31January 2018 Hundreds gathered this week at the first Natura 2000 summit in Munich, Germany, to discuss the social benefits of nature conservation.
The summit, organised by the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment and Consumer Protection and the LIFE living Natura 2000 project, focused on the merits of the Natura 2000 network for Europe’s natural heritage and its society.
LIFE project representatives drew attention to job opportunities created by Natura 2000 sites in southern Germany, for instance, in nurturing sustainable tourism, organic farming and local well-being.
The LIFE living Natura 2000 project hopes that better communication can spread such social and economic achievements more widely, with LIFE projects abroad eventually replicating Bavarian success stories among rural communities throughout the rest of Europe.
The EU Director-General for Environment, Daniel Calleja Crespo addressed over 300 people on 29 January in Nymphenburg Palace, opening discussions on how protecting the environment can also involve caring for people.
Over the two-day summit, nature conservationists met with representatives from governmental organisations, EU representatives and grassroots societies including Bavarian farmer associations and fishing clubs. Together, they shared experience on how the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world is helping to protect natural heritage, create jobs and improve living standards across rural Europe.
“Sustainable activities, from farming and forestry to tourism and leisure sports, can flourish within the network’s borders,” said European Commission Director-General for Environment Daniel Calleja Crespo. “The result is a network that can work for the benefit of nature and people.”
The first Natura 2000 summit marks the launch of the LIFE living Natura 2000 project, an initiative spearheaded by the Bavarian Academy for Nature Conservation and Landscape Management (ANL) to better communicate the benefits of Natura 2000 sites.
Over the coming four years, the ANL will network face-to-face with environmental stakeholders including mayors, farmer associations and land owners. It will appeal to a broader audience through digital channels and organise events across Bavaria, including a Natura 2000 photo competition to encourage young Germans to explore the natural heritage in their surroundings.
“The younger generation is particularly important to us,” said Dr Wetzel, manager of the LIFE living Natura 2000 project. “Conservation is largely for them, and they perceive the importance of biodiversity and natural habitats for our current and future well-being.”
Bavaria is home to over 200 protected species and 700 Natura 2000 sites. Like many areas of Europe, its landscapes are diverse and foster a rich variety of ecosystems.
European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, pointed out in a video address to the Natura 2000 summit that the network encompasses “nearly 10% of Germany and more than a million square kilometres across the European continent. A fantastic achievement and symbol of Europe’s unity.”
He described the LIFE living Natura 2000 project as a model for the energy that the EU should invest in its conservation work. “Your project could be a shining example of how to improve communications” for the Natura 2000 network, said Commissioner Vella. “Not just for Bavaria but for Europe as a whole.”
In a recent evaluation, the European Commission gave the Natura 2000 network a clean bill of health, but earmarked communication as a priority to boost its work.
“European support is very important,” said Dr Wetzel. Representatives from conservation projects active in Italy and Luxembourg joined the summit to share experience on running conservation sites and their communication activities. Dr Wetzel hopes that efforts in the LIFE living Natura 2000 project to communicate with stakeholders in Bavaria can eventually serve as a blueprint for other European countries.
Watch Commissioner Karmenu Vella's video address to the first Natura 2000 summit in Munich, Germany below:
26 January 2018 A state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is helping the MoorLIFE 2020 project track improvements from conservation work across the vast open moorlands of the Peak District and South Pennines in the UK.
The Moors for the Future Partnership conducted the first flight of the innovative UAV towards the end of last year, providing a bird’s eye view of the moors. The craft carries specialist earth observation equipment on-board, including cameras that capture thermal images.
The MoorLIFE2020 project aims to conserve and protect habitats within the South Pennine Moors’ Natura 2000 network site.
This priority habitat type is defined by characteristic vegetation, such as sphagnum moss, and active peat-forming processes. Active blanket bog also provides important ecosystem services, such as water regulation to prevent flooding and carbon capture to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Conservationists are restoring active blanket bog by re-vegetating areas of bare peat with a diverse range of flora, raising the water table, removing invasive woody species and reducing the risk of wildfires. They are also developing new methods for the essential reintroduction of sphagnum moss.
The project’s science team are using the data from the UAV to help assess the extent of active blanket bog and the area of degraded habitat, over an upland area of around 9 500 ha. Over time, the measurements will make it possible to assess the impact of their conservation work.
