Biodiversity: In brief

Switzerland’s biodiversity is in an unsatisfactory state. The quality and the areas of valuable habitats are steadily declining, and isolated residual areas are mostly all that is left. Many habitats are becoming more and more similar (e.g. pastures). Today, not only about half of all habitat types in Switzerland, but also half of all assessed native species, are vulnerable or near threatened. The main reasons for biodiversity loss are urban sprawl, the intensive use of soils and bodies of water, the spread of invasive alien species and high pesticide and nitrogen inputs from agriculture.


1. Geophysical diversity and changes in land use (drivers)

Biodiversity refers to the diversity of life on the level of ecosystems (habitats), species (flora, fauna, fungi, microorganisms) and genetic diversity, i.e. the variability and variety of individuals within a given species.

Switzerland's rich biodiversity is the outcome of its geophysical diversity (differences in altitude, climate extremes, diversity of the soils), on the one hand, and human influences, on the other.

Centuries of land use have generated and shaped Switzerland's mosaic of forests, open country, surface waters and settlements. This diversity of land-use types promotes the proliferation of flora and fauna. Traditional forms of land use, for example standard orchards, wooded pastures, chestnut groves, and irrigated and dry meadows, still exist today, however, they are in stark decline.

Land use has changed considerably, however, over the past century and reflects changing societal requirements and demands, such as:

  • greater energy requirements and the development of renewable energies,
  • increased mobility,
  • the expansion of settlements and transport infrastructure,
  • greater and more varied leisure culture in previously unspoiled regions,
  • the rationalisation of agricultural and forestry production.

2. Intensive use of land and bodies of water, urban sprawl and pesticide and nitrogen inputs (pressures)

Biodiversity in Switzerland has declined dramatically since 1900 and its current state is a cause for alarm. The loss of biodiversity is dangerous, particularly as its progress is insidious and continuous.

Due to intensive and no longer sustainable management practices, agricultural ecosystems, in particular, have suffered severe losses in terms of small structures such as hedges and dry-stone walls. This decline is also boosted by high levels of fertiliser and pesticide use, species-poor seeding practices and the use of mechanised management methods.

Excessive nutrient inputs continue to occur in naturally nutrient-poor areas, particularly ammonia from agriculture, which is carried by the air over long distances. More than 90% of forest soils, half of all dry meadows and pastures, nearly all raised bogs and three-quarters of fens in Switzerland are polluted with excessive nitrogen levels from the air.

In many locations, water bodies have surrendered their natural courses and space to land-reclamation structures, flood control measures and electricity production.

In addition, settlements and infrastructure have been expanding continuously since the middle of the last century. This has led to a loss of space and increasing fragmentation of the remaining habitats.

Throughout Switzerland, the pace of settlement growth has actually slowed since the turn of the millennium.  Nevertheless, an area of soil roughly equivalent to eight football fields is built on every day.

Many habitats in settlement areas have disappeared due to the sealing of land surfaces and walls.

The following developments also have a negative impact on biodiversity:

  • inputs of chemicals from the air and micropollutants in water bodies,
  • the spread of alien species,
  • increased disturbance from leisure and tourism,
  • climate change.

Through its consumption and increasing imports of goods and services, Switzerland is putting increasing pressure on the planet’s natural resources and biodiversity. Switzerland’s biodiversity footprint is four times higher than the planetary boundaries.


3. Continuing losses and acute threat despite some successes (state)

Biodiversity has suffered significant losses throughout the world in recent decades and its status is considered as being under threat today.

Although the decline in the stocks of some species and the quantitative areal losses of certain habitat types has been halted in Switzerland since 2000, the quality of most habitats is poor and continues to deteriorate strongly. Nearly half of assessed habitats are threatened in Switzerland.

  • Biodiversity in the Central Plateau and in the major Alpine valleys is impaired, in particular in the open countryside (loss of area, fragmentation, deterioration in quality) and along water bodies (too little space, artificial barriers, lack of interconnection). Shore zones and wetlands, of which nearly 85% are endangered, are particularly threatened.
  • Biodiversity is under less pressure in forests than in other ecosystems, thanks, mainly to the increasing proportion of dead wood. Nevertheless, increasing darkness in light-deprived forest stands also poses a threat to biodiversity in forests.
  • The last remaining extensive areas with largely intact biodiversity are found in the mountain regions. These areas are coming under increasing pressure from the rise in leisure activities in inaccessible areas.
  • The biodiversity in settlement areas is surprisingly extensive - however, it usually consists of relatively common species. Moreover, the pressure generated by fragmentation, barriers and soil sealing is increasing.

