BRUSSELS, May 23 —The European Union progressed towards most of the United Nations' sustainable development goals over the last five years, but took a step back on the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, the bloc's statistics office said today.

As population grows, urbanisation speeds up and the need for natural resources increases, the UN's "life on land" global goal seeks to combat deforestation and desertification, restore degraded land and soil, halt biodiversity loss and protect threatened species.

Eurostat data however showed a plunge in biodiversity and continued land degradation in the bloc, with an "unfavourable conservation status" for many species and habitats set to be preserved by the EU.

Although the region's share of forest area is growing, pressures on biodiversity rise as agricultural, forest and other semi-natural and natural areas give way to development, the statistics office said in the sixth edition of a regular report monitoring progress on the UN's goals.

"The resulting habitat loss is one of the reasons for the long-term decline in common birds and grassland butterflies."

Between 1990 and 2020, the common bird index, which tracks the abundance and diversity of a selection of species in the EU, showed a 13.3 per cent decline in common bird species and a 36.9 per cent fall in farmland bird species, used as an indicator of the general quality of the farmed environment.

Agricultural intensification reduces natural nesting habitats such as hedges, wetlands, meadows and fallow fields, while pesticides and changes in ploughing times for cereals disrupt breeding and decrease available food sources.

Butterflies, one of the most common plant pollinators, saw their population slump by a quarter between 1991 and 2018, according to estimates based on data from 17 member states, due to changes in rural land use and land abandonment in mountains and wet regions. — Reuters