely on the hydrological cycle (both natural and regulated by man) of the surrounding water catchment area. Because they receive and retain water from their surroundings, wetlands accumulate chemicals and sediments from these areas and are also subject to eutrophication (see Chapter 13).

Wetlands have a range of functions and are crucial for both chemical decomposition and as carbon sinks. They supply drinking and process water, provide fisheries and irrigation, act as a buffer against flooding, receive sewage water, support transport conduits, act as a source of hydroelectricity, and provide resources such as peat, game and berries. They also have enormous recreational value.

Although regulation and drainage of wetlands have been common practice in several areas of Europe for centuries, intervention has increased over the past 50-100 years. About two-thirds of the European wetlands that existed 100 years ago have been lost (European Commission, 1995) leading to a substantial decrease in the number, size and natural habitat of large bogs and marshes, and small or shallow lakes. This has changed both the visual landscape and environmental functions. The trend continues, albeit more slowly.

Although more wetlands are being restored, this does not make up for old or new losses. Restoration involves deregulation of rivers, closure of drainage systems, active pumping of water to wetlands and returning mineral quarries to wetlands. Use of the riparian zones of wetlands as nutrient traps and for sewage treatment is also becoming more widespread.

A large proportion of wetlands of international importance has been designated as Ramsar sites — after the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, adopted at Ramsar in Iran in 1971 (Figure 14.1). Other important legal instruments are the EU Birds Directive 1979 and the EU Flora, Fauna and Habitats Directive 1992. The Convention on Migratory Species (Bonn Convention) and the Bern Convention also promote wetland conservation. In addition, most European countries have specific national measures for wetland protection.

Figure 14.1: Contracting parties and total area designated under the Ramsar Convention by EEA member countries

Source: Ramsar Bureau

There is considerable national interest in global protection of wetlands, but national strategies vary and implementation takes time.

By 1986, 14 EU Member States and 2 EFTA countries had ratified the Ramsar Convention; by 1998, all 18 EEA member countries had signed. Table 14.1 shows the year of ratification, the number of areas and the total surface area designated. However, these figures give no indication of the quality of the designated areas and their subsequent management. Such evaluations have not yet been carried out. A comprehensive overview of the state of remaining unprotected valuable wetlands is also lacking.


14.1. Pressures on wetlands arising from land use

Pressures on wetlands arising from land use in and around the wetland are due to a combination of land management, fragmentation, drainage and regulation, chemical and sediment pollution.

Analysis of the land cover of important European wetlands (based on wetlands designated as Ramsar areas) gives a useful indicator of pressures from land use on wetlands (Figure 14.2). The known surface area of each Ramsar site has been used to define a circular area at the location of each site. Wetland habitats such as seas, rivers, lakes, bogs and marshes of course charaterise these circular land and sea areas. However, a considerable amount of agricultural activity takes place in and close to Ramsar areas. Restriction of the analysis to Ramsar sites (due to lack of other data) means it does not necessarily reflect the full variety of important wetland types in each country.

About half the area in the coastal wetlands analysed in Figure 14.2a is classed as sea and about half as terrestrial. Around half the terrestrial area is under cultivation and about a fifth is grasslands (used for grazing or under grass-harvesting management). Urban areas, harbours, roads, etc occupy about 5 % of the terrestrial area. Nearly two-thirds of the area of inland wetlands (Figure 14.2b) is either cultivated or woodlands, while grasslands occupy just over one-tenth. The built-up area is slightly smaller than that for coastal and marine wetlands.

The high level of agricultural land in and around Ramsar areas means that maintaining the future value of wetland areas is closely connected with changes in agricultural practice and intensity, and with the maintenance of grasslands. In some cases, agricultural areas may be beneficial, for example in keeping the landscape open and allowing birds to feed, graze and rest on fields and grasslands. However, it is sometimes more profitable for the farmer to set aside land or to grow certain crops than to enter an agri-environmental scheme with payments for landscape management (see Chapter 6). The present analysis does not identify the nature and the benefits of agricultural land use around Ramsar areas.

Figure 14.2a. Land cover in and around coastal and marine Ramsar areas in southern and north-western Europe

Figure 14.2b. Land cover in and around inland Ramsar areas in southern and north-western Europe

Source: Ramsar Bureau; Wetlands International; EEA Corine Land Cover; EEA-ETC/LC and EEA-ETC/NC
Notes: Analysis covers Ramsar areas in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Sparsely vegetated areas in both coastal/marine and inland wetlands in these countries cover less than 1 %. The analysis is based on circular areas of land with a radius corresponding to the surface area of the individual Ramsar areas concerned. Habitat information was derived from Corine Land Cover data. Due to limitations in land cover analysis, habitats covering less than 25 ha are not considered. Despite this, the results highlight a significant pattern. The data, which are for the 1990s, do not allow comparison with previous decades.

Many Ramsar wetland areas in southern, central and north-western Europe include or are surrounded by agricultural land. This makes them sensitive to farming practices.


14.2. Pressures on Ramsar areas from infrastructure

Analysis of the pressures on European wetlands arising from the fragmentation and disturbance created by roads, railways, airports and harbours either within or near wetlands shows that most Ramsar areas are near major infrastructure elements (Figure 14.3).

