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Opinion 07: ‘The government must invest more in knowledge about biodiversity if we want to satisfy the requirements of Natura 2000’

The European Union is busy implementing Natura 2000 – a European network of protected nature reserves that must ensure the preservation of biodiversity. In the Netherlands, a list of 111 potential Natura 2000 areas has recently been drawn up, including the IJsselmeer, the Veluwe and the Wadden Sea. Han Olff, Professor of Ecology at the University of Groningen, although a fervent supporter of Natura 2000, nevertheless has a few reservations about the programme.

‘Natura 2000 is designed to ensure that after 2010, no more species will become extinct in Europe and that biodiversity will no longer decline’, explains Olff. Therefore, every EU country has to draw up a list of characteristic species and their habitats, for which that country will be internationally responsible. ‘For the Netherlands, that means species like the black-tailed godwit and the spoonbill, but also tiny beetles or snails.' These rare species and habitats must then – via national legislation and local measures – be preserved.


Some farmers who live close to a Natura 2000 area fear that they are going to have problems with as yet unknown extra legislation. Olff: ‘I think it’s all going to be alright. Nature management in the Netherlands is already rather well organized. Natura 2000 is more support for existing policy than a radical change. Countries like Italy, France and Spain, where relatively little is being done on nature management, will have to change course much more radically.’

Non-threatened species

Nevertheless, Olff has some reservations about Natura 2000. ‘A great deal of emphasis is being placed on concrete results – the preservation of rare species. That means that there’s a chance that species not currently under threat will be forgotten and disappear.' Interaction between species – both rare and common – is essential for the quality of an ecosystem. ‘The risk is that nature management will become too static – people will just want to preserve the status quo. But ecology has taught us that nature is always changing.’

Economic exploitation

There’s little point in doing your best to preserve rare species if the Natura 2000 areas are at the same time being intensively economically exploited. ‘For example, in the Wadden area the mussel beds – the pillars supporting the biodiversity of the region – are still being fished out.’ The legislation concerning nature management is often not taken seriously if it affects the economy. ‘Too often we want to have our cake and eat it, with the final result being that we end up with nothing.'

Other countries

According to Olff, more initiatives must be developed alongside Natura 2000 to help other countries preserve species and habitats. ‘We could really play an important international role in that area, mainly because the biodiversity in some tropical regions is so much greater than here, and tropical countries need knowledge and help with their nature protection policies. Our nature policy is still too much oriented towards just the Netherlands. But from the point of view of biodiversity, the intrinsic value of a species from the Netherlands is no greater than that of one from Africa.’

Climate change

According to Olff, we still know very little about loss of biodiversity as the result of current climate changes. ‘NWO has ambitious plans for a new research strategy; one of the main themes is “Sustainable Earth” which will examine this. The finances are not yet agreed – they’re going to ask the new government for a major contribution.’ Without this research it may be difficult to satisfy the requirements of Natura 2000. ‘The government must invest more in knowledge. We must not only reduce CO2 emissions but also learn how we can compensate for the negative effects of climate change that we are currently experiencing. Otherwise many species will have died out before we get the emissions under control.’

Curriculum Vitae

Han Olff (1962) graduated in Biology from the University of Groningen in 1988. In 1992 he received his PhD in Ecology from the same university. He then worked at Wageningen University as a researcher. In 2002 he was appointed Professor of Community and Conservation Ecology at the RUG, where he researches biodiversity and nature management, both in the Netherlands and in the tropics. /EvL

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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