Agriculture, the backbone of our landscape
Farming has a crucial impact on biodiversity in the Alps. Many habitats originated from traditional human land use. Intensive agriculture in valleys is can be a major obstacle to the migration of fauna and the spread of wild plants. However, extensively farmed high fields can still be of outstanding biodiversity value. Yet these fields are increasingly threatened by the abandonment of traditional farming practices. Farmers can make a significant contribution to maintaining and promoting ecological networks. In intensively worked fields, for example, green margins or structural elements like hedges and dry-stone walls can be created, to aid connectivity. More extensive forms of management, without the use of fertilisers or insecticides, for example, also help to maintain biodiversity and ecological networks. Farmers should receive appropriate compensation for this contribution to the promotion of biological diversity and connectivity, because these measures are helping to conserve biodiversity as a basis for life and create an attractive living environment for the whole of society.
Hunters and foresters as ambassadors for ecological networks
The Alpine landscape is dominated by forest – more than a third of the area is covered in woodland. Apart from its significance as a habitat, recreational area, natural environment and an economic area, the forest is also directly associated with a number of benefits to the ecosystem (water and soil protection, climate regulation, reducing the impact of natural disasters). At the same time, with its huge interconnected swathes of land, the forest is an important link in the connectivity of the landscape. In the light of the crucial importance of the forest in ecological terms, hunters and foresters, through their traditional role in society in many areas, are in fact ambassadors for ecological networks.
Sustainability has always played a significant role in their work. They can therefore contribute to awareness-building among the population as regards the importance of sustainable forest and wildlife management. Because a near-natural forest, with a high proportion of dead wood and mature trees is particularly well suited to the connectivity of valuable habitats. So forest reserves can help protect and preserve elements that are of value in terms of nature protection in general and biotope connectivity in particular, such as stands of mature trees and coppices. Alternative timber harvesting methods cause less damage to the vegetation and the soil. Forest margins are all the more capable of fulfilling their role as stepping stone biotopes and retreats when they have an adequate degree of structural variety. Appropriate hunting activity is also important in this context, as it helps to preserve a near-natural forest and this creates the ideal conditions for life and propagation for the widest possible spectrum of species. Areas with no or limited hunting can also be used by sensitive animal species as core zones or stepping stone biotopes. Habitat restoration measures can also be taken to support this.
Waterways as natural motorways
Water courses serve important functions within the ecosystem. They provide habitats, cover and food and constitute “natural motorways” for the flora and fauna, i.e. linear connecting elements within ecological networks. Fish-passes and similar structures enable fish and other flowing water species to overcome obstacles like weirs and retention basins. In the long run, only well-maintained river courses, high-quality water, and revitalised riparian zones can play this important role. Functional floodplain forests and wet areas also play a decisive role in biodiversity.
Apart from water management, fishing is also to be encouraged for the conservation and promotion of near-natural water systems. Fishermen know the habitats and their inhabitants and the interconnections within the ecosystem, and are therefore particularly alert to any change. They can support nature conservation and water management initiatives and are consequently important partners in the ecological connectivity of rivers, lakes and floodplains. Because apart from promoting biological diversity, sustainable fishing and near-natural water systems are also beneficial to the fisheries themselves and all those using the watercourses for recreation.
Land use and traffic planning: two crucial ingredients
Land use and traffic planning play a key role in the creation of an ecological network. With intelligent, targeted planning and its subsequent implementation, ecological connections can be established in the landscape and secured in the long term. This means that connectivity needs and other land use interests need to be enshrined in all supra-regional, regional and local planning processes on equal terms from the outset. Especially in valley locations, the traffic infrastructure is the main contributor to habitat fragmentation. Points of conflict between traffic and wild animals can be mitigated through the creation of green bridges and tunnels, for example, or by periodical road closures and traffic reduction schemes.
