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The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
Forest fragmentation is the process of breaking up forest area into individual patches leading to an increase in forest edge length and to isolation of forest fragments. In Europe, this is mainly caused by human activities such as clearing for roads, agriculture and urban settlements or forest fires.
In a recently published report, the JRC describes forest landscape patterns and forest fragmentation in Europe, highlighting that 70% of the European territory has poorly connected woodlands. Despite an average annual increase of 0.4% in forest area within Europe, new forest areas do not always enhance connectivity between forest fragments. Furthermore, 40% of European woodlands are within a 100m distance from non-forest lands, which are predominantly intensively used. The study also shows that around 15% of woodland in Europe is strongly fragmented by mainly intensive land uses.
All of these processes increase the likelihood of exposing forests and their edges to invasive species, pests and diseases. They also may make it difficult for forest-dwelling animals and plants to move or disperse their seeds. By affecting ecological processes, these risks in turn have a negative impact on the forests' ability to provide ecosystem services such as habitat provision (gene flows, wildlife dispersal), pollination, disturbance regulation (e.g. pest propagation) and climate regulation (the expansion of species’ geographic range under climate change). As such, the mitigation of ecosystem fragmentation is one of the key targets of the European Biodiversity Strategy of 2020, highlighting the need to address forest connectivity to better guide conservation and restoration efforts.
The report demonstrates the feasibility of assessing and reporting forest landscape patterns in Europe in a harmonised manner using a reproducible set of indices established by the JRC. These indices provide a toolbox to measure the progress in mitigating fragmentation which could be applied to other ecosystems. The results of this report were used in the Forest EUROPE, UNECE and FAO joint ministerial reporting process on the protection of forests in Europe, where data on forest patterns do not exist at national level.