“We’re particularly interested in monitoring blanket bogs that have become dominated by single species, such as cotton grass, purple moor grass and heather, as well as areas that were previously dominated by bare peat,” said Tia Crouch, the project’s senior research and monitoring officer who works for the Moors for the Future Partnership.
QuestUAV designed and built the innovative UAV for the project. The vehicle carries specialist earth observation equipment and cameras capable of capturing thermal images. The data collected by these instruments is now being analysed by Nottingham Trent University. Already, it has helped produce a map of land cover across the moors. You can watch the UAV’s maiden flight on social media
The project team is working on a code of best practice for using UAVs to monitor moorland. Before they fly the UAV, it is necessary to get permission from the relevant landowners and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). They must also abide by safety rules and the ‘Drone Code’ launched by the CAA in 2017.
“The team is very excited to take flight with the UAV,” said Ms Crouch. “Capturing this vital data will help us to showcase the positive impact that conservation works are having on our iconic moorland habitats.”
24 January 2018 The European Commission has released its new Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. The strategy builds on prior EU efforts to deal with plastic waste in the environment. It notably states that, by 2030, all plastic packaging in the EU must be reusable or easily recyclable.
At present, the EU sends almost a third of the plastic that it uses straight to landfills and another 40% to incineration. This is damaging the environment and wastes costly resources.
“Some 95% of the value of plastic packaging worth up to €105 billion is lost to the economy every year,” said European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella. “And we still only recycle 30% of our plastic waste in Europe.”
LIFE projects are pitching ideas to turn this situation around. In autumn 2017, a platform meeting on plastic and the circular economy provided fresh insight into how innovative companies and conservationists working with EU funds are helping to carry out the vision set out in the Plastics Strategy.
Beneficiaries from over 40 LIFE projects dealing with plastic waste met for a two-day brainstorming session in Athens, Greece. They split into specialised workshops to share results, exchange ideas and summarise a list of best practices and workable solutions for peers and policy makers.
“The LIFE platform meeting on plastic in a circular economy is a unique occasion to help shape a vision of more sustainable plastic,” said Professor Helmut Maurer, who is responsible for sustainable chemicals at the European Commission. He stresses that the European strategy for plastics needs to be underpinned by concrete projects delivering on its vision. “This is precisely what LIFE is doing.”
The key to stem plastic waste lies in part with consumers. Participants at the LIFE platform meeting agreed that households represent the single biggest opportunity to boost the rate of plastic packaging being recycled.
One way to step up recycling rates would be to communicate with households in simple terms. The participants concluded that an umbrella request for ‘all plastic packaging’ could move more people than dozens of confusing subcategories - and separate bins - for plastic litter.
Simplifying the message would free up more waste for professional sorting centres to later recover and facilitate economies of scale in recycling activities.
Examples of LIFE projectspioneering technologies to help sort through the mess include INSPIRE4LIFE. The project is demonstrating a pilot process that identifies different kinds of plastic automatically using advances in Laser-Induced Plasma Spectroscopy. This technique can sort waste according to its composition and separate it into uniform batches of raw materials. Faster waste separation could ultimately cut recycling costs and improve the quality of recycled plastic by purifying the initial feedstock.
Protecting consumers and the environment from waterborne plastic will mean raising public awareness of the cause and extent of marine litter. LIFE projects such as CleanSeaLIFE are already conducting outreach campaigns, and measuring the impact of their own work.
To decide on new measures, policy makers need robust information - for instance on the origin or trajectory of marine litter reaching the sea. LIFE projects agreed to contribute to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive Working Groups by providing field data that they collect as part of their activities.
Everyday products containing plastic microbeads, like toothpaste and shampoo, should be adequately labelled. This would support steps outlined in the European strategy for plastics that could possibly lead to banning them under Europe’s existing REACH regulations on chemical substances.
Other sources of marine plastic pollution include abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear. This issue is particularly relevant in rocky reef areas, where plastic litter threatens local species and costs conservationists time and money to remove. Some LIFE projects, including CleanSeaLIFE, have appealed to volunteers to clean up local beaches and sea floors themselves. The EU is looking into larger-scale and more permanent solutions.
Broader measures to reduce all forms of marine litter include deposit schemes and reusable products. As marine litter originates mainly from plastic waste generated on land, plugging leaks from landfills and reducing littering remain top priorities.
Some LIFE projects are working on a new generation of materials called bioplastics. Instead of being synthesised from fossil fuels, bioplastics originate from biomass such as vegetable oil, corn starch or microbiota.
