As new roads and railways criss-cross Europe, the further fragmentation of the landscape increases the isolation of animal populations in smaller and more vulnerable fractions. This also increases the number of animals killed in collisions with vehicles, and transport routes block their access to resources and breeding mates. These problems are compounded by the growing area taken up by transport infrastructure and the area bordering these developments many animals cannot live in the fringe areas. Moreover, landscape fragmentation also facilitates the spread of invasive species and reduces the ecosystem services that human society relies on.
Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), said: "Landscapes change constantly but in recent decades humans have often shaped them with little thought to the cumulative impacts and at a pace that is unprecedented."
"For the first time, this report presents the extent of landscape fragmentation across an entire continent using a scientifically sound method. It reveals the most relevant driving forces behind fragmentation, demonstrating that varying factors are relevant in different parts of Europe. The picture it paints is worrying."
The brown hare in Switzerland is an example of a species which has been pushed to the brink of extinction by landscape fragmentation in combination with other human impacts such as intensive agriculture. The animals' movement has been blocked by roads, so they find it more difficult to escape bad weather, and they are often killed by vehicles.
Extinction of the Swiss brown hare may be impossible to avoid as the 'point of no-return' may have been crossed. Indeed, animal populations often react slowly to changes in their habitat, so the current decline may be due to changes that occurred several decades ago, with further decline in animal populations across Europe to come as a result of more recent increases in landscape fragmentation.
However, it is not all bad news - the report also presents some positive stories. For example, badgers in the Netherlands were in decline for many years, until a 'defragmentation policy' was established in 1984, encouraging developers to build 'badger pipes' to allow easier and safer movement of these shy animals. The Dutch badger population has since increased slightly.
Landscape fragmentation: a mixed picture across Europe
The highest levels of fragmentation are found in the Benelux countries, followed by Malta, Germany and France.