Europe and Central Asia
19 Nov 2015

Italy is creating a 'nature network' against urbanisation and climate change

This 2011 picture of the metropolitan area of Milan lit up at night shows the extent of urbanisation at the expense of nature. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory
By Sanya Khetani-Shah

Some people view rapid urbanisation – the increasing sprawl of cities taking over natural landscapes around them – as progress, making the world a better, more connected place for us to live in. But for many plants and animals, a large part of modern Europe is no longer a good place to live for precisely the opposite reason: their habitats are no longer well-connected.

In vast areas, there is very little nature left (and what is still there is often too small or polluted). To go from one nature area to the other – whether it be to find food or breed – species have to cross inhospitable farmland, cities, roads and railways. Birds have to contend with windows, barriers and power lines. This situation becomes especially dangerous due to climate change. A lack of connectivity between habitats means moving north to escape rising temperatures is difficult and often impossible for many plants and animals. This could lead to their extinction.

Lombardy, Italy is one of Europe’s most densely populated areas (its capital, Milan, is the second largest metropolitan area in Italy). New infrastructure expands at the expense of wild or farmed landscape at the pace of 10 hectares a day. To mitigate biodiversity loss, authorities and NGOs are building passages along this north-south ecological corridor to create a regional ecological network of connected sites that let species move easily between them.

The TIB (Trans Insubria Bionet) project focuses on one of the weak links in the corridor that is threatened by human activities: the connection between the habitat and biodiversity-rich Alps and the Continental region (from Campo dei Fiori to the Ticino River valley and park) through the Po Plain – the only possible route of dispersal for many species. The area covers some 15.000 ha and including 14 Natura 2000 sites.

The project, to be completed by December 2015, is led by the Province of Varese, with the cooperation of the Lombardy Region, Lipu (Birdlife in Italy) and Fondazione Cariplo, and is supported by the European Commission’s LIFE programme. Two natural parks and 35 municipalities in the Varese province are also participating to the restoration efforts.

The project already has numerous measures in varying stages of completion. Underpasses for amphibians, small and medium-sized animals are being constructed (as well as old ones improved), to allow species to move from one area to another. Existing wetlands are being restored and new ones created. New habitats are being built for amphibians (puddles) and species that depend on decaying wood for survival (log pyramids in woodlands). Invasive plant and tree species are being removed. Farmers are being encouraged to plant hedgerows, woodlots, and other natural elements useful for biodiversity. The project is also attempting to increase public awareness of the issue through press events and workshops.

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Birds are being protected as well. Imagine a heron or a kite that, after flying hundreds of kilometres from or to Africa, collides fatally with a power line. This kills thousands of birds every year. To prevent this, the project is attaching large red and white spirals every 15 metres to the cables between Campo dei Fiori and Ticino Park (this corridor is used as a flyway by Purple Herons, kites and other birds). The spirals make the power lines noticeable to the birds, even in low visibility. Better still, they emit a warning sound that allows birds to detect them even at night.

It’s not just birds in flight that are threatened by power lines. Kites and other raptors sit on top of electricity pylons to control their hunting territories and detect prey. But often when opening their wings in take-off, they accidentally touch the high voltage cables and are electrocuted. In order to prevent this, the project has covered the cables near the poles with a special insulating rubber cover.

Migration is a natural survival response in all plant and animal species to the inhospitable changes brought about by global warming. While facilitating this is the ideal aim of the EU’s Green Infrastructure Strategy, not many concrete measures have been taken by the EU or Member States to realise the strategy. Projects like LIFE TIB are a positive step in that direction.   

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.