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The Swiss Alps are beautiful, but are they biodiverse?

The demands of a growing human population often clash with the needs of nature, a fact that regularly sparks political debate in Switzerland.

Nearly half of the country’s 230 habitat types are threatened, in particular moors, farmland and freshwater ecosystems. Problems with these living spaces put pressure on their wild residents, and about a third of the 45,000 species of flora and fauna in Switzerland are threatened. Another issue is the loss of genetic diversity, which plants and animals need in order to resist disease and adapt to a changing climate.

In a recent report, the federal environment office explained that biodiversity was essential because it “produces food, regulates the climate, preserves air and water quality, participates in soil formation and offers human beings a place of recreation and a source of inspiration”.

Indeed, biting into a crisp apple is one of the pleasures of the harvest season. But if there aren’t enough pollinators, the yield of apples and other fruits will be poor. Ironically, efforts to feed people can be part of the problem if there are monocultures, herbicides and pesticides at work. Switzerland’s 50,000 small farmers meet just over half of the national demand for food, if you take imported animal feed into account.

At the same time, many mountain farmers with herds of sheep want to eliminate predators like wolves and lynx – two species already driven to local extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Government efforts to bring the lynx back have been successful, and now there are about 250. Wolves, numbering about 80, have been finding their own way home.

People in Switzerland regularly take action to boost biodiversity. Most recently, environmental groups forced a referendum on parliament’s changes to the hunting law, which would have made it easier to regulate wolves and other protected species.

Upcoming votes include two initiatives calling for changes to the Swiss constitution: one specifically to protect biodiversity and another to halt the spread of built-up areas.

“Diverse landscapes, lively brooks, fertile soil and a rich architecture: Much of what Switzerland stands for has come under massive pressure. But politicians and the authorities are doing very little to safeguard this wealth and our livelihood for the future,” said campaigners such as Pro Natura, BirdLife Switzerland and the Swiss Foundation for Landscape Protection and Development when they handed in the necessary signatures in September 2020.

But when it comes to having an array of species, it’s definitely not a case of the more the merrier. Invasive species – those that aren’t native to the region – pose a threat to local flora and fauna when they compete for living space and nourishment.

Luigi Olivadoti (illustration)