However, the exceptional Alpine diversity is not only due to natural conditions, it is also the result of cultivation and traditions. The Alpine diversity was created by human activity in the course of centuries. Without traditional land use patterns, some habitats such as the Alpine pastures of the montane level would not exist.
A species rich Alpine meadow (Source: KOHLER, Y. & M.STOECKL).
The traditional agriculture of this mountain region plays an important role for biodiversity. Mountain agriculture reached its biggest extension at the beginning of the 19th century. It was probably also in that period that habitats and biological diversity of the cultivated Alpine landscape was at its highest level. Since then, the modernisation of agriculture has resulted in a considerable diminution of the variety of landscapes and a loss of local species and races. Structural elements of the landscape such as hedges, isolated trees, stonewalls and -heaps have mostly disappeared.
As soon as a change in the type of land use occurs, it causes a modification in the flora and fauna (TASSER 2004). The change from meadow to pasture can be taken as an example: The meadows between 1800 and 2200 m above sea level are part of the richest plant association of Europe with up to 80 different plant species per hundred square meters. The great floristic variety attracts insects such as butterflies. The variety of species in a pasture is significantly lower. Moreover, intensely used meadows of lower Alpine valleys only host about ten different plant species.
The changes in agriculture do not only affect the natural diversity, but also the diversity of traditional crops and domestic animals. Since the effects of intensification and globalisation have reached the Alps, many local races of vegetables and livestock breeds have also disappeared. The Évolène Cattle for example is an old dairy cattle breed from the Valais canton of Switzerland now threatened with extinction.
Another aspect is the expansion of Alpine forests. Plant diversity is two times higher in pastures than in forests, and species of cultivated landscapes are often more endangered than species living in forests. The extension of the forests has therefore a negative impact on species diversity in the Alps.
Like in other geographically fragmented mountain areas, the people of the Alps have developed a rich tradition of cultures, including languages, and traditional agricultural knowledge commonly promoting sustainable production systems. The diversity of landscapes, and consequently the associated biological diversity is thus closely related to this fact.
(1) The WWF identified 238 priority ecoregions in the world. As regions of high biological diversity (they give habitat to about 90% of all plant and animal species) the conservation of these ecoregions essentially contributes to the conservation of the global biodiversity.