The alarming status of species diversity continues to be documented by the Red Lists: 36% of the surveyed species in Switzerland are under threat (i.e. classified according to the IUCN categories as "vulnerable (VU)", "endangered (EN)" or "critically endangered (CR)"). These include species, whose loss is irreversible because their presence is very limited and localised, or they arise predominantly or exclusively in Switzerland. This situation is not new. The update of the Red List shows that the situation of breeding birds and vascular plants has not improved since 2000.

On the level of genetic diversity, the intensification of agriculture and concentration on high-yield crop varieties has given rise to impoverishment. It has been possible to decelerate some of the decline in breeds and varieties. Little is still known about the genetic diversity of wild species, including that of microorganisms.

The increasing prevalence of natural forest regeneration and the use of tree species that are suited to the locations in which they are planted has played an important role in promoting genetic diversity in forests since the mid-1980s.


4. Risks associated with the loss of ecosystem services (impacts)

Biodiversity provides natural goods and ecosystem services which make an essential contribution to social and economic development. Such ecosystem services include, for example:

  • drinking water, which is supplied in sufficient quantities by forests and their soil;
  • maintenance of soil fertility;
  • re-growth of raw materials and food;
  • loss of genetic resources for new drugs and crop plants;
  • enhancement of the quality of life through the provision of near-natural recreational areas;
  • protection against rockfall and avalanches as provided by mountain forests;
  • absorption of precipitation peaks by mires and wetlands;
  • regulation and containment of pathogens.

However, it is not only important to conserve the diversity of life to ensure the satisfaction of basic human needs; the recognition of its inherent value also constitutes an ethical human obligation.


5. Swiss Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan (responses)  

The implementation of measures for the conservation of biodiversity has a long tradition in Switzerland. The Swiss hunting reserves were the first protected areas to have their status enshrined in law in 1875. Over the past 100 years, Switzerland has designated a range other protected areas, starting with the National Park (1914) and including areas as diverse as amphibian spawning areas (2001) and dry meadows and pastures (2010). Areas designated for biodiversity in Switzerland currently cover around 12.5%, and an increase to 14% is foreseeable. Therefore, Switzerland is approaching the minimum target of 17% set out in the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) but has yet to achieve it. Although the existing instruments and measures have been effectively implemented and have achieved some success in Switzerland, they are far from sufficient. They have not been able to stem the loss of habitats and the species that live in them, or the deterioration in habitat quality.

With the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy, the federal authorities outlined a plan for halting biodiversity loss and conserving ecosystem services. The strategy, which was passed by the Federal Council in 2012, defines ten objectives which were substantiated in an action plan. The action plan was passed by the Federal Council on 6 September 2017 and divides its measures and pilot projects into the following three areas:

  • "direct biodiversity promotion” (e.g. developing and expanding the ecological infrastructure, species conservation)
  • “indirect biodiversity promotion” (e.g. utilising synergies or preventing disincentives in sectoral policies) and
  • “knowledge transfer and awareness-raising” among stakeholders and the population.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends stepping up efforts to ensure that the measures of the action plan are fully implemented and their impact is sustainable. The required efforts include identifying and avoiding subsidies that may have a negative effect on biodiversity, and securing financing.

The conservation and promotion of biodiversity is enshrined in various other federal instruments:

  • Agriculture policy requires the designation of protected areas to promote biodiversity, and the agricultural environmental objectives make a key contribution to the conservation of biodiversity.
  • The Forest Policy 2020 plans to increase the percentage of forest reserves from 5% (2012) to 8% by 2020.
  • The Water Protection Act, which was revised in 2011, contains provision for the rehabilitation of water bodies whose ecological functions have been impaired by the federal authorities.
  • An Action Plan on Risk Reduction and Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products adopted by the Federal Council in 2017.

The conservation of biodiversity is a challenge that requires local, regional and global action. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the most important instrument for this purpose at global level. The Nagoya Protocol, which was ratified by Switzerland in 2014, regulates the access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilisation. The corresponding ordinance came into force in 2016.

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Last modification 12.04.2018

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