Celebrating the Natura 2000 Day

The Natura 2000 network is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. It stretches over 18% of the EU’s land area and more than 8% of its marine territory. It is a fundamental part of the LIFE programme, as it aims to ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. The 21st of May is the European Natura 2000 Day, which dates back to 1992 when LIFE first was approved. Because of this, today, we want to shed light on how LIFEstockProtect contributes to the network.

Grazing maintains cultural and biodiverse landscapes

Europe is characterised by a heterogenous landscape that has been shaped by humans for centuries. Continuous agricultural activities, including the grazing of livestock in valleys and high alpine mountain pastures, have created valuable habitats that are protected through Natura 2000. This is also the case in the project region of LIFEstockProtect, the German-speaking region of the Alps, where in total 474 Natura 2000 sites are located. To maintain these cultural and highly biodiverse landscapes, supporting traditional activities like extensive grazing is crucial. Because where grazing is abandoned, bushes and trees spread and change the habitat. Where mowing and fertilising is frequent and intensive, diversity is lost through clear-cutting and the oversupply of nutrients.

A good example for how important livestock can be is the Biosphere Reserve Rhön, partially located in Bavaria. There, the “Rhönschaf“, a specific breed of sheep, has played an important role to maintain the landscape characterised by heath, agricultural fields, orchards, forests and marshlands. Despite their crucial role in maintaining the landscape, the sheep almost disappeared in the region due to the abandonment of traditional practices. However, due to increased efforts of authorities and locals, it was able to make a comeback and is now again supporting the maintenance of the cultural landscape.

Supporting shepherds means supporting Natura 2000

In high alpine mountain pastures shepherds are irreplaceable. They not only protect the livestock from potential predators but also from unsafe areas and they care for sick or hurt animals. By guiding them day by day, they also make sure that the pastures are evenly grazed. This supports the biodiversity and the maintenance of such landscapes, especially by controlling erosion.

Even though shepherding is an important profession, over the years it slowly has been forgotten. In LIFEstockProtect we promote the role of shepherds threefold: first, through target communication we aim to increase the knowledge of specific stakeholders and the general public about the importance of shepherds. Second, by developing a shepherd training, we aim to reestablish the profession, especially among the younger generation. And third, by actively lobbying for the inclusion of livestock protection measures, among them the hiring of shepherds, in local and national funding streams.

In summary, livestock and especially sheep are often the keepers of Natura 2000 sites. Especially in mountainous pastures, where other forms of livestock protection are not suitable, shepherds are guarding the sheep and are therefore also supporting the maintenance of Natura 2000 sites in their territories. Thus, today, on the European Natura 2000 Day, we celebrate not only an important network that supports the protection of species and habitats in Europe but also some of the key players in the field (or pasture).

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