Europe and Central Asia
7 Oct 2019

On World Habitat Day, let’s give space back to nature

By Jeremy Herry

Today is World Habitat Day. Much can be said about the state of our planet’s natural habitats – but first, let’s try an experiment. Wherever you are reading this from, take a moment to lift your eyes up away from your screen. If you’re reading this indoors, go to the window. Look out as far as you can. How much space belongs to nature? How much of what you see is land carved for human exploitation, and how much of it actually allows nature to thrive?

You can see what we’re getting at: we have reached a point at which the artificial has taken up too much space, and nature has too little.

Just like us, nature – from owls and quails to bees and beeches – needs a place to live. In Europe, over the last century, our societies have followed an unsustainable, nature-dominating logic, so intensely that there is barely enough space left for nature to survive. This logic has thrust the climate and biodiversity crises upon us that so threaten us and our planet today. For nature’s sake and for our own: let’s give space back to nature.

Nature needs a home: degraded habitats must be restored

Sadly, the EU has failed to reach the Aichi targets on biodiversity. But with the European Green Deal, there’s an opportunity to kick-start a legally binding EU restoration initiative. That means regrowing forests and grasslands, allowing rivers and streams to flow free, and giving life-changing space back to seagrass and peatlands.

The destruction of natural habitats is not just catastrophic for nature, but for human societies as well. Healthy peatlands, salt marshes, mangroves and old forests are essential in preventing climate breakdown. They act as powerful carbon storage systems, and it’s quite clear that it’s in our interest to keep carbon in the ground rather than forcing even more of it into the atmosphere.

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Natural habitats also protect us from disasters: forests, peatlands and wetlands slow down floods and act as a buffer against droughts. Dunes, mangroves and coral reefs are natural protectors of the coast. Interestingly enough, these so-called “natural disasters” can occur because of the degradation humans have inflicted upon nature in the first place. Restoring natural habitats can help protect us from ourselves.

Another reason why we must give space back to nature is that it is impossible for today’s protected nature areas to thrive in isolation: species need to move. In the long run, they cannot just stay trapped in miniscule biodiversity oases peppered across enormous swathes of degraded land. Different habitats need those species to move in order to function properly. With restoration, you bring about ecological coherence.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. Just look at the restoration of the Wallasea island wild coast in the UK, for instance: a sea wall was breached to allow tidal water back onto the island for the first time in 400 years. Shortly after, a wealth of birds and other wildlife, such as curlew, lapwing, brown hare, shrill carder bee and skylark, had already begun to benefit.

Nature is being wiped out, and the perpetrators are walking free

Restoring the natural habitats that we have degraded is one thing. An essential thing – but is it enough when at the exact same time, natural habitats are being illegally destroyed?

That’s right: despite the EU Birds and Habitats Directive (which has helped save species from extinction), people are still decimating natural habitats - and these criminal, ecocidal acts are going unpunished. This cannot stand: nature laws must be enforced, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

On World Habitat Day, let’s remember that nature has been robbed of its home. We need to give it back. And not just because it’s the right thing to do. We all stand to lose from the climate and biodiversity crises that we are actively precipitating through the degradation of nature. And we all stand to win from healthy, natural habitats thriving with life.

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.