The BREAD4PLA project has notably turned waste from bakeries into bioplastic containers that are almost as durable as their fossil fuel-based counterparts. Further work is needed to make emerging substitutes truly sustainable. Most bioplastics today only degrade under standardised conditions, and can last for years in natural settings.
Delegates concluded that further funding into bioplastics is needed to produce reliable packaging from biowaste, especially in taking promising processes from pilot phase to commercial applications.
In addition to technical challenges, there are also major hurdles in the legal framework for large-scale uptake of consumer products using bioplastics. Legislation needs better enforcement, and must be adapted in view of the increased complexity of bioplastics. Guidance and standards for applications of bioplastics are indispensable.
One key challenge to completing the circular economy, and closing the loop between production and consumption, is to standardise the quality of the plastic feedstock reaching recycling facilities. At the platform meeting, LIFE projects argued that society, technology and eco-design guidelines in manufacturing can all help.
Optical scanning techniques are advancing rapidly in waste sorting centres. They could soon keep larger fractions of recyclable plastic out of landfills, and retrieve higher value raw materials from assorted waste. Advances in sorting technology would make it possible for emerging chemical processes to recycle homogenous batches of plastics as pure substances with higher value.
The LIFE project Plastic ZERO has field-tested some of these solutions in municipal waste streams. Working with the cities of Copenhagen, Hamburg, Malmö and Riga, the project has released a road map for managing plastic waste in which it identifies options and barriers to maximise plastic recycling rates.
Modern products notably present challenges to targeted recycling technologies because they combine plastics with different properties. Dismantling them into uniform, workable components will require foresight in factory drawing boards. Ecological design can go further still, favouring for instance reusable packaging.
“We should bear in mind that recycling is only an intermediate step towards sustainability,” said Prof. Maurer. “Waste prevention and product longevity, reparability and reuse must be the ultimate goal.”
This means deciding in the design phase of new products how their plastic components can be recycled, reused or repaired. It also involves waste utilities organising separate collection schemes to deliver well sorted and clean raw materials ready for new production.
By identifying bottom-up solutions, the LIFE platform meeting on Plastics in a Circular Economy has shed light on how the production, consumption and end-of-life of plastics can be turned into an environmental and economic opportunity for the EU.
LIFE projects active throughout the plastics value-chain are continuing to flesh out solutions to translate the vision of the European strategy for plastics into reality.
For further information, please download the Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, or check the full report of the LIFE platform meeting on Plastics in a Circular Economy.
19 January 2018 A survey of Mongolia’s sprawling grasslands has convinced Hortobágy National Park to overhaul conservation strategies in the Hungarian steppe. The report outlines how nomadic traditions could help conserve a unique European ecosystem.
Traditionally, livestock reared in the Pannonian Steppe between Austria and Romania has fed on dry grass and shrubs. Marshy vegetation also grows between the shores of the steppe’s shallow lakes, but herders save this food for when the lake beds dry out. Lessons from Mongolia are questioning this logic.
“We are now convinced that the reverse is true,” said Dániel Balla who worked on the LIFE Steppe lake grazing project. “Based on the Mongolian example, first the lakes should be grazed.”
Mr Balla was part of an expedition funded by LIFE’s Steppe lake grazing project to inspect steppe lakes in Mongolia – the closest comparable habitat to the Pannonian Steppe to remain in its natural state. The insight gained from the study now supports conservation efforts to save rare ecosystems in the saline steppe of Hungary.
Shallow lakes in the steppe of Hortobágy have suffered over the past century. Past governments have tried to drain and irrigate them to create fishponds, and grow timber and grass. Intensive farming and decreasing demand for meat has also reduced the amount of livestock grazing on the grasslands.
These changes have led to the spread of opportunistic plants like bulrush and reed. Marshy vegetation has overgrown catchments and open water surfaces, transforming ecosystems and threatening ground nesting birds.
The once abundant collared pratincole (Glareola pratincola) and the Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrius) both vanished from Hortobágy National Park in the 1970s. Other local species are in decline.
The LIFE Steppe lake grazing project aims to conserve the ecosystems inhabiting shallow steppe lakes by demolishing dykes and canals in the Hungarian steppe, cutting down woodland plantations, and increasing the number of grazing animals.
While the objective is clear, the way to reach it remains uncharted. Project participants have crossed continents in search of insight into how to maintain Hungary’s steppe sustainably.
