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All change for Europe’s mountains: new research to guide future


The face of Europe’s mountains is changing and could be altered forever if declining agricultural trends continue, warn scientists behind a major new EU research project announced today.

The Euro3.2 million "BioScene" project co-ordinated by the Wye campus of Imperial College London and sponsored by the European Union will evaluate the threats and the opportunities for wildlife conservation resulting from declining agriculture and seek ways of reconciling conservation of biodiversity with changing human activities in mountainous regions of Europe.

"Traditional farming practices based on extensive livestock husbandry are fast becoming uneconomic and young people from mountain farming families are leaving for more prosperous city employment," says leader of the study Dr Jonathan Mitchley, of the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Imperial.

"This could mean dramatic landscape changes and loss of mountain wildlife and their habitats. But there could also be exciting opportunities for re-establishment of endangered or locally extinct species and new land-uses such as rural tourism and recreation."

The project takes a case study approach in six contrasting areas including the Cairngorms in the UK, the Jotenheimen Mountains Norway, Grande Causse France, Mid Grisons Switzerland, Bukovskevrchy Slovakia and Pindos Mountains Greece. The project involves interdisciplinary teams of researchers from each country specialising in ecological modelling, rural policy analysis and sustainability appraisal.

The three-year project, under the European Union’s 5th Framework Research Programme theme of Reconciling the Conservation of Biodiversity with Human Activities, will include detailed analysis of existing ecological data on the changes in species, habitats and landscape that have occurred over the last 50 years combined with in-depth socio-economic research into the trends in the agricultural sector over the same period. Potential scenarios of agricultural change will be drawn up such as the withdrawal of EU production subsidies through trade liberalisation or increased payments to farmers for conservation management and other environmental services.

The ecological research will detail the likely consequences of these scenarios for wildlife species and habitats in a series of landscape visualisations, or "BioScenes". These BioScenes will be presented to stakeholder groups in each country for comprehensive discussion and analysis. Stakeholders canvassed will include livestock farmers, landowners and conservationists and also representatives of recreation, tourism and hunting groups.

The project methodology is both innovative and challenging, combining ecological research led by Dr Jonathan Mitchley of the Department of Agricultural Sciences, and socio-economic research led by Dr Clive Potter with public participation and sustainability appraisal led by Mr William Sheate, both from Department of Environmental Science and Technology. This interdisciplinary approach is designed to provide realistic and sustainable recommendations for the future of mountain areas aimed towards policy makers at regional, national and European levels.

Dr Mitchley, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Biodiversity, who is co-ordinating the project from the Wye Campus of Imperial College London, comments. "Following the United Nations Year of Mountains (2002), it is very fitting that we focus on what is happening in the important mountain regions of Europe. As dramatic changes take place in the agricultural sector across the continent, we must find ways of balancing the threats and the opportunities for wildlife species, habitats and human communities.

"In our Cairngorms study area in Scotland, for example, there are real opportunities for the reestablishment of mountain scrub and woodland, and their associated wildlife, in areas previously grazed bare by sheep, while in Greece and Norway there is scope to reintroduce large mammals such as the brown bear, lynx and wolverine to areas no longer managed for agriculture."

"It’s very exciting," adds Dr Mitchley, "to have this opportunity to undertake interdisciplinary research with the very real potential for making a difference to the future of both wildlife and human communities in these important mountain areas of Europe."

Wendy Raeside | alfa
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