Natura 2000 sites have been designated specifically to protect core areas for a sub-set of species or habitat types listed in the Habitats and Birds Directives. They are deemed to be of European importance because they are endangered, vulnerable, rare, endemic or present outstanding examples of typical characteristics of one or more of Europe’s nine biogeographical regions. In total, there are around 2000 species and 230 habitat types for which core sites need to be designated as Natura 2000 sites.
Nature reserves, national parks or other nationally or regionally protected sites are, on the other hand, established exclusively under national or regional law, which can vary from country to country. Sites may be designated for a range of different purposes and may also concern species/ habitats other than those targeted by the Natura 2000 network.
They do not have the same status as Natura 2000 sites. Nevertheless, it may be that some nationally or regionally protected sites are also designated as Natura 2000 sites because they are important areas for species and habitats of EU importance as well. In such cases, the provisions of the EU directives apply, unless stricter rules are in place under national law.
Natura 2000 sites are being selected with the aim of ensuring the long-term survival of species and habitats protected under the Birds and the Habitats Directive. The choice of sites is based on scientific criteria.
In compliance with the Birds Directive, EU Member States are required to designate the ‘most suitable territories’, both in number and surface area, to protect bird species listed in Annex I of the Directive as well as migratory species.
In compliance with the Habitats Directive, Member States have to designate the sites required to ensure that the natural habitat types listed in Annex I and the habitats of the species listed in its Annex II are maintained or, where appropriate, restored to a favourable conservation status in their natural range.
The sites are selected and proposed by the Member States. The European Environment Agency (EEA) then assists the European Commission in analysing sites proposals and in the evaluation of the contribution of the proposed sites to the conservation status of each habitat type and species at the biogeographical level. Once the sites proposed under the Habitats Directive are considered sufficient, the lists of sites are adopted by the Commission and the Member States must designate them as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) as soon as possible and within six years at most.
Different types of ecosystems are included in the Natura 2000 sites, including terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. An ecosystem can include one or many different habitats and usually hosts a diverse community of plants and animals.
However, some ecosystems are more abundant than other in then Natura 2000 network. For instance Forest ecosystems represent about 50% of the network’s surface while agro-ecosystems (pastureland and other agricultural areas) cover about 40% of the network,
Currently (2016), almost 6% of the EU marine area is included in the Natura 2000 Network and work is in progress to complete designation of marine sites that will ensure the conservation of habitat types and species protected by the Habitats and Birds directives in the marine ecosystems.
The directives do not lay down in detail the consultation process to be followed for the selection of sites. As a result, the procedures have varied considerably between Member States in accordance with their administrative systems. In some cases, the identification of the sites has been accompanied by detailed discussion with owners and users but, in other cases, there has been little or no consultation with stakeholders.
This did give rise to controversy in some Member States, leading to a variety of administrative and legal challenges which delayed the submission of proposals. The Commission was however not involved at this stage and had no powers to intervene in the differing procedures followed in Member States.
As regards the analysis of the national lists of SCIs and their selection at biogeographical level, this has been carried out in a transparent way through scientific seminars convened by the Commission and supported by the European Environment Agency. Member States and experts representing relevant stakeholder interests from owners and users as well as environmental NGO’s were given an opportunity to participate in these seminars.
The identification and selection of sites for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network is done on purely scientific grounds in accordance with the selection criteria laid down in the two Directives. Using a scientific basis for the selection of the sites ensures that:
– only the most appropriate sites are selected for Natura 2000 designation (i.e. not all sites hosting a particular species or habitats) and
– a sufficient number of sites are included in the Natura 2000 network to ensure the long term conservation of each of the listed species and habitats across their entire natural range within the EU.
If the best sites are not included, or if there is an insufficient number of sites for a particular species or habitat type, the network will not be ecologically coherent and will not be able to fulfil its objectives under the two nature directives.
Socio-economic considerations are therefore not taken into account during site selection process. They are however a fundamental consideration when deciding how a Natura 2000 site should be protected and managed. Article 2 of the Habitats Directive makes it clear that all measures taken pursuant to the Directive shall be designed to maintain and restore, at a favourable conservation status, natural habitats and species of EU importance, whilst taking account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics.
A site can only be delisted if it has lost its conservation value due to natural developments and cannot be restored by management measures. However, it is important to bear in mind that the mere degradation of the site, due for example to inadequate management, would be a breach to Article 6.2. Such sites cannot be declassified simply because they have been allowed to deteriorate, and have not been managed correctly in accordance with the requirements of the two Nature Directives.
