Landscape fragmentation pressure in Europe

Land take, urban sprawl and economic activities lead to habitat fragmentation, decreasing the resilience of ecosystems. Monitoring fragmentation supports policy actions that aim to ensure remaining habitats can support biodiversity. Fragmentation affects all areas of Europe, even very sparsely populated ones. Moreover, in the EU plus the United Kingdom, 27% of land is considered highly fragmented where habitats are less than 0.02km2 on average. However, policy measures to protect certain areas seem to be effective in preventing fragmentation, particularly in protected areas.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Landscape fragmentation is the physical disintegration of continuous habitats into smaller units or patches, most often caused by urban or transport network expansion. This has a wide range of environmental, social, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and biodiversity implications.

The EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 aims to protect and restore nature, including by tackling fragmentation. Fragmentation also impacts implementation of the EU strategy on green infrastructure and achieving the long-term objectives of the EU common agriculture policy, namely the sustainable management of natural resources, climate action and balanced territorial development.

Large parts of Europe have become fragmented because of the expansion of urban and transport infrastructure. On average, every km² in the 27 EU Member States plus the UK (EU-27+UK) comprises around 1.4 habitats, indicating an average habitat size of 0.68km2. Moreover, 27% of land in the EU-27+UK is considered highly fragmented, where habitats are less than 0.02km2. As distance from city centres increases, the extent of landscape fragmentation drops rapidly. In villages, average habitat size is around 0.12km2. This increases to 0.8km2 in rural areas and 5.3km2 in mostly uninhabited regions. The proportions of strongly fragmented habitats is more persistent, with habitats smaller than 0.02km2 accounting for 79% of land in suburbs, 61% in villages and 53% in rural areas. Even in mostly uninhabited areas, more than 20% of land is covered by habitats of less than 0.02km2.

Other than urban ecosystems, croplands are the most fragmented ecosystem type, with an average habitat size of 5km2. Habitat size in grasslands is on average 8km2 but forests are more continuous, with an average habitat size of 27km2. Coastal ecosystems are under increasing pressure from urban sprawl, with transport infrastructure and other construction jeopardising wildlife movement. Indeed, the average habitat size in coastal ecosystems is around 0.4km2; in inland areas, average habitat size increases to 0.9km2. Policy measures that safeguard protected areas seem to be effective, however: while average habitat size in non-protected areas in the EU-27+UK is around 0.6km2, average habitat size in protected areas is on average 20km2.

The extent of landscape fragmentation varies considerably by country in the EU-27+UK region, being highest in Malta, followed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. Malta has the most fragmented landscape by far, with 15 landscape objects per km2 on average, which is around double the extent of landscape fragmentation in the Netherlands and Belgium, four times that of Germany and greatly above the EU-27+UK average of 1-3.5 landscape objects/km² (95% confidence interval). Moreover, the average landscape object size in Malta is around 0.06km2, considerably below the EU-27+UK average of around 0.68km2.

Although, on average, the extent of landscape fragmentation is highest in Malta, Luxembourg and Belgium have the largest area of highly fragmented habitats, that is, areas with average habitat sizes of less than 0.02km2. About 90% of the landscape is highly fragmented in Luxembourg and around 84% is highly fragmented in Belgium.

In Finland, the Baltic countries and Sweden, habitats are much more contiguous than in other parts of Europe, with habitat sizes of at least 2.8km2, which is far greater than the EU-27+UK average.

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