Mountains cover 29 percent of the land area in the EU. The five major mountain ranges are the Alps, Apennines, Pyrenees, Scandes and Carpathians. Rising to 4,810 metres, Mont Blanc in the French Alps is the highest point in the EU.
Much of Europe’s mountainous areas (around 40 percent) are covered by forests and grasslands, which are grazed by livestock over summer. Largely because of their remoteness, many of Europe's remaining wilderness areas are found in mountainous regions.
Mountains are home to a wide range of animal and plant species, many of which have adapted to living in extreme conditions. More than 2,500 species and sub-species of plants are living in Europe’s mountain areas and many of them don’t occur anywhere else.
However, mountain ecosystems are threatened by land abandonment, intensifying agriculture, infrastructure development and unsustainable exploitation. Compared to lowland ecosystems, mountain areas are also more sensitive to negative climate change impacts.
Mountains are characterised by very specific environmental factors such as steep slopes, poor and shallow soils, and extreme climatic conditions. The large local variation in these conditions explains why the diversity of habitats and species in mountain areas is generally higher than in the surrounding lowlands.
Of the 233 habitat types protected in the EU, 42 (nearly 20 percent) occur exclusively or almost exclusively in mountain areas, with a further 91 habitats existing in both mountain and lowland areas.
While almost half of our mountains are covered by forests, they are also home to a rich variety of shrubs and grasslands, including alpine heaths and grasslands as well as rocky habitats on cliffs, vertical walls and screes. Mountains also harbour unique freshwater habitats such as alpine lakes, mires and springs, as well as glaciers in higher altitudes.
Through the Habitats Directive, the EU protects 181 animal and plant species that are exclusively or almost exclusively linked to mountains, and a further 130 that are found in both mountain and lowland areas.
Mountains provide important refuges for threatened wildlife, and some highly specialised species are only found in certain mountain ranges, such as the Tatra vole (Microtus tatricus) in the Carpathians, the Apennine Chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica ornata) in the Apennines, or the Alpine salamander (Salamandra atra) in the Alps.
Many plant species have adapted to live on vertical walls of mountain cliffs. The well-known Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum), for instance, flourishes at high altitudes and on slopes.
Birds of prey such as the Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), use mountain cliffs and rocky habitats for nesting.
Europe’s mountains are home to many mammals, including Ibex, Chamois and Mountain hares. Mountains also provide large carnivores with refuges and corridors, allowing them to move from region to region. In Europe, we have five large carnivore species: the wolf (Canis lupus), wolverine (Gulo gulo), lynx (Lynx lynx), Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus) and brown bear (Ursus arctos). These species have coexisted with humans throughout history, but their present-day management and conservation require measures for addressing conflicts with humans, in particular to prevent attacks on livestock.
WHAT IS THE EU DOING TO PROTECT OUR MOUNTAINS?
Many efforts to safeguard Europe’s mountains are coordinated and supported at the wider European level. In addition to the EU Nature Directives, which protect mountain species and habitats and frame the Natura 2000 network, the EU is also a contracting member of the Alpine Convention and the Carpathian Convention. These conventions bring together all countries concerned to develop joint objectives and actions to protect the natural and cultural heritage of two of the largest mountain ranges in Europe.
The Alpine Convention is a unique, legally-binding sustainability instrument that aims to safeguard sensitive alpine ecosystems, as well as alpine cultural identities, heritage and traditions, for future generations.
The Carpathian Convention is a sub-regional treaty that fosters sustainable development in and the protection of the Carpathian region.