England’s Cotswolds have been named an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, one of 46 countryside areas in England, Northern Ireland or Wales that has been designated for conservation due to its significant landscape value. The Cotswolds cover almost 800 square miles of arboretums, castles, country houses, gardens, market towns, picturesque villages and rolling hills.

While in recent years it seems as if the environmental laws in the United States have faced some of their most severe challenges and rollbacks since their inceptions, it’s encouraging to hear that Europe is now successfully passing several groundbreaking rules for the restoration of nature. For example, in England—in a move that’s being called one of the world’s most ambitious conservation efforts—builders must compensate for the nature they displace. Any developments there must result in more or better natural habitats than before.

That national legislation comes hot on the heels of the globally unique Nature Restoration Law (NRL), a provisional agreement signed by members of the European Union (EU) on November 9, 2023. This regulation aims to restore at least 20% of the EU’s lands and seas by 2030, and almost all degraded ecosystems by 2050—in other words, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in EU countries.

That close-to-continental-wide conservation law was inspired by something very small: grassland butterflies. The EU member states are supposed to document the progress they make—based on the population trends and occurrences of butterflies—in implementing the Nature Restoration Law. If the European Parliament and member states formally adopt the statute, the member states will then have two years to submit their first nature restoration plans to the European Commission, the EU’s politically independent executive arm.


Supporters of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law argue that strong action is needed to rescue declining species and harness nature’s ability to shield people from worsening climate impacts, such as by using wetlands to avoid floods or cooling down cities with green spaces.

Agriculturalists as allies

The Nature Restoration Law requires its member states to avoid significant deterioration in healthy habitats—such as forests, grasslands and rivers—and introduce targeted measures to increase two out of these three: grassland butterfly populations; nature-friendly features, such as hedges on farmlands; or carbon storage in soils. The objective is to reverse the decline of Europe’s natural habitats, 81% of which are classified as being in poor health.

Some wonder, however, if the regulation can truly achieve its aspirations. To find out, several leading European biodiversity and nature restoration scientists analyzed experiences with other European environmental directives and policies to evaluate the prospects of the NRL being successful. Their findings were published in a paper in the journal Science on December 14, 2023.

The paper’s authors state that the NRL does set ambitious targets and time lines that are precisely defined and binding, and the steps for implementation are clearly laid out. It also saves time, as it does not need to be transposed into national law. However, individual European countries need to put the implementation steps into practice, and most of them are voluntary. In addition, cooperation with land users will be key, especially with those involved in agriculture. Intensive cultivation is still a main reason for biodiversity loss in Europe.


In Europe, cooperating with agriculturalists will be of utmost importance when attempting to implement any nature restoration measures.

But agriculture and nature restoration objectives could be coordinated, with opportunities for both. Agriculture directly benefits from pollinator populations, healthy soils and increased water storage capacity in the landscape—all ambitions of the NRL. The paper’s authors conclude that funds provided by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy need to be used for achieving the NRL’s goals, an idea that is sure to be intensively debated.

Overall, the authors provide a positive outlook for the NRL, but they warn that vigorous national implementation and cooperation with economic sectors, such as agriculture, will eventually determine the success of nature restoration in Europe.

Butterflies as bioindicators

The numbers of butterflies in European meadows and pastures are in a continuous decline. In fact, grassland butterflies in Europe have deteriorated considerably since the first calculations in 1990, and more than 80% of their habitats in the EU are currently considered vulnerable. This has negative consequences on their functional capability and the services they provide for humans. The Nature Restoration Law defines binding targets for the renaturation of various ecosystems; and two years after the regulation enters into force, member states will have to submit plans on how they intend to meet them. The member states must also document the success of their measures.


Unfortunately, the numbers of butterflies in meadows and pastures in Europe are declining. A Grassland Butterfly Indicator from 16 European countries demonstrated that there has been a 39% decrease in grassland butterflies since 1990.

However, the latter is not so easy. So far, there are only a few indicators that can reliably show the state of biodiversity. For most animal and plant groups, there is a lack of comparable data across Europe from which to assess the development of populations. The few exceptions include bats, birds and butterflies.

Butterflies are ideal bioindicators because these insects occur in a wide range of habitats and react sensitively to environmental changes. With their specific requirements, they are often representative of many other insects. Finally, they are attractive, eye-catching and popular. Thus, it’s relatively easy to motivate volunteers to take part in butterfly counts.

Such data is collected and analyzed in the central European Butterfly Monitoring Scheme database. It tracks the population development of individual species and identifies common trends for the residents of certain habitats. The database gives rise to the Grassland Butterfly Indicator, which monitors 17 typical butterfly species of meadows and pastures. If the positive and negative trends in these species roughly balance each other out, the indicator remains at the same level. If more species decline than increase in the same period, the value decreases and vice versa. Lower values, then, indicate greater problems among grassland dwellers.

AdobeStock (Created by Candice Gaukel Andrews)

The latest Grassland Butterfly Indicator showed that in the 27 member states of the EU, only the orange tip butterfly had a moderate increase.

The latest results of these calculations—which include data from 1990 to 2020—do not bode well. The analysis shows only one winner: in the 27 member states of the EU, only the orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) butterfly displayed a moderate increase. Three species are stable: the large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus), the common copper (Lycaena phlaeas) and the meadow brown (Maniola jurtina). Five species—from the common blue (Polyommatus icarus) butterfly to the wall brown (Lasiommata megera)—are showing declining populations. The biggest loser in recent years has been the large blue (Phengaris arion) butterfly, which has disappeared completely in the Netherlands. For the remaining species of the 17 grassland inhabitants studied, there is either no clear trend or too little data.