Sites that have been destroyed and duly compensated for in application of Article 6.4 of the Habitats Directive can be removed from the list. Also sites for which it appears that the initial designation or delimitation was based on erroneous scientific information can be modified or delisted. Any proposal for such modification by a Member State will only be authorised by the Commission if it is scientifically duly underpinned.
The European Commission, with the help of the European Environment Agency, has created a public on-line GIS mapping system – called the Natura 2000 viewer – which gives the precise location of each Natura 2000 site in the EU Network. The user can search for, and query, any site anywhere in the EU. Thanks to the large scale of the maps, site boundaries and key landscape features are easily visible.
The Natura 2000 viewer also provides access to the Standard Data Form (SDF) that accompanies every site. The SDF records the species and habitat types of EU importance for which the site has been designated, as well as their estimated population size and degree of conservation within that site at the time of designation.
More detailed Information on Natura 2000 sites is also available from the competent nature conservation authorities in each Member State.
People often associate nature conservation with strict nature reserves where human activities are systematically excluded. Natura 2000 adopts a different approach. It fully recognises that man is an integral part of nature and the two work best in partnership with one another.
Natura 2000 site designation does not mean therefore that all economic activities must be stopped. In some cases, adaptations or changes may indeed be required to safeguard the species and habitats for which the site has been designated, or to help restore them back to a good state of conservation. But in many other cases, the existing activities will continue as before.
In fact, for numerous sites, the species and habitats present may be entirely dependent on the continuation of such activities for their long term survival, and, in such cases, it will be important to find ways to continue to support, and if appropriate, enhance such activities – eg regular mowing or grazing or scrub control.
It is therefore not possible to generalise. Much depends on the specific environmental, as well as social and economic circumstances of each site and the precise ecological requirements of the species and habitat types present. This can only be assessed on a case by case basis.
Traditional activities will be allowed to continue as before if they have no negative impact on the species or habitat types for which the site has been designated. Again, this needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. Only then will it become clear if there is in fact an impact or not. If there is a negative impact, then the studies will help to determine its extent and the best means of reducing or removing it (e.g. relocating the activities to another part of the site or adapting practices and their timing) so that they no longer cause the deterioration or degradation of the species and habitats for which the site has been designated.
Hunting is a typical example of ongoing activities that can be allowed to continue in a Natura 2000 site, provided it has no negative impact on the species or habitat types for which the site has been designated. The Birds and Habitats Directives recognise the legitimacy of hunting as a form of sustainable use and do not a priori prohibit its practice within Natura 2000 sites. Instead, the Directives set a framework for controlling hunting activities to ensure there is a balance between hunting and the long term interest of maintaining healthy and viable populations of huntable species.
People go in search of nature for a whole variety of different reasons. Many are looking to relax in the peace and quiet of a scenic environment, some are keen to explore new areas, whilst others are more interested in pursuing nature-based activities such as swimming, walking, cycling, fishing, hunting, etc. Whatever their motivation, Natura 2000 offers people a unique opportunity to discover and enjoy Europe’s rich natural heritage.
These recreational activities are compatible with the provisions of the Habitats and Birds Directives as long as they do not adversely affect the habitats and species present. The key often lies in the sensitive planning and wise use of resources to ensure they do not end up destroying the very thing upon which they are based.
The process of establishing the necessary conservation measures for each Natura 2000 site is not an optional provision; it is obligatory for all Member States. This means that, for each Natura 2000 site, those conservation measures, which are deemed to be necessary, must be established and implemented.
Implementing conservation measures does not always imply active management or restoration measures, such as the removal of invasive alien species or the diversification of the age structure of forest stands. It can also include protective measures such as avoiding disturbance of a species during the breeding season.
Not always. It depends very much on the type of measure and the particular area where they are implemented. There are certain conservation measures that do not entail any cost or reduced income, or can be readily absorbed without extra costs or loss of income into day-to-day management activities (e.g. changing the species composition of forests stands where such composition is economically and ecologically unsustainable by introducing productive tree species that correspond to the natural vegetation or simply ensuring that the existing forest management practices are being continued where they have shown to be beneficial to the establishment or maintenance of a good conservation degree of species and habitat types present on a site).
