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Biodiversity monitoring and EU policy

EU biodiversity monitoring can still be improved and support EU biodiversity policies in a more effective way. Improvements should focus on provisions of scientific knowledge, cooperation between experts across Europe and more effective collaboration with volunteering networks as well as landowners.
Key policies: EU Biodiversity Strategy, Birds and Habitats Directives

Summary of the problem

Effective policy-making requires a well-functioning system of monitoring if its objectives are to be met. Although the EU has a reasonably robust regulatory framework on biodiversity - at the heart of which lie the Birds and Habitats Directives - in order for these policies to be effective policy-makers need to be able to assess the progress towards these objectives, which in turn requires the organisation of local, regional and national data in a form that can be easily represented and understood also at a European scale.

The ability of the EU to influence the type of data collected across its territory is limited and the monitoring of progress towards EU-level biodiversity goals is therefore heavily dependent on the frameworks already established within Member States and the capacity of the monitoring institutions to carry out these functions over the long-term. With the adoption of the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, with six dedicated targets aimed at halting the loss of biodiversity and restoring ecosystems where possible by 2020, it remains uncertain how progress towards set priorities will be monitored. This is specifically the case for a range of new, dedicated objectives related to protecting the functioning of broader ecosystems and delivery of ecosystem services.

The monitoring of biodiversity is a combination of state- and NGO-funded schemes and carried out by varying proportions of volunteers and professionals. The assessment of the data at the EU level is complicated by the disparity in quality of the data provided from across the Member States. Biodiversity monitoring is most comprehensive in northern and western Member States, whilst there is a significant lack of data from southern Member States, particularly in the Mediterranean region. Data are also lacking from several eastern European countries, which are very rich in biodiversity but lack systematic monitoring programmes (EUMon, 2010; Bell et al. 2011).

The objective of this case study was to explore the extent to which the existing national monitoring institutions are capable of supporting EU policy requirements in light of the EU 2020 targets. More specifically, this involved examining the motivations and manner in which monitoring is carried out, identifying the barriers to responding to policy changes, what is the current state of affairs with respect to emerging priorities and what are the opportunities for improving biodiversity monitoring relevance for policy making.

Solutions and ideas for monitoring

For the present EU policy regime, certain Member States, particularly in northern and western Europe, have established effective monitoring schemes, based to a large degree on volunteers. In the UK, for instance, this strength and longevity of the volunteer effort has been actively developed by NGOs with support from public funds. In contrast, southern and eastern Member States often have an underdeveloped monitoring regime with a reliance on professionals and a relative absence of volunteers. Therefore, the most pressing challenge is the sharing of knowledge around developing and running volunteer-led monitoring programs in these Member States.

With respect to emerging priorities, certain Member States, such as the UK, recognise the need to collect more data and have already begun to establish a baseline, for example of ecosystem service provision. In many other Member States, however, these are simply not yet the priority as basic biodiversity monitoring systems are yet to be established. Even in the UK, uncertainty exists about how trends will be generated. In addition, institutions currently involved in monitoring have an official remit which does not include responding to EU emerging priorities and therefore are reluctant to divert resources away from their core work. Therefore there is a need for greater guidance and sharing of knowledge and research into the development of new systems.


  • Greater scientific understanding of the links between species/habitat quality and ecosystem service provision was identified as the most urgently required development in providing data for ecosystem service provision. This research should provide guidance on how to interpret local specific conditions (e.g. soil type or topography) that are likely to have a very significant effect on ecosystem service provision.
  • There is an opportunity to engage the private sector beneficiaries of ecosystem services to increase funding for both ecosystem and biodiversity monitoring. Successful examples of user groups, for example hunting associations or water companies, have shown that these can provide very detailed and valuable information on the status of habitats, species and ecosystem service provision.
  • The findings of the study result in a recommendation to provide greater support for the formation of collaborative expert networks across Europe. These burgeoning EU-wide networks have proved very effective at harmonising methodologies and deriving pan-European trends. A small amount of financial support could make a significant contribution to efforts to develop these networks for less charismatic but functionally important taxonomic groups and accelerate capacity building in those Member States in which biodiversity monitoring is currently limited (e.g. eastern Europe).
  • Opportunities exist to expand highly effective and reliable citizen-led biodiversity monitoring schemes across the EU. The study revealed numerous case studies of effective engagement of citizens to provide biodiversity data for example through the LIFE+ fund and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme. Technological advances offer opportunities to expand volunteer involvement and generate interest. The main value for technology such as mobile phone applications, many suggested, was in generating interest and engagement in the natural environment amongst the wider public ('citizen scientists').

Challenges of effective biodiversity monitoring

Motivations and manner in which monitoring is carried out

Drivers of monitoring activities

In the UK, the most important priority of biodiversity monitoring amongst most NGOs, who are responsible for co-ordinating the majority of monitoring effort in the country, is the assessment of the conservation status of species of concern, while policy requirements (particularly at the EU level) were considered to be a low priority. This is expected to be as a consequence of the establishment of the monitoring programs predating the European policy requirements for the data. In addition, many of the organisations rely on memberships and donations to fund their activities, meaning the concerns of these stakeholders need to be integral to their goals.

