The first Living Planet Belgiumreport takes stock of the biodiversity in our country between 1990 and 2018. The trend is slightly positive. For example, there is an increase of 0.2 percent per year, but there are many differences depending on the species and type of living environment. Species, specific to wetlands and natural open environments, show a slight increase in their populations on average. On the other hand, the decline has been dramatic for species in agricultural environments and, to a lesser extent, for forest species, including birds.
The report is the result of a collaboration between WWF, Natagora, Natuurpunt, Belgian Biodiversity Platform, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and more than twenty experts from universities, public institutions and nature conservation organizations.
For the first time, a Living Planet Index (LPI) calculated to better assess the state of biodiversity in Belgium. The LPI measured the mean change in population size of 283 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects for the period 1990-2018. This indicates an increase of 0.2 percent per year, with stability especially over the past 10 years. The experts speak of an encouraging result, but we need to make some nuances according to the species and habitats.
“Winners” and “Losers”
- Behind the national LPI, indexes have also been calculated for four main habitat types: agricultural areas, forests, wetlands and open natural environments. Over the past 28 years, species in open natural environments, such as natural grasslands and moors, saw an average increase of 15 percent between 1990 and 2018. These include certain butterflies and grasshoppers.
- Species that live in and around freshwater, such as swamps, streams and stagnant water, show an average increase of 47.6 percent. The increase in dragonfly and damselfly populations can be associated on the one hand with global warming and on the other hand with the human efforts that have made it possible to improve the quality of surface water and protect ponds. This was mainly done thanks to the European Water Framework Directive, the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive.
- These results indicate that ambitious nature restoration projects, such as those carried out in the Scheldt basin in Flanders and on the Ardennes highlands in Wallonia, have had a positive impact on biodiversity. Currently, however, barely 27 percent of the surface water bodies are in “good ecological status” in Belgium.
- In contrast, in the agricultural areas, which still make up 44 percent of Belgian territory, the decline in species is dramatic. Bird populations declined by an average of 60.9 percent between 1990 and 2018. This decline is the result of increasingly intense agricultural practices in our country. In the press release, the experts point out that intensive farming is harmful to the environment through its contribution to soil drainage, overuse of pesticides and the uniformization of landscapes. The disappearance of various elements of the ecological network puts wild flowers, insects and birds at risk.
- In those forests, which in 2020 cover about 20 percent of the Belgian territory, the populations studied have decreased by an average of 26.6 percent. It is not easy to identify one or even the main cause for the evolution of species in a wooded environment. The decline of certain birds, such as the golden oriole or of butterflies such as the morning red, contrasts with the spectacular return of characteristic species such as the black stork or the advancement of the black woodpecker and middle spotted woodpecker. Disruptions, such as drought or bark beetle invasions, are therefore a difficult challenge for forest managers.
Direct impact of climate change
Intensive agriculture, logging, destruction, fragmentation and pollution of living environments are the greatest threat to biodiversity in Belgium. The overexploitation of natural resources and the introduction of exotic plant and animal species are putting pressure on biodiversity, as is climate change. The effects of the latter factor are becoming increasingly visible. Populations of species from the south are increasing earlier (by an average of 28.5 percent between 1990 and 2018), while species from the north are generally doing less well (stable trend). In addition, extreme weather conditions, such as drought in the summer, can also lead to loss of biodiversity.
It Living Planet International Report 2020, published Sept. 10, indicates that 68 percent of the animals studied have disappeared since 1970. Some scientists predict a sixth “mass extinction”. The corona pandemic makes us aware that the state of our biodiversity and that of our physical and mental health are inextricably linked.
Deforestation and illegal wildlife trade make it easier for humans to come into contact with dangerous pathogens. At the same time, many of us went in search of the peace of nature during the quarantine.
The experts therefore point out that nature restoration projects are good for biodiversity. The return of some important species, such as the wolf, otter and eagle owl, is proof that conservation efforts are working.
“But by restoring nature, we can also face societal challenges such as climate change, air quality, food and water supplies,” said the press release. “Measures such as the protection of coastal dunes, the creation of nature reserves or even the green-blue network in and around cities help to limit the risk of flooding and the consequences of drought.”
The initiators point out that this is the first Living Planet Report Belgium is intended as a starting point for effective action in the field. “To rebuild rich ecosystems, more education about nature and the environment, stimulating sustainable production and consumption and involving the citizen are part of the solution,” he says.
“But a coherent approach above all assumes a coordinated strategy between the different levels of government, taking into account all the benefits that nature brings to society, the economy, health, safety or tourism.”