The alarming decline in animal and plant species stands more chance to be stopped by action on local and regional levels than through global conventions. Research and action programmes by German federal and state governments can help preserve biodiversity in Baden-Württemberg.
Compared to the extent to which natural ecosystems in many countries fall victim to human activities, nature in Baden-Württemberg seems to be relatively intact, at least in many parts of the state. In many cases, the situation seems to be improving: more than 300 stork pairs have been observed nesting again in Baden-Württemberg and beavers, which were eradicated in Baden-Württemberg around 200 years ago, have settled once again along the Rhine between the cities of Waldshut and Rastatt and along the Swabian Danube tributaries. For the first time in 50 years, a fully-grown salmon was caught in the Rhine near the city of Rheinfeld and the first wild cat for almost 100 years has been spotted in the Odenwald.
Such brilliant successes with so-called “index species” are important for the acceptance of biodiversity protection measures in order to establish the debate about nature not only in law, but also in the public mind. However, such successes must not be allowed to conceal serious problems. The Baden-Württemberg government has implemented an action plan for the protection of biological diversity as it considers the conservation of the beautiful and diverse cultural landscape with its many different animal and plant species to be one of the highly attractive features of the state. However, despite extensive nature conservation efforts and many partial successes, numerous species are still on the Red Lists and valuable habitats are endangered.
In addition, the German federal government has noted in its “2013 Report on the Implementation of the National Strategy on Biodiversity” that biodiversity is decreasing in Germany at an alarming rate too. As land given over to settlement and traffic is constantly growing, major efforts to reverse this decline in biodiversity have so far been futile. The report indicates that major structural changes in land use, including a reduction in the diversity of land use, the enlargement of land units (e.g. arable land) and increasing fragmentation of the land caused by the expansion of transport infrastructure networks are a major threat to habitats and species populations (see: Erwin Beck (ed.): "Die Vielfalt des Lebens: Wie hoch, wie komplex, warum?", p. 214f., WiLEY-VCH, 2013). In other words, biodiversity loss is mainly the result of structural loss in agriculture and growing transport networks.
In the course of land consolidations from the second half of the 20th century onwards, parcels of land have been modified and redistributed, made suitable for machines – the bigger and the more uniform the better. The overfertilisation of fields is another threat to biodiversity; agricultural run-offs may contain fertiliser and enter the groundwater, impacting rivers, lakes and our drinking water resources. The biodiversity of specific, species-rich habitats of nutrient-poor heath and moorlands, meadows and dry grasslands is in a particular danger.
Today, the average nitrogen load per hectare is three to five times higher than 60 years ago. The increase is down to the use of large quantities of mineral fertiliser, large amounts of liquid manure that accrue in factory farming and the emissions produced by heating plants and high-speed car engines. The reputed evolutionary researcher and ecologist Josef H. Reichholf has come to the conclusion that farming, which accounts for 47% of the entire land area in Baden-Württemberg, and overfertilisation are the major causes of biodiversity loss.
According to the Baden-Württemberg Statistics Office (2011), an average of 6.3 hectares of land are used every day for settlements and transport networks in Baden-Württemberg alone. Added up over the year, this corresponds to a surface area of 2,300 hectares (i.e. 3,335 football pitches). This development is not at all sustainable. The number and area of “unfragmented low-traffic areas” is taken as an indicator for the fragmentation of land, which is one of the most important factors that impact biodiversity loss. Unfragmented low-traffic areas are areas that are not fragmented by busy roads, railway lines, villages, airports and waterways.
This indicator does not look good for Baden-Württemberg: just 7.65% of Baden-Württemberg’s surface area still falls under the category “unfragmented low-traffic areas”. Motorways present almost insurmountable barriers to roaming animals; small animal populations become isolated and more susceptible to crises from which they regenerate only with difficulty. Vegetated overpasses or underpasses that are integrated into the landscape might help mitigate such consequences. However, due to the high costs involved, only a few over- and underpasses have so far been constructed.
In Germany, environmental protection and nature conservation are prioritised more than in most other industrialised countries. Politicians and the general public have long realised that the stability of ecosystems is closely associated with biodiversity. Under Germany’s National Biodiversity Strategy, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Federal Ministry of the Environment (BMU) have launched a programme to halt biodiversity loss and turn it into a positive trend in the medium to long term.
The programme focusses specifically on 40 endemic animal and plant species (so-called responsibility species; see link in the top right-hand corner), for which Germany assumes a special responsibility internationally. Another major focus of the programme is the identification, investigation and protection of thirty biodiversity hotspots, regions with especially high numbers of endemic species, populations and habitats. The biodiversity hotspot concept aims to slow the rate of anthropogenic species extinctions as much as possible with targeted measures involving numerous stakeholders. Four of these hotspots are totally or partially located in Baden-Württemberg: (i) Oberschwäbisches Hügelland and Adelegg, (ii) Hochschwarzwald and the Alb-Wutach area, (iii) the Swabian Alb and (iv) Northern Upper Rhine area incl. the Hardtplatten area.
The Baden-Württemberg government’s Biodiversity Action Plan complements the federal measures catalogue and focusses specifically on areas that are key to the government’s biodiversity conservation concept. Major importance is attached to action that involves people and communities in the state (see link in the top right-hand corner). The Biodiversity Action Plan comprises four modules (see figure): the “111-Arten-Korb” (111-species basket) aims at identifying 90 animal and 21 plant species that play a special role in this context.
The list includes index species (e.g. beavers), which, as mentioned above, are of huge importance for the public acceptance of nature conservation and environmental protection measures. The list also includes animals that are critically endangered. An example of the latter is the common hamster, which was previously seen as a pest and killed in large numbers. Of the two small populations which are still alive, the Mannheim population has decreased further as a result of land modifications. The Heidelberg Zoo has now set up a breeding programme with the aim of reintroducing the common hamster in the Rhine-Neckar region. It goes without saying that the success of this programme depends on cooperation with farmers and the education of the general public.
The “species basket” also includes many so-called indicator species, any animal or plant species that delineates an ecological system and that is ideal for biomonitoring. The presence/absence of fish, butterflies, wild bees or plants that only grow on nitrogen-poor soil can indicate an environmental condition that is harmful to the ecosystem.
Another important concept of the Baden-Württemberg Biodiversity Action Plan is the “old and dead wood concept” which is geared towards providing sufficient density of important habitats in the form of old and dying trees as well as dead wood in managed forests. This concerns as much as 10% of the whole Baden-Württemberg area. The concept, which is geared towards protecting the ecological niches of a large number of organisms, moves away from the prevailing idea that forests are plantations and instead sees forests as a natural, multifunctional and species-rich habitat.
The concept has a model character as it shows that the interests of nature conservation, the public and the economy must not necessarily be mutually exclusive. It remains to be seen whether private forest owners including churches and villages that own forests also adopt this concept aimed at slowing down and maintaining biological diversity in Baden-Württemberg.