The Pannonian Steppe has a lot in common with the salt-rich grasslands of Mongolia. This vast steppe is still managed by semi-nomadic farmers. Some of their time-honoured traditions clash with environmental practices in Europe.
Mongolian breeders notably allow their cattle, goats and horses to drink from steppe lakes, graze their shorelines bare and tread down their banks. From an EU perspective, these methods are unorthodox. But Zoltán Ecsedi, who also took part in the LIFE-funded expedition, points to their results.
“In Mongolia, the sole management tool is grazing,” he said. A recent report on the inspection of lakes in the Mongolian steppe implies that the technique works remarkably well. Its authors detail the rich biodiversity found in Mongolian steppe habitats and their thriving ecological status.
One Mongolian technique that is finding its way back West is to mix breeds of livestock grazing on steppe vegetation. The LIFE Steppe lake grazing project has started advising partners to share cattle pastures with neighbouring sheep or horses, especially along the shores of shallow lakes.
Whether these techniques will work as smoothly in the Hungarian steppe as they have in Mongolia remains to be tested. Similar in some respects, the regions differ notably in their soil composition, climate, flora and the density of animals grazing on their grounds. Still, if nomadic traditions from Mongolia can help Hungarian farmers conserve their natural heritage, it will mark the beginning of a new chapter in environmental collaboration.
18 January 2018 Ornithology institutes across Europe have brought online the largest citizen science dataset ever produced on biodiversity in the EU.
The LIFE-funded Euro Bird Portal has uploaded over 40 million of bird observations and translated them into animated maps. More than 100 000 amateur birdwatchers have contributed to the dataset. Combined with nationally-funded observation campaigns, the records are helping scientists re-evaluate the conservation status of 105 avian species, notably tracking changes in their behaviour linked to climate change.
Over the past decade, a growing network of online portals has collected unprecedented volumes of bird observations. Unlike traditional wildlife monitoring projects that typically record highly targeted data over limited areas and periods of time, amateur birdwatchers can contribute simple observations all year round and from all corners of the planet.
The challenge for scientists has been to draw large-scale trends from casual bird sightings and official monitoring programmes. Observations are uploaded on separate online portals, each covering its own aim and geographic range. This makes it hard for scientists to spot Europe-wide developments from the datasets. But according to Gabriel Gargallo, coordinator of the EuroBirdPortal, these data are complementary. Combining them could benefit ornithologists everywhere.
The Euro Bird Portal is helping to meet these challenges by centralising data from numerous bird recording portals. The compilation shows seasonal changes in the distribution and migration patterns of European birds.
The website’s data viewer presents week-by-week distributions of 105 bird species in Europe together with maps of climate variables. Two animated maps can be displayed side-by-side to visualise relationships between these datasets.
“We hope that the improved version of the Euro Bird Portal viewer will highlight the value of the data collected through the online bird portals operating across Europe,” said Gabriel Gargallo, underlining the scientific importance of sharing bird observations.
The LIFE-funded improvements in user experience have given the website’s data viewer a new design and added features like geographic zooming. Its databanks now incorporate observations from 29 countries across Europe. The updated version has brought in data from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Romania and Turkey, offering an overview of migration patterns across the continent.
At present, most of the observations flowing into these databanks are sent by amateur birdwatchers through mobile apps like NaturaList. Partners in the Euro Bird Portal expect the trends in its data to grow clearer as the number of observations rises over the years. Sightings already extend back across seven years, providing fresh insight to biologists and conservationists alike.
“Thanks to these combined efforts we are in a better position to understand changes in bird migration patterns,” said Gabriel Gargallo, Euro Bird Portal project coordinator. He says that data provided by volunteers is notably helping professional researchers chart out the new route followed by cranes in southern Europe, and the influence of weather and climate on bird migration.
Research on wildlife migration patterns is growing increasingly relevant as traditional migration patterns adapt to human influences, notably to global warming. This has important implications for the conservation and management of European bird populations.
“Most European bird populations are migratory and many of these migration patterns are changing rapidly, particularly in relation to climate change,” said Stephen Baillie from the British Trust for Ornithology. “We need to understand how and why bird distributions change throughout the year in order to underpin sound conservation and management. The information being made available through EuroBirdPortal will make a crucial contribution to achieving these objectives.”
Try it out on www.eurobirdportal.org
10 January 2018 The anti-poison dog unit created by the Life Under Griffon Wings project has collected vital evidence for a court case in Sardinia (Italy).