Attractive landscapes for locals and visitors
Distinctive landscapes are part of the local identity and provide an important basis for tourism and leisure use by the population. Structurally rich, diverse landscapes, with their interconnected habitats accommodate a huge range of plants and animals and at the same time represent a varied environment with a high potential for tourism. Near-natural flowing waterways with their surroundings and other elements of the landscape form ecological corridors connecting the habitats of plants and animals. As green lungs they also provide better air quality and offer attractive opportunities for locally based recreation and tourism.
Tourism can benefit directly from a network of biotopes. Tourism projects, and in particular the consequences of high-density tourism, can however have a negative effect on the landscape and hence the network of biotopes. Hotel developments, ski runs and transport infrastructure can severely restrict or even destroy the connections between the habitats of plants and animals. Some sports and recreational activities disturb plants and animals and damage their habitats. Tourism chiefs are therefore important partners to have on board in the protection of the landscape and interconnected natural environments. By providing services based on sustainable development and raising visitors’ awareness, tourism can also make a significant contribution to the promotion of ecological connections in the landscape.
Joined up nature conservation
Sustainable use of the landscape is important for the preservation of biological diversity. Acting in a way that is compatible with nature should not however be restricted to protected areas but is essential in all areas, even outside protected zones. The preservation and promotion of ecological connections in the landscape are an important contribution towards successfully protecting the endangered flora and fauna of the Alps and enabling previously indigenous species to return.
Nature conservancy measures play a crucial role in ecological connectivity – they help to conserve and improve the habitats. These are important in the biotope network as core zones and as transitional habitats or stepping stone biotopes. As nature conservancy measures are implemented connecting areas or structures are created, enhancing the penetrability of the landscape overall or in specific points of conflict. Nature conservancy bodies at all administrative levels are called upon to work together with nature conservancy associations, as well as other stakeholders, such as the population, agriculture and forestry, or regional development agencies, to take the necessary action.
A political challenge
Ecological networks can be supported through a variety of measures in the field of nature protection, e.g. the conservation and restoration of important habitat patches and river revitalisation, as well as management decisions in forestry or agriculture (such as ecological compensation sites and extensive farming). Sustainable traffic and zoning regulations can also play a role.
These measures must be taken by local actors and promoted by policy-makers at the regional and national levels. Policy-makers can support naturefriendly development, for example, by including the consideration of ecological network in the criteria required to obtain funding. This is already the case in the agricultural sector in some countries. The local authorities have a particular responsibility here, as they manage large tracts of the landscape and through intelligent, targeted planning measures, can influence the forms of use.
In whichever field the measures are taken, it is essential to ensure that they are not taken in isolation and that they always form part of an overriding strategy to create or promote the maintenance of an ecological network.
Providing information and raising awareness
The creation of an effective network of habitats relies on an understanding of the importance of ecological networks and open communication. Interconnection with the socio-economic and cultural sector also has a significant part to play in this.
Environmental education and public relations are therefore central to the planning of projects for ecological networking. Information aimed at specific target groups and raising the awareness of various stakeholders, as well as the wider population can make an important contribution to the long-term success of biotope network initiatives, because there is a direct correlation between raising awareness of the importance of ecological networks and the number of supporters and sponsors to come forward.
Every individual can play a part
Ecological networks do not only work on a large scale. Everyone can contribute. There are numerous opportunities of promoting interconnected habitats on private land. This can help to reduce the negative impact of the increasing fragmentation of our Alpine landscape. Already, measures such as keeping to specific mowing times or sowing a rich variety of species in meadows and residential areas are enriching the overall appearance of the landscape and improving the connections between natural environments. Even small-scale initiatives can have an impact. Each and every individual can contribute to a biotope network in various ways for example, by tending an organic garden, using the landscape sustainably or reducing their impact on the natural environment while enjoying the countryside.
Ecological networking as a community endeavour
Activities to preserve and promote ecological connections in the landscape should be spread over a wide platform. The more stakeholders can be involved, the higher the approval and support for campaigns to improve ecological networks. Motivation is particularly high, when the proposed project has a personal relevance. Depending on the nature of the activities a much higher number of new stakeholders can be brought on board, such as sports associations, churches, schools, and kindergartens as well as energy companies or the local planning department, if they can see the relevance of the project.