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Habitat mapping method could help restore biodiversity

A new method for mapping long-term changes in habitat over large areas and in fine detail has been developed, which could help inform conservation plans to restore biodiversity to previous states. In a UK case study, researchers have used it to demonstrate the dramatic effects of intensive agriculture and afforestation on rural habitats since the 1930s.

A project involving several ALTER-Net partners has developed a new method for mapping habitat change.

Driven by increased demand for food and growing populations, major changes in rural landscapes during the second half of the 20th century, particularly in Western Europe, have had damaging effects on biodiversity. Intensive agriculture, afforestation for timber production and urbanisation have been shown to not only reduce available habitat for wildlife, but to also cut the links between habitats - the ‘ecological connectivity’ that allows species to spread and move around. Without these connections, there is a greater risk of extinction.

There is increasing interest in restoring habitats at a landscape and regional scale. This study, conducted under the EU SCALES project, presents a new method of mapping habitat change to assist these efforts. The researchers argue that mapping is an important first step in conservation planning, with implications for the EU’s Natura 2000 initiative, and that their approach is unique in that it can cover a large area of land, show small details and assess changes over a long period of time.

In a case study in Dorset, UK, the researchers combined historic maps and soil data from the 1930s, before the onset of intensive agriculture, and developed appropriate habitat classifications, such as ‘heathland’ and ‘managed grassland’. The information was used to produce a digital map of Dorset in the 1930s, with a fine-scaled resolution of 25 x 25 metres. This was then compared to a land cover map of Dorset, produced from satellite data, for the year 2000, revealing changes in habitat.

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