Roads have a major impact on wetlands in countries with a dense infrastructure, such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Railways tend to influence fewer areas, but many areas are under pressure from both roads and railways. Although airports give rise to fewer proximity problems, their large sealed surfaces can have significant local impacts. The pressure on existing Ramsar areas is expected to increase as transport networks expand. It will also become harder to designate new areas for protection that are not already influenced by infrastructure.

Figure 14.3: Proximity of transport infrastructure to Ramsar areas in selected European countries

Source: Ramsar Bureau; Wetlands International; EEA- ETC/LC
Note: Number of Ramsar areas included in analysis is given in brackets.

Most Ramsar areas are near major infrastructure elements. Throughout Europe, roads and railways cause the greatest proximity problems. The possibility of designating new protected areas without proximity problems is becoming smaller.

Tir Gwlyb I Gymru/Wetlands for Wales

Morfa Borth, an estuarine peatland complex in Wales, was drained in the 19th century by the re-routing of a nearby river, the Afon Leri. Morfa Borth is one of 19 Welsh wetlands that will be restored by Tir Gwlyb I Gymru/Wetlands for Wales, a collaborative project which recently obtained a £3.6 million grant from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. The overgrown site will be restored by: raising the water table through the creation of four sluices; allowing brackish water to flow back into the area; and managing grazing to control the spread of scrub. The restored site should attract back wetland birds, plants and otters.

The loss of many natural Welsh wetlands through land drainage, peat extraction and agriculture has resulted in the disappearance of birds such as bitterns and marsh harriers, while numbers of other species, such as lapwing and snipe, have fallen significantly. Once restored, the 19 Welsh sites will form 26 % and 18 % of the UK's fenland and reed bed areas respectively.

Source: Environment Agency

14.3. Waterbirds in mild winters

European wetland habitats are home to a wide range of plant and animal species. They also play an important role for large numbers of migrating birds and fish. However, species composition has changed dramatically – with more widespread and robust species predominating – as a result of water pollution and eutrophication, regulation, invasion of new species and stocking with fish. An increasing number of specialised natural animal and plant communities now exist only in the upper reaches of unregulated rivers, in clean lakes, and in unpolluted bogs and marshes.

The quality and geographical distribution of wetlands are crucial to the survival of many of Europe’s migrating bird populations. Changes in the number of bird species and bird population are often used as signals of general changes in the condition of and pressures on ecosystems.

Since 1967, field counts of wetland birds in their wintering wetland habitats have been undertaken as part of the International Waterbird Census (IWC) project. Data on 23 open-water species in 12 European countries (e.g. swans, ducks and the common coot) has been combined in an index. This index shows a slight overall increase, with the largest increase in north-western Europe (Figure 14.4). Increases in some bird populations are interpreted as being linked to the milder nature of the winters in these countries during this period. The effects of the very cold winters of 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1996 are reflected in the figures for several countries. For many species, however, the increases may only mean that numbers are recovering under favourable wintering conditions.

The population of several wintering waterbirds has increased; mild winters seem to have helped.

Figure 14.4a.: Index of wintering waterbirds in four Mediterranean countries

Source: Ramsar Bureau, Wetlands International, EEA-ETC/NC

Figure 14.4b.: Index of wintering waterbirds in six north-western European countries


14.4. Indicator development

The indicators described in this chapter could be improved by including more types of wetlands; by using digitised boundary information to map the full extent of wetlands and overlay them with other spatially referenced data sets on human activities and environmental pressures that contribute to environmental impacts; and by updating land-cover information to allow comparisons with previous years. Information from more countries and on other species would improve the bird species indicator, as would analysis of the extent to which species numbers are changing as a result of factors other than environmental impacts (e.g. weather patterns).

For the future, indicators will be developed on the impacts of human activities (transport, agriculture, industry) and environmental pressures (emissions, resource extraction) on the quality wetlands and other protected areas. Indicators and analysis of the effectiveness of international conventions for protecting the extent and quality of protected areas and the species that rely on them will also be developed.

Table 14.1: Ramsar ratification, area and number of areas in EEA member countries
Country Total surface area of country, not including marine areas (km2) in 1994 Date of ratification Total Ramsar surface area (including marine parts) (km2) Total number of Ramsar areas in 1998
Austria 83 858 1983 1 028 9
Belgium 30 518 1986 79 6
Denmark 43 094 1978 7 390 27
Finland 338 145 1975 1 013 11
France 543 965 1986 5 791 15
Germany 356 970 1976 6 712 32
Greece 131 957 1975 1 635 10
Ireland 70 285 1985 697 45
Italy 301 323 1977 569 46
Iceland 103 000 1978 590 3
Liechtenstein 160 1991 1 1
Luxembourg 2 568 1998 3 1
Netherlands 41 526 1980 3 249 18
Norway 323 880 1975 697 18
Portugal 91 905 1981 658 10
Spain 505 990 1982 1 579 38
Sweden 449 964 1975 3 828 30
UK 244 101 1976 4 843 129
EU     39 049 427
EEA     40 337 449
Source: Wetlands International; Ramsar Bureau, EIONET; Eurostat (country area)

Notes: Total country area does not include marine areas, but comprises estuaries and water lying on the land side of the normal baseline along the coast. A simple country comparison of the ratio between columns 2 and 4 is impossible because wetlands consist of both large marine and terrestrial areas. Ramsar areas in Denmark, for instance, consist of about 1 400 km2 land area and 6 000 km2 marine area.

14.5 References and further reading

European Commission (1995). Commission’s communication to the Council and the Parliament: wise use and conservation of wetlands. European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.


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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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