For plants and animals the landscape is a broad spatial system with which they have interactions at different levels. This system is of special value as it offers a large number of big size habitats as well as a diversity of natural structure elements that are connected at small scale. These connections are important for natural life, especially for animals, because they need to move and use several types of different landscape parts. Most species are adapted to such a diversity of the landscape and use different environments during their development, in different seasons or during daytime. These spatial requirements vary according to the different species, therefore each specie has its own requirements.
An ecological network is an area of natural habitats that are interconnected physically (territorially) and functionally through populations of species and ecosystems. It is composed of different elements:
- Core zones as static components and
- Connection elements between these zones as dynamic components of the network.
Near-natural, well-maintained and sufficiently large habitats constitute the core areas of an ecological network. These core areas (for example protected areas) can be connected to one another, for example, by “ecological corridors”.
Ecological corridors are linear connection units allowing the passage of species between different living spaces, thus enabling genetic exchange between populations. Corridors are made of landscape elements and small features such as field ditches, wooded strips or forest edges, dry stone walls, and rock piles. The connection elements also can be punctual like small biotopes (stepping stones) with the function of migration stations and dispersion pools (e.g. sustainably managed farm and woodland or small but well-preserved biotopes).
Especially in areas where human land use created barriers, connecting entities must be preserved or re-established. This goal is best attained through sustainable and environmentally friendly land use as well as the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature rather than restrictions or prohibitions. Only through these measures can the unique natural heritage of the Alps be preserved for future generations.
Networking can also entail risks: endemic species could be threatened by invasive species dispersing along connecting elements. The quality of the ecological corridors plays a crucial role in minimising these risks.