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European grasslands and other pastoral habitats are strongly associated with the human activities in particular agriculture. Agricultural land covers about 50% of Europe’s total land surface, which gives agriculture an important role in the maintenance of biodiversity. Varying farming and grazing practices, combined with specific soil and climate conditions have resulted in diverse and highly characteristic agricultural landscapes, often with a rich flora and fauna. Since almost all European grasslands are maintained by human activity, they could be defined as semi-natural grasslands, although their plant communities are natural. The area of grassland in Europe is under continuous decline. Data from the FAO indicated that the area decreased by 13% between 1990 and 2003.
Distribution of 35 grassland and pastoral habitats in the EU
Source: Distribution maps (10 km x 10 km) delivered by Member States under Article 17 reporting (period 2013-2018)
Note: the shades of brown indicate the number of habitat types per 10 km x 10 km grid cell
The Habitats Directive’s Annex I protect 35 grasslands and pastoral habitat types, all grasslands, and other habitats dependent on agricultural management (particularly grazing) like heaths or wooded meadows. Together, they have an area of around 177 400 km2 in the EU (excluding Romania). The latest assessment of the State of Nature showed that a high proportion of Annex I grassland and pastoral habitats is in unfavourable status (84 %) and 45 % are further deteriorating.
At least 31 200 km2 of Annex I grasslands and pastoral habitats need to be restored and at least 2 400 km2 of additional areas need to be ‘recreated’ from other land use
According to the results of the EEA restoration assessment, the area of Annex I grasslands and pastoral habitats that require restoration amounts to at least 31 200 km2, representing 18 % of the total area reported for this group of habitats. However, as the condition of another over 62 100 km2 (35 % of the total area) is unknown, the area requiring restoration is most certainly considerably larger. In addition, the areas where the Annex I habitats will need to be recreated from other land uses represents at least 2 400 km2, mostly targeting grasslands, dehesas and wooded meadows (but most likely even more areas will be needed to reach the good state for these habitats).
Habitat condition reported for grassland and pastoral habitats
Source: Habitat condition reported by Member States under Article 17 reporting (period 2013-2018)
Note: the restoration surface areas are indicative since they were estimated on the basis of minimum areas reported by Member States and, for most habitats, their condition is largely unknown.
Alvar grassland near Keila, Estonia © Ivar Leidus, Wikimedia
CASE STUDY: Boost for alvar grasslands in Estonia
Nordic alvar and Precambrian calcareous flat rocks (priority habitat type 6280*) are found around the Baltic Sea. The habitat is mainly under pressure because traditional low-intensity grazing has been abandoned. In Estonia, the project LIFE to Alvars (LIFE13 NAT/EE/000082) and State Forest Management Centre land management agreements have achieved substantial improvements in the country’s alvar grasslands by implementing restoration measures. Key success factors were the fast, efficient large-scale mechanical restoration technique, improved communication between the local people and the state organisation (which facilitated restoration and grazing arrangements), availability of targeted agri-environment support, and the project team’s efforts to enable local livestock owners to sign restoration agreements and agri-environment contracts. The habitat improvement was enabled by developing integrated coastal zone management and also by the local population’s enhanced awareness of sustainable development and the benefits of nature conservation in this biosphere reserve.
Restoring the degraded habitats will in many cases include the actions and measures aiming at reducing the current pressures. Main pressures reported under the Article 17 for these habits are: habitat management, habitat conversion, pollution and natural processes.
- Habitat management is by far the most frequent pressure for grasslands and other pastoral habitats covered within Annex I of the directive. This encompasses diverse activities, like mowing, overgrazing or under grazing. On the other hand, the abandonment of grassland management is, in terms of numbers of impacted habitats., nearly as important as inappropriate management practices. Pollution is mainly caused by agricultural activities. These include, inter alia, the use of synthetic and natural fertilisers and agricultural activities generating air pollution.
- Habitat conversion mostly relates to conversion into forest, housing and settlements or into other agricultural land. The latter refers predominantly to the conversion of natural and semi-natural habitats into more intensively used agricultural land.
- Natural processes are identified as a pressure for managed habitats such as grasslands and other pastoral habitats, mostly concerning natural succession.
Pressures reported for grassland and pastoral habitats
Source: Pressure reported by Member States under Article 17 reporting (period 2013-2018). Conservation status of habitat types and species: datasets from Article 17, Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC reporting
 European Commission (2008), https://ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/life/publications/lifepublications/lifefocus/documents/grassland.pdf