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One of the most remarkable aspects of nature in Europe, when compared to North America or the tropical rainforests, is that a considerable part of it is closely linked to farming. Calcareous grasslands, hay meadows, dehesas, ...the list goes on.
In all these habitat types we are dealing with vegetation communities which tend to evolve over time into other communities, usually scrub and eventually woodland. In primeval situations such habitats would come into being as a result of natural catastrophic events (wildfires, floods and erosion, storms) or maybe through the action of megaherbivores (the actual importance of large herbivores is still hotly debated). They would exist for a while and then disappear again, until the next cycle of events favours their re-apparition.
Human settlement and land conversion to farming has greatly increased the area of such habitats in Europe over the past thousands of years, and, through grazing by livestock, mowing for hay or burning for rotational crop growing, maintained them against their natural evolution to scrub, woodland etc. Heaths and a wide variety of meadows and grazing grasslands have thus become typical aspects of the traditional European landscapes.
Not only are they a natural heritage in their own right, they also harbour an array of plant and animal species which are adapted to these habitats. Some bird species, for instance, originally from the natural steppes of central Asia, like the great bustard, have adapted to the open croplands and pastures created by farmers and have followed human settlements into central and western Europe.
The problem is that the sorts of traditional rural land uses which sustained these dynamic habitats, and the species which depended on them over centuries, are under threat from changes to agricultural practice and economic structures. In summary, these involve:
The Natura 2000 Network includes many sites which are designated for Annex I grassland, heath or other dynamic, semi-natural habitats and/or for the species relying on them. So it is vital for the Natura 2000 site managers to build up partnerships with farmers and find ways of restoring or continuing the kinds of land use and practices which guarantee a favourable conservation status to the Natura 2000 values, yet without compromising the farmers’ right to a livelihood.
Good practice examples
1. Using conservation to develop new farming outlets in the Rhön, Germany
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