Some conservation measures may even lead to certain economic benefits in the short or longer term (e.g. creation of better hunting conditions for game species, reduced game damage, better angling possibilities as a result of a more river-friendly silviculture, higher touristic interest, more nature-friendly and less expensive silvicultural methods, improved soil conditions, etc.).
However, there will inevitably be a number of conservation measures that do entail costs because they require extra man power to be implemented, require new investments into new infrastructure or equipment, or because they reduce the commercial opportunities available to the owner. These need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
The Commission strongly recommends that the Natura 2000 management plans also provide an estimate of the costs of implementing each of the conservation measures that have been identified for the site in question and also examine all possible sources of funding at local, national and EU level and from both public and private sources. This should also investigate the possibility of using innovative self-financing schemes (e.g. through the sale of Natura 2000 products, eco-tourism, payments for preserving water quality, etc. -see examples in Question 14).
The effective management and restoration of sites in the Natura 2000 network across the entire EU-28 requires significant financial investments. In 2007 the Commission estimated that ca €5.8 billion per year will be needed for EU-27 to manage and restore the sites in the network. However, the use of different EU instruments so far has been very significantly below the financial needs of Natura 2000 as defined by the Member States, covering only 20% of those needs4.
However, these costs are greatly outweighed by the multiple socio-economic benefits provided by the areas included in the network. In addition to playing a crucial role in protecting Europe’s biodiversity, Natura 2000 sites provide a wide range of other ecosystem benefits and services to society. According to recent Commission studies, the benefits that flow from areas designated as Natura 2000 sites are estimated to be in the order of €200 to 300 billion/year.
Although these figures provide only a first estimate, the preliminary results already show that the economic benefits for society derived from the Natura 2000 Network compare very favourably to the costs associated with managing and protecting this important resource, which represent only a fraction of its potential benefits.
The precise cost-benefit ratio will of course depend on a range of factors, including the location of the sites and their land use, but, all evidence to date points to the fact that a well-managed Natura 2000 Network will more than repay the costs related to its maintenance.
As an EU-wide network, Natura 2000 is based on the principle of solidarity between Member States. It represents an important shared resource capable of providing multiple benefits to society and to Europe’s economy. But it is also a shared responsibility which requires sufficient financial investments to become fully operational.
While the main responsibility for financing Natura 2000 lies with Member States, Article 8 of the Habitats Directive recognises the need for EU-level support for the management of Natura 2000 and explicitly links the delivery of the necessary conservation measures to the provision of EU co-financing.
Management requirements of Natura 2000 have been integrated into different EU funding streams, as the Structural Funds (ERDF), Rural Development Fund (EAFRD), European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF), LIFE, etc.
This integration approach was chosen for several reasons:
It ensures that the management of Natura 2000 sites is part of the wider land management policies of the EU;
It allows Member States to set priorities and to develop policies and measures which reflect their national and regional specificities;
It avoids duplication and overlap of different EU funding instruments and the administrative complications associated with such duplication.
There are several funding opportunities available under the new EU Funds for the period 2014-2020 but it depends on Member State authorities whether and how these opportunities are made available in the specific country/region.
In order to make best use of the EU funds available the Commission has encouraged Member States to adopt a more strategic multi-annual planning approach to Natura 2000 financing. This takes the form of Prioritised Action Frameworks (PAFs), which define the funding needs and strategic priorities for Natura 2000 at a national or regional level for the period 2014-2020. These PAFs are specifically designed to facilitate the integration of suitable conservation measures, including those for forests, into the new operational programmes for the different EU funding instruments.
The two EU nature directives also require the protection of certain species across the EU, both within and outside Natura 2000 sites, to ensure their conservation across their natural range within the EU. This concerns all naturally occurring wild bird species in the EU as well as other species listed in Annex IV and V of the Habitats.
In addition, Member States are also required to preserve, maintain or re-establish a sufficient diversity and area of habitats for all the wild bird species in the European territory (Article 3 of the Birds Directive). That requirement may imply habitat protection measures outside the Natura 2000 network.
As regards the provisions on species protection across their whole range, the two Directives require Member States to prohibit the:
deliberate killing or capture of protected species by any method;
deliberate destruction or taking of eggs or nests, or the picking, collecting, cutting, uprooting or destruction of protected plants;
deterioration or destruction of breeding sites or resting places;
deliberate disturbance particularly during breeding, rearing, hibernation and migration;
the keeping, sale and transport of specimens taken from the wild.
These prohibitions as transposed into national legislation must be respected by all land owners, users and managers as well.