Biodiversity: In brief

Switzerland’s biodiversity is in an unsatisfactory state. Over one third of all surveyed species are under threat, the area available for valuable habitats has declined considerably, and unique regional characteristics are being lost. The Action Plan for the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy sets out measures for conserving ecosystems in the long term, together with their species and the services they provide.

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 land use and large-scale land loss (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.

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

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

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. Approximately 0.9 m2 of land are sealed per second in Switzerland.

The following developments also have a negative impact on biodiversity:

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

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 over the past 20 years in Switzerland, the quality of most habitats is poor and continues to deteriorate strongly:

  • 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).
  • 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.

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;
  • protection against rockfall and avalanches as provided by mountain forests;
  • absorption of precipitation peaks by mires and wetlands;
  • regulation and containment of pathogens;
  • 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.

A study that attempted to put a monetary value on global ecosystem services arrived at the sum of USD 33,000 per year, which represents 1.8 times global gross national product.

A deterioration in the status of biodiversity poses a threat to natural goods and ecosystem services, and, hence also, a risk to sustainable economic and social development.

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. Protected areas, promotion of sustainable land use, intersectoral cooperation (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).

In addition to the Red Lists and Biodiversity Monitoring Switzerland, the federal authorities have been monitoring the state of biodiversity since 2001. With the National Ecological Network (REN), the federal authorities have created a basis for improving the consideration of biodiversity in the context of spatial planning.

In their monitoring of the fulfilment of targets, both scientific research and the country reports of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) highlight the fact that although the existing instruments and measures have been effectively implemented and 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. This process included the development of measures inter alia for the sustainable use of biodiversity by all relevant sectors and the development of ecological infrastructure consisting of protected and interconnection areas. The action plan was passed by the Federal Council on the 6th of September 2017.

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

  • The Agriculture Policy 2014-2017 contains provisions for the further development of the biodiversity contributions (Biodiversitätsbeitrage), 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.
  • A new section in the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage Act includes provisions on genetic resources for the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol.

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.

Further information


Last modification 12.04.2018

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