The picture becomes even less favorable if we look not only at the EU but at Europe as a whole. Then, there are no species on a definite rise and only three that are stable. Six show a moderate decline, while one demonstrates a strong decline.

In view of these developments, it is not surprising that the Grassland Butterfly Indicator is now at a considerably lower level than before. In the last 10 years alone, the calculated value for the EU has fallen by 32%—and that for all of Europe by as much as 36%. The crisis of the grassland dwellers has apparently already taken hold of the entire continent. This is becoming increasingly evident the more that information is provided by volunteer butterfly counters from different countries.


One in five European butterflies is considered threatened or nearly so. The Netherlands, pictured here, has lost half of its butterflies since 1990. Agriculture can be either a positive or a negative force, depending on how it’s practiced. Intensive farming is bad for biodiversity, but too little human intervention harms these grassland ecosystems, too. Forest encroachment is one of the reasons behind butterfly collapse.

Butterfly Conservation in Europe attributes the dwindling butterfly occurrences mainly to changes in agriculture. In northwestern Europe, for example, the overintensive use of meadows and pastures has a particularly unfavorable effect. The heavy use of fertilizers often also pollutes adjacent protected areas with excessive amounts of nitrogen. In the rest of Europe, the main problem is the complete abandonment of cultivation. That’s because grassland butterflies cope poorly with it.

According to the experts, a large set of measures is necessary to save butterflies, such as promoting the sustainable use of meadows and pastures, creating new valuable habitats and better connecting the existing ones. Most grassland butterflies would also benefit from effective climate change mitigation. The scientists say that they hope that the Nature Restoration Law can stop this decline so that all children can enjoy butterflies in flower-rich grasslands.

Biodiversity as banknote

The area of biodiverse ecological communities that remains intact in the United Kingdom is just half that of the European average, with species having declined by 19% since the 1970s. But the introduction of new legislation in England intends to help bring the natural world into the spotlight. It launched on February 12, 2024, and forces all new house-building and road projects to benefit nature rather than damage it. Called Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), this “nature market” means that all new building projects must achieve a 10% net gain in biodiversity or natural habitats. If a woodland is destroyed by a road, for example, another needs to be re-created. This can happen either on-site or elsewhere.

AdobeStock (Created by Candice Gaukel Andrews)

Many Europeans hope that the Nature Restoration Law will curb biodiversity loss so that all children can enjoy butterflies in flower-rich grasslands.

Proponents of BNG say that while other offset policies around the world have either plenty of exemptions or deal with one specific set of impacts, England’s biodiversity credit plan is “world-leading in its scope” in that it addresses all new construction and covers all natural habitats. Since the government wants to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, this is excellent news for the lands affected by those developments, which must be compensated for under the new rules.

However, one major shortfall for biodiversity markets around the world is a lack of demand. To date, only $8 million has been pledged for biodiversity credits worldwide. Globally, funding for biodiversity is $169 billion annually, most of which comes from domestic public funding. According to the United Nations, it needs to increase to $200 billion per year from all sources (domestic, international, private and public) by 2030.

What’s desperately needed is some sort of driver. Having a mandatory market for all developers will help scale things up and draw in more activity and investment.


England’s Biodiversity Net Gain program forces all new road projects to integrate a “thought for nature.” Rather than damage natural habitats, they must restore them.

BNG is regulated by several bodies, including local authorities and government agencies. While that’s seen as a strength of the scheme, regulators often lack the staff to check whether the pledged habitat benefits have materialized. Environmental regulations are often foiled by lax enforcement. In fact, one study found that more than a quarter of BNG units are at risk of leading to no tangible increases in biodiversity because there is no monitoring system in place. There are also concerns that there are too few ecologists to oversee habitats or score them correctly. Some may lack independence if they are employed by the developer.

Another challenge is that much of the off-site habitat restoration demanded by the BNG—including the creation and protection of wetlands, wildflower meadows or woodlands—is expected to happen on farmland. However, there may be a lack of farmers signing up, since many are hesitant to take the financial risk.

Too, biodiversity credit markets are still in their early days. There is no universally agreed upon standard. In the past decade, however, the private sector is increasingly becoming a source of finance. But to succeed, governments must provide the resources to fund biodiversity and recognize it as the public good that it is, “like law enforcement or defense. Public goods must be funded by governments or incorporated into private investment decision-making through public policy, regulations and incentives,” states the Campaign for Nature, a nonprofit, global campaign to safeguard at least 30% of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030.


According to the Cotswolds District Council, “Biodiversity Net Gain is an approach to development that leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state after development than before, after first avoiding and minimizing harm.” It’s an idea that is spreading around the world.

Rewilding as reward

While the current BNG legislation doesn’t address construction’s full impact on biodiversity and nature—it excludes the production and processing of construction materials (such as sand and timber; and minerals, including gravel, iron ore and rocks)—in time, those issues can be addressed. For now, it’s one of the planet’s most ambitious plans for rewilding the world. Those nations already hoping to copy the idea of biodiversity net gain or use it to develop their own markets include Scotland, Singapore, Sweden and Wales.

Rewilded ecosystems create socioeconomic opportunities for local communities, reduce the effects of and costs associated with environmental hazards (such as climate change and flooding), and improve human health and well-being by improving access to nature.

That diversity of benefits is certainly a net gain for us all.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,