Common birds and butterflies

Briefing Last modified 08 Aug 2019
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Common birds and butterflies

Indicator

Indicator past trend

Selected objective
to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook
of the EU meeting
the selected
objective by 2020

Abundance and distribution of selected species (common birds
and grassland butterflies)

EU 


Common
birds

Red triangle: deteriorating trend

Grassland
butterflies Red triangle: deteriorating trend

EEA

 

Common
birds  Red triangle: deteriorating trend

 

 


Meet the headline
target of the EU Biodiversity Strategy:
to halt the loss of
biodiversity and the
degradation of ecosystem
services and restore
them in so far as
is feasible

 

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

It is highly unlikely that the objective will be achieved by 2020 given the continuing declining trends apparent for certain groups, such as common farmland birds and grassland butterflies

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) states that, by 2020, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services should be halted. Population trends in common birds and grassland butterflies are among the key indicators in monitoring this. Between 1990 and 2014, common bird populations decreased by around 13 % in the EU. A significant decline of 32 % is also apparent for grassland butterflies.

The main reasons for the continued decline in these species’ populations are changing rural land use, the intensification and specialisation of farming or land abandonment in areas with natural constraints.

Since 1990, there has been a continuing marked downward trend in populations of common farmland birds and grassland butterflies in the EU. Although the decline of all common birds has levelled off since 2000, no trend towards recovery has been observed, which signifies that loss of biodiversity has not been halted. Based on these historical trends and despite the increased introduction of biodiversity measures into the Common Agricultural Policy and the efforts already captured under the Nature (Birds and Habitats) Directives and the EU Biodiversity Strategy, it is highly unlikely that the objective will be achieved by 2020.

Setting the scene

The EU is losing biodiversity and the 7th EAP (EU, 2013) contains the objective of halting, by 2020, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services, as well as restoring them in so far as is feasible. Biodiversity is not only important in its own right, it also provides society with a wide range of ecosystem services upon which we depend, such as food, freshwater, pollination etc. This briefing examines trends in populations of common birds and grassland butterflies. These are considered to be excellent barometers of the overall biodiversity and of the health of ecosystems, as they occur in many habitats and are sensitive to environmental change (EEA, 2017). For aspects of legally protected species and habitats, see the briefings on EU protected species (AIRS_PO1.7, 2017) and habitats (AIRS_PO1.8, 2017).

Policy targets and progress

Halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020 is the central aim of the EU Biodiversity Strategy (EC, 2011). This aligns with the 7th EAP objective of halting, by 2020, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services. 

Figure 1 shows that common bird populations decreased in the EU between 1990 and 2014 by around 13 %. The indicator assesses 167 common bird species including farmland and forest species (EEA, 2017). The decline of common farmland birds was more pronounced at 31.5 %, whereas common forest birds declined by 13 % over the 1990-2014 period. Although the decline of all common birds has levelled off since 2000, no trend towards recovery has been observed. The trends remain very similar when Norway and Switzerland, two other EEA member countries for which data are available, are included in the indicator coverage; for more information see the EEA indicator: abundance and distribution of selected species (EEA, 2017).

The common birds indicator takes 1990 as a starting point. It should be borne in mind, however, that significant losses had already occurred before this date.

 

Figure 1. Long term trends for common bird species, EU 

Note: Croatia and Malta are not included in the EU total due to lack of data.

The negative trend in farmland-related biodiversity is supported by the population index of 17 grassland butterfly species, with a high sensitivity to habitat degradation and loss – see Figure 2. In spite of year-to-year fluctuations, which are typical features of butterfly populations, grassland butterfly numbers are declining significantly. Populations have decreased by around 32 % between 1990 and 2015.  

Figure 2. Long term trends for grassland butterflies in 15 EU countries

Note: The shaded area represents 'confidence limits'.

