Nature protection and biodiversity (Switzerland)
Why should we care about this issue
- Nature and biodiversity
Switzerland is one of the countries in Europa with the greatest biodiversity at a local scale. This is mainly due to large altitudinal differences and the complex relief. The diversity of flowering plants and associated species rose steadily until the 19th century, thanks in part to the diversity of traditional land-use practices, reaching over 50 000 species of plants, animals, fungi and others and a broad variety of habitats.
At the same time, a particularly high genetic diversity of cultivated and domesticated species, in numerous local breeds and races, developed as a consequence of the many small-scale differences among habitats in Switzerland and topographical and cultural differences on a larger scale.
During the 20th century, these trends reversed into a substantial decline of biodiversity, especially in the most densely populated areas of the Central Plateau (Mittelland) region. Today, this decline is increasingly also affecting the Alpine region. Paradoxically, the trend reversal is caused in part by intensive agriculture yet in part also by abandonment of land use, as well as by the destruction and fragmentation of biotopes.
The state and impacts
Around 40 000 species of plants, animals and fungi are known in Switzerland. Around a quarter have been evaluated and inventoried. Of the 13 500 species evaluated, 36 % are on Red Lists; taking the category of near-threatened species into account, almost 50 % are vulnerable. 236 species are classified in Switzerland as regionally extinct. For around three-quarters of all species, little, if anything, is known about population sizes.
Initial findings of the Swiss Biodiversity Monitoring Programme (BDM) indicate a steady increase in the diversity of vascular plant species in the past five years, especially in the montane zone. However, particularly frequent newly occurring plant species on BDM monitoring sites include dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), rough-stalked meadow-grass (Poa trivialis), white clover (Trifolium repens) and common bugle (Ajuga reptans). These are common, nutrient-loving species. It appears that such species have continued to spread over the past five years, leading to a homogenisation and simplification of the landscape (FOEN, 2009).
The Swiss Bird Index (SBi®) shows an inconsistent trend in populations of breeding birds between different ecosystems. Taking a collective view of all the bird species that breed regularly in Switzerland, a slight positive trend can be discerned. Narrowing the focus to the 38 species currently red-listed, however, severe fluctuations are apparent within already low population levels.
Switzerland’s native flora and fauna are faced with the growing problem of exotic organisms (neobiota, alien invasive species). These are species that humans have introduced, intentionally or unintentionally, to areas beyond their natural distribution. Around 10 % of these species proliferate rapidly in their new locations and can suppress native animals and plants. Some examples are the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) or the Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Individual invasive species, such as common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), can also cause human health problems.
Switzerland’s wetlands, although for the most part formally under protection, are still suffering dramatic quality losses. In the last five years, an average of 25 % of the protected wetlands has become drier, poorer in peat and richer in nutrients, and there is an increased amount of woody plants. Implementation of buffer zones is difficult and incomplete.
The key drivers and pressures
Human beings shape their habitat. For centuries, people have created different kinds of landscapes and thereby indirectly encouraged species diversity. The diversity of cultural landscapes reached its peak at the dawn of industrialisation and has since diminished. Since the mid-20th century this decline has even begun to accelerate.
Agriculture remains the dominant form of land use in Switzerland. Cropland accounts for 37 % of the country’s area. Nevertheless, settlements are expanding, with an annual increase of 27 km2 in the 1980s and 1990s. The most recent figures from western Switzerland show a decline in arable land and a substantial increase in pasture land in Switzerland’s areas of permanent settlement (State of the landscape in Switzerland). This marks the beginning of a certain shift towards more extensive agricultural practices. In Alpine regions, inaccessible sites that are difficult to farm are in the process of reverting to wild vegetation.
The free and open use of ecosystem services is placing pressure on biodiversity, as its goods and services coming from natural systems are being overexploited.
Forest ecosystems have been benefiting in many cases from low use of wood as a resource due to low prices and difficult accessibility of many forest areas. They have further benefited from a severe storm called Lothar in 1999, which led to large areas of regrowing forests. On the other hand, pressure is mounting due to intensification and monocultures for wood production.
In the hydropower sector, problems are increasing due to conflicting requirements and environmental priorities. While more then 1000 small hydropower stations produce a considerable amount of climate-friendly and sustainable energy, problems of low residual water flow persist.
The 2020 outlook
Several areas of action will be pursued:
Species protection and action plans will be further developed for key plant, animal and fungi species.
Protection of further areas of the Swiss territory will be aimed at, mainly covering key habitats such as dry meadows and pastures and forest reserves. More sustainable land use with lower impact, specifically on biodiversity, is a further aim.
In addition, ecosystem services are becoming increasingly important and ways to reflect their value in day-to-day production and consumption patterns are currently being considered.
Existing and planned responses
Two major monitoring systems exist for biodiversity in Switzerland: the Swiss Biodiversity Monitoring Programme (BDM) and the Swiss Landscape Monitoring Programme (LABES). Both aim at identifying the key biodiversity trends so that effective measures can be taken to conserve and promote biodiversity.
In addition, action plans for priority species and the federal inventories for protection of certain habitat types are the main pillars of Swiss biodiversity policy, accompanied by conservation schemes such as the national agricultural subsidies programme, compensation measures for construction projects, reglementation on the use of exotic organisms, etc.
Currently the first biodiversity strategy is being elaborated. This aims to promote the understanding and conservation of biodiversity within the Swiss political system and society.
One of the main points is the sustainable use of natural resources, mainly of biodiversity across the whole territory. What this means is described here for the case of forests:
Over 20 000 species are dependent upon forests for their habitat. Three measures are planned to improve environmental quality: close-to-nature silviculture will be adopted as standard practice everywhere; a representative area of forest (in forest nature reserves and isolated stands of mature timber) will be left entirely to natural succession; and in areas known as special forest reserves, specific interventions will be practised to upgrade the habitats of priority species.
FOEN 2009: Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), The state of biodiversity in Switzerland. Overview of the findings of Biodiversity MonitoringSwitzerland (BDM) as of May 2009. State of the Environment 11/09, Berne, 2009.