The case involves a farmer who spread poisoned baits around his livestock pastures to kill predators, such as foxes and martens. However, instead, the victims were domestic dogs and cats, ravens, and a wild boar. If left in the field, the carcasses of poisoned animals remain a threat to other creatures in the food chain, including scavenging vultures.
The Life Under Griffon Wings project is implementing best practices to protect griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) in Sardinia. As a key action, the project team created an anti-poison dog unit at the start of 2016. They trained King, a German shepherd dog, to detect poison baits in the field. This is the first time that the unit’s activities have led to an indictment, and it will be the first case of this type to be prosecuted in Sardinia.
The Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Sardegna carried out the toxicological analyses of animal carcasses and baits, to identify the poisonous substances used in the baits. To prepare the case, the anti-poison dog unit and enforcement agents of the Corpo Forestale e di Vigilanza Ambientale, together with coordinating beneficiary the University of Sassari, worked in close collaboration with the Prosecutor’s Office of the Province of Sassari.
In addition to the field and bait evidence that implicated the farmer, the investigation also involved the more usual range of investigative methods, such as police searches and testimonies from witnesses.
According to the Life Under Griffon Wings team: "The result of this investigation serves to remind people that animal poisoning is a crime which is severely punishable by the current law. But most importantly, the use of poison in the countryside is useless to eliminate the predator problem and causes a long chain of deaths to many innocent animals."
Sardinia’s population of protected griffon vulture is concentrated in two Natura 2000 network sites on the coast of north-west Sardinia. These are the most important breeding sites for griffon vulture in Italy, and the wider Mediterranean area.
The Life Under Griffin Wings project aims to decrease vulture mortality due to poisoning. It is also increasing the availability of food in foraging areas, enhancing population viability via restocking, improving a wildlife rescue centre and promoting eco-tourism. For further information, see the project’s website .
As well as being a major threat to vultures, the setting of poison baits is a risk to biodiversity in general and to human health. The LIFE programme has funded the creation of anti-poison dog units through a series of projects, such as VENENO NO,
HELICON, PannonEagle Life, LIFE WOLFALPS and LIFE Rupis, in Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and other countries. Evidence collected by these dog units has led to an increase in the number of prosecutions for illegal poisoning in the EU.
You can read all about the success of these, and other projects addressing the problem of illegal poisoning, in the upcoming LIFE focus publication ‘LIFE and Wildlife Crime’.
09 January 2018 LIFE Laser Fence is investigating whether an innovative laser technology called Agrilaser can deter agricultural pests. The project team has completed the first trial of a prototype that emits an unsettling array of laser beams. They are now testing how effectively this so-called laser fence keeps rabbits and other hungry mammals out of fields and orchards.
The laser fence is based on technology developed for bird deterrence, says project manager Dr Martin Sharp, of coordinating beneficiary Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. “The business of our Dutch partner Bird Control Group is to provide these systems to keep birds away from places they are not welcome, like airports and food processing factories,” he said. “The idea of using them as a ground animal deterrent is something that has not been tested before.”
As part of the project, IRIS, a Spanish company specialising in remote sensing, flew drones fitted with visible, multispectral and thermal imaging equipment to identify animals and assess plant biomass at sites with laser fencing. Camera traps and CCTV were also deployed.
IRIS and Liverpool John Moores University are currently processing large amounts of information from trial farms in the UK, the Netherlands and Spain. The project team plans to have a strong portfolio of data for all the target pest species and plant types by mid-2018.
Dr Sharp explains that one of the main thrusts of the project is to deter rodents. This could reduce rodenticide use, and damage to fodder and cash crops, with benefits all along food chains. The project team will notably start work on rats in 2018, deploying lasers near grain silos.
“Most of the past year’s work has been based around rabbits, which reduce the quality of grassland as a feedstock for cattle,” said Dr Sharp. “We are about to start field trials in Germany looking at wild boar, which can be very disruptive and damaging to crops.”
Another target species is the European badger (Meles meles), a particularly pressing issue in the UK given its disputed link with the transmission of Bovine Tuberculosis to cattle. Dr Sharp decribes the a laser fence that could help exclude badgers from fields with cattle as a very positive potential outcome.
To study the responses of the target animals to laser light, the LIFE Laser Fence team fires laser beams from either a hand-held device or from an automated turret.
The Laser Fence system is a portable tool that provides a continuous projection of bright laser light over a predetermined path. It can be fitted at different heights, depending on the target species and the control area to cover. At night it operates using less power, because the beam does not need to be as bright.