Statistics on nature play crucial role in national and international policy

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
Cyclists passing heathland
© Hollandse Hoogte / Lex van Lieshout
The figures published by CBS on nature in the Netherlands play an important role in all sorts of societal discussions, including the current debates on nirogen and biodiversity. Data on nature are also used for mandatory reporting to the European Union. ‘Things are very different these days’, says Arco van Strien. When he began working on flora and fauna statistics almost 35 years ago, it was not entirely clear who actually needed the figures, and there were also some statistical complications to be resolved. On the cusp of retirement, Van Strien talks about the growing importance of statistics on nature in recent decades.
Arco van Strien studied biology and completed his PhD at Leiden University, writing his thesis on agricultural nature management. After obtaining his doctorate, he joined CBS in 1990, starting out as a statistical researcher. He later worked as a project manager, but eventually returned to research. Besides his professional interest in nature, Van Strien also devotes a lot of his free time to the subject. ‘After I was hired, I initially focused on the integration of flora and fauna statistics. We worked on the collection of population data for birds and butterflies. Back then, the number of species groups was limited – now we survey more than 15.’

National monitoring networks

To keep tabs on the state of nature in the Netherlands, CBS uses data from the Ecological Monitoring Network (NEM). This is a partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), the provincial governments and CBS. The NEM strives to align various nature monitoring schemes to meet the information needs of national and international governments. ‘Most of the current flora and fauna monitoring programmes were established in the 1990s, before they were merged into the NEM. The data is collected by volunteers using standardised methods, at fixed locations. This fieldwork is coordinated by private organisations like Sovon Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology and Dutch Butterfly Conservation. CBS oversees the quality of the monitoring networks and the data they produce’, Van Strien explains.

Protecting nature

Since the 1990s, statistics on nature have become increasingly important for policy-making in the Netherlands. They are also used to evaluate the effectiveness of policies. Van Strien continues: ‘Internationally, too, interest in nature has been growing. The international community believes it is important to protect nature, and to do that properly you need objective data. For example, the European Commission has made it mandatory to publish a trend overview for a number of protected plant and animal species once every six years.’

Arco van Strien works as an ecologist at CBS
© Sjoerd van der Hucht

Natura 2000 areas

Nature is on the agenda at many levels of government in the Netherlands, and policy in this area is mainly guided by a set of EU directives. The Birds Directive (1979) and the Habitats Directive (1992) are particularly important when it comes to maintaining biodiversity in Europe, as these specify which plants, animals and natural habitats must be protected by EU member states. The aim of the Birds Directive is to protect wild bird species, while the Habitats Directive’s goal is to preserve certain other animals, as well as plant species. To do so, protected zones have been designated, called Natura 2000 areas. Together, these form a European network of protected nature reserves. The provincial governments are tasked with implementing policy related to the Natura 2000 areas, and they also have an obligation to report on the state of nature to the central government. This is increasingly being done using regional data provided by CBS, for example on mammals and butterflies. ‘And now we’re waiting for EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans’ Nature Restoration Law’, says Van Strien, ‘which is aimed at restoring degraded ecosystems in the EU. This also includes nature outside Natura 2000 protected areas.’

Environmental Data Compendium

CBS presents environmental figures as factually as possible on its own website. At the same time, all CBS environmental data is published in the Environmental Data Compendium, an online resource that offers information on the environment, nature and space in the Netherlands. The Compendium, which is a collaboration between CBS, PBL, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), also provides context for the information shown, justifying how the data is processed and explaining how it should be interpreted. ‘Interpretating this kind of data isn’t always easy, and there’s a risk of people putting their own spin on things’, says Van Strien. That’s why we’re now thinking about ways of offering even more context, so we can present our figures in the best possible manner.’

How is nature doing?

When asked if nature in the Netherlands is doing well, Van Strien responds: ‘There’s no simple answer to that question. Some things are going well, others not so much. For example, water quality has improved, which is why the otter population has increased. But in agricultural areas, we see declining populations of many bird species, like the northern lapwing and the black-tailed godwit. The quality of our heathland is also deteriorating, particularly due to the large amounts of nitrogen that have ended up there.’