Larger organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) also indicate that site-based monitoring of species listed under the Birds Directive is also a significant factor in its work. For the statutory agencies, EU policy needs are an important driver of their activities and they have established monitoring and research activities to specifically address the EU Nature Directives. In Poland and Greece, on the other hand, EU policy requirements appear to have been a very important driver of the establishment of monitoring activities in the majority of organisations (including NGOs), where many monitoring schemes were set up in direct response to the EU Nature Directives and the Water Framework Directive (in the case of Greece).

Who carries out monitoring

Biodiversity monitoring in the UK and Finland depends significantly on the contributions of volunteers, in contrast to Poland and Greece where it is more extensively carried out by professionals. The exception is bird monitoring in Poland, with a growing number of monitoring programs let by NGOs and volunteers. The involvement of volunteers in both the UK and Finland is founded on a long tradition of amateur naturalism, developed over a long period of time by NGOs with support form public money, which does not exist to the same extent in the other Member States included within this study. The involvement of volunteers in these countries contributes very substantially to the overall monitoring effort and results in greater coverage than could have been achieved by professionals alone. There are indications that volunteering in Greece may be growing.

Barriers of responsiveness to EU policy

A lack of funding and necessary expertise were identified as the principle barriers to responding to EU policy requirements and to increasing the scope and coverage of monitoring programmes. A lack of funding constrains many organisations in their abilities to coordinate volunteers, address data gaps not considered national conservation priorities, and develop new programmes to cover emerging priorities. Constraints on resources limit potentially beneficial collaboration between organisations, such as for the development of methodologies, training of volunteers and in the analysis of the data. A number of smaller organisations in the UK stated that lack of capacity meant that they were only able to invest in responding to national policy requirements and did not have the time to keep up to date with those emanating from the EU. Funding is seen also as an important limitation in developing monitoring in eastern Member States.

The need to ensure comparability with long-term data-sets constrains the adaptation of existing monitoring programmes to meet policy needs. These historical constraints imposed upon monitoring schemes in the UK, which have rarely been developed with policy questions in mind, also account for disconnect between biodiversity data and policy requirements. Also, the funding models of monitoring institutions play an important part in their ability to provide monitoring data for policy, including those funded by government, memberships or commercial operations. In some cases, institutions or NGOs have an official remit or set of objectives, which frequently refers to species or habitat conservation rather than, for example, ecosystem service provision. This means that establishing the benefit of broader ecosystem service health on species protection is required as well as clarifying the role of habitats and species in ecosystem service provision.

Responding to emerging priorities and the Biodiversity 2020 Strategy

The Biodiversity 2020 strategy will require Member States to halt the loss of ecosystem services, and to reduce the pressures associated with Invasive Alien Species (IAS). There were differences in how the Member States assessed the need to monitor emerging priorities and their capacity to carry this out. For instance, in the UK, the need to monitor ecosystem services is recognised but there is a great deal of degree of uncertainty about methodologies to use. A number of initiatives in the UK have been established at a site level to improve and monitor ecosystem service provision. Nevertheless, monitoring of these services is very site specific and therefore difficult to extrapolate from one area to the next. Trends will have to be based on generic criteria that can be adapted from existing data flows. Capacity to track invasive alien species (IAS) through existing monitoring programmes in the UK is good but improved co-ordination between institutions and a better early warning system are required. Awareness of the scheme remains low amongst the public who tend to report sightings to a separate agency.

In the other Member States, there was a lower degree of effort on monitoring emerging priorities. In Finland, capacity to monitor both IAS and ecosystem services were seen as future priorities for development, and although systems for reporting IAS are now beginning to come into effect, it is too early to assess progress. Resources for addressing the new monitoring needs were judged to be scarce and therefore it was considered that EU level legislation (e.g. a Directive addressing IAS) would likely play a key role by prompting Member States to allocate further funds to establish adequate monitoring systems. Similarly in Poland and Greece, it was stated that the scope for further investment in monitoring schemes was limited and existing data and monitoring needs should be adapted to provide information on emerging priorities.

Students learning butterfly monitoring method (capture-marks-recapture) on Natura 2000 wetland site (Dębnicko-Tyniecki obszar łakowy) in Kraków.
Photo by Hajnalka Szentgyörgyi

Bumblebee diversity monitoring for pathogen spill-over near greenhouse complexes using managed bumblebee species in Silesia, Poland.
Photo by Hajnalka Szentgyörgyi

Sowing of seeds in controlled, natural environment to assess and monitor germination success of exotic species on wetland meadows in Kraków.
Photo by Hajnalka Szentgyörgyi


Bell S, Reinert H, Cent J, Grodzińska-Jurczak M, Kobierska H, Podjed D, Vandzinskaite D (2011) Volunteers on the political anvil: Citizenship and volunteer biodiversity monitoring in three postcommunist countries. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 29(1): 170-185.

EuMon (2011) BioMAT the EuMon Integrated Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Tool: Species Monitoring.

McConville A, Margerison C, McCormack C, Apostolopoulou E, Cent J, Koivulehto M (2014) Biodiversity monitoring and EU policy. In: Henle K, Potts SG, Kunin WE, Matsinos YG, Similä J, Pantis JD, Grobelnik V, Penev L, Settele J (Eds) Scaling in Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia, 142-145.

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