Europe has faced more habitat and ecosystem fragmentation than any other continent.

European ecosystems are literally cut to pieces by urban sprawl and a rapidly expanding transport and energy network. Recent statistics from the EEA illustrate just how significant these trends are. Some 8,000 km² were concreted over during the 1990s, representing an increase in artificial areas of 5% in just 10 years. In the EU, around 1,500 ha of mainly agricultural land are lost every day to infrastructure and urbanisation. This is equivalent to losing the entire agricultural land area of the Netherlands every 3–4 years.

This has weakened the resilience of once biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Fragmentation, particularly when due to infrastructure development, reduces the opportunities for organisms to disperse and affects their ecological needs (e.g. access to specific habitats, sufficient area for food and breeding). If ecosystems however become too small or isolated, they may stop providing us with valuable services such as food and freshwater. These pressures have also major consequences for the long term functioning of protected area networks such as Natura 2000 – with sites frequently being "islands" in a landscape that does not allow for dispersal and genetic exchange.

Whilst agricultural and wetland areas have been cut or lost, forest area has increased over Europe. However, this gain of net area is not uniformly distributed across Europe. When looking at local changes in spatial forest pattern, forest losses occur, resulting in local fragmentation of forest cover and connectivity loss. These processes are likely to have ecological effects. Dam construction, canalisation and drainage can have similar effects in freshwater systems and have a strong impact on migratory fish. A SEBI 2010 indicator on river fragmentation is under development.

The importance of maintaining healthy and resilient ecosystems and increasing green infrastructure in Europe is critical in the context of climate change. Areas of relatively low fragmentation can show good examples of making better use of existing road networks instead of building new roads. Integrated planning can ensure that Europe's limited land is used in a more efficient way, giving multi-purpose benefits to biodiversity and man.

Further reading