Nitrogen and Dutch nature areas

Nature is under pressure in the Netherlands. Most of the Natura 2000 areas in our country are not doing well at the moment (as also pointed out in this article in the Volkskrant). Through its research and advisory activities, KWR is contributing to finding solutions for the restoration of Dutch nature.

The Natura 2000 network encompasses important Dutch nature areas, which deserve to be protected given their importance for biodiversity and the space they provide for characteristic flora and fauna. But the nature values in several Natura 2000 areas are under pressure because of the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, among other reasons. The current commotion concerning the nitrogen issue is revealing the number of problems that nitrogen represents for nature, and how complex it is to find good solutions to them. The Dutch government is working on an approach to limit nitrogen emissions, but this is not enough in the short term to remove the threat to protected habitat types and species.

KWR has the knowledge to define appropriate measures

Ecological restoration measures are needed to protect important nature values. Only on the basis of thorough knowledge of the processes that influence nature restoration can one define the appropriate measures that will lead to ecological restoration. KWR has this knowledge in house: from extensive knowledge of the requirements that natural and semi-natural ecosystems make of their environment, to the processes that influence these environmental factors. KWR concretely applies this knowledge about vegetation, hydrology, hydrochemistry and nature management to define the threats and opportunities for ecosystems, and to translate these into strategies and measures for sustainable nature restoration. In doing so, we take account of the specific local conditions as well as of global factors, such as climate change and the deposition of undesirable substances resulting from human activities (e.g., nitrogen deposition).

Sustainable water provision and monitoring

KWR also invests in research aimed at achieving a sustainable water provision in the agricultural sector; this can contribute significantly to reducing drought [see this drought study (in Dutch)] and the nutrient load in groundwater. Lastly, KWR disposes of the right knowhow for the design and evaluation of ecological monitoring programmes. Ultimately, the effect on nature values is not a function of the nitrogen load itself but of its ecological impact. Targeted monitoring of crucial processes, and the influence of these processes on organisms, is essential in determining the impact of nitrogen loads and whether the nitrogen policy is producing the right outcomes.

Broad front and interdisciplinary approach

At KWR, we have been doing research on nature conservation and restoration since the 1980s. We apply our knowledge for nature managers, provinces, Water Authorities and the national government. The institute has thus built up extensive experience in dealing with the challenges associated with excessive nitrogen. We are active on a broad front in tackling the nitrogen problem for nature in the Netherlands, from the restoration of water resources, to the quality of groundwater and soil, to the consequences of climate change. KWR provides research and advice on the basis of a range of scientific disciplines, and for a large number of landscape types, such as stream valley floodplains, raised bogs and fens, coastal dunes, and high sandy grounds.

Collaboration partners

In this work KWR participates, among others, in the research programme of the Dutch OBN Knowledge Network for Nature Restoration and Management. For the Dutch water utilities, which manage many nature areas, KWR studies the impact of measures addressing the negative effects of high nitrogen depositions on dune grasslands and heaths. To decipher the impact of excessive nitrogen, we also conduct measurements in reference areas abroad where nitrogen levels are low. Using hydro-ecological analyses of nature areas, we pinpoint the problem areas as well as formulate solutions for the conservation and restoration of Natura 2000 habitat types.

Effective mix of science and practice

Since KWR effectively mixes empirical research, modelling and experience in nature management practice, our results contribute to the development of effective restoration measures and to insight into the sensible application of restoration measures. This is evidenced for instance in our contribution to WaterVision Nature, which is able to quantify the effects of measures and of climate change. We aim to further develop this tool and make it suitable for area-specific solutions to the nitrogen problem. In this manner we contribute to achieving nature objectives as well as a sustainable freshwater provision for drinking water, agriculture and nature.