The long-term trends for common farmland birds and forest birds, as well as grassland butterflies, as shown in Figures 1 and 2, demonstrate that the EU has experienced a major decline in biodiversity associated with agro-ecosystems and grasslands (EEA, 2015). This was primarily due to habitat change — including loss, fragmentation and degradation — of natural and semi-natural habitats. The habitat change was mainly caused by homogenisation and loss of habitat as a result of agricultural intensification and land abandonment, intensely managed forests and some loss of habitats to urbanisation (EEA, 2015).

This negative trend shows no sign of changing, despite progress in enacting and implementing European policies (such the Birds and Habitats Directives (EU, 1992 and 2009) and the Water Framework Directive (EU, 2000)), as well as the environmental measures within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

To date the CAP has not influenced agricultural practices enough to reduce overall loss of biodiversity. The outcomes of the latest Habitats Directive reporting round demonstrate the lack of any substantial progress in the conservation status of natural and semi-natural grasslands targeted by the Directive. The vast majority of assessments of the conservation status of agricultural habitats, as well as of woodland and other forest habitats, remain unfavourable (AIRS_PO1.8, 2017).

The environment-related elements set out in the EU reform package, in particular for EU agriculture and cohesion policies, backed by the initiatives for greening the EU budget under the Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014–2020, are designed to support these objectives. Greening of the CAP aims to promote environmentally beneficial agricultural and forestry practices such as crop diversification, the protection of permanent grassland and grazing land, and sustainable agroforestry. Rural Development Programmes 2014–2020 address restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems through payments to cover the cost of farmers adopting environment- and climate-friendly land management practices.

The mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy comprehensively assessed progress towards the headline target (and towards all six targets) and concluded that the EU is not on track to meet the objective of halting biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020 (EC, 2015). Despite environmental measures implemented so far, the continuing declining trends apparent for regularly monitored groups, such as grassland butterflies and farmland birds, illustrate well that it is highly unlikely that the objective will be achieved by 2020.

Outlook beyond 2020

It is difficult to forecast how soon biodiversity, as illustrated by the abundance of bird and grassland butterfly populations, will recover, as their state is influenced by a complex combination of environmental factors and policy measures. Substantial positive impacts of the CAP reform and the measures anticipated under the Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014–2020 on common species associated with farmland might become visible in the 2020–2030 period, as long as these policies are implemented thoroughly and on a large scale throughout the EU. On the other hand, other factors that could adversely impact the outlook beyond 2020 include the negative impact of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems, particularly on these specialist species groups that are dependent on non-intensive agriculture and forest ecosystems. The increased competition for land could also intensify agricultural production in the EU, through land take via urbanisation (AIRS_PO1.3, 2017), as well as for the production of renewable energy and biofuels (AIRS_PO2.6, 2017).

About the indicator

This indicator shows trends in the abundance of common birds and grassland butterflies over time across their European distribution. It is an index indicator (relative values, 1990 set to 100). Birds and butterflies are excellent barometers of the overall health of ecosystems, mainly because they occur in many habitats and are sensitive to environmental change. The data collection methods are scientifically sound, and birds and butterflies are familiar groups of species well known to the public. It should nevertheless be noted that butterfly monitoring has a relatively limited – albeit consistently increasing – geographical coverage, with data currently available from 15 EU countries (Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). 

Footnotes and References

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020’ (COM(2011) 244 final).

EC, 2015, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council ‘The mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020’ (COM(2015) 0478 final).

EEA, 2015, SOER 2015 — The European environment — State and outlook 2015, European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer) accessed 19 July 2017.

EEA, 2017, ‘Abundance and distribution of selected species (CSI050/SEBI 001)’, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/abundance-and-distribution-of-selected-species-6/assessment ) accessed 30 October 2017. 

EU, 1992, Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (OJ L 206, 22.7.1992, p. 7–50).

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1–73).

EU, 2009, Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds (OJ L 20, 26.1.2010, p. 7–75).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, Annexe A, paragraph 28a (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

AIRS Briefings

AIRS_PO1.7, 2017, EU protected species, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO1.8, 2017, EU protected habitats, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO1.3, 2017, Urban land take, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO2.6, 2017, Renewable energy sources, European Environment Agency.

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

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