Celebrating a true European achievement: the Natura 2000 network of protected sites

Seal on the Beach

With its Green Deal and the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the EU has demonstrated its ambition to address the climate crisis and protect our biodiversity and natural heritage. Such ambition and a clear vision are crucial and the EU has taken an important step in focusing its strategy on “green development” and sustainable use of natural resources. However, especially for biodiversity, it is the practical implementation locally, in EU member states, that will ultimately make the difference for nature and people.

The European Natura 2000 network addresses exactly this issue: over the past 30 years, it has developed into the largest network of protected areas globally, comprising more than 27,000 sites in 27 Member States and covering almost 18 percent of the EU’s land – an area as large as Germany, France, Poland and Belgium together – and nearly 10 percent of its marine area.

Its main objective is to safeguard Europe’s most valuable and threatened animals and plants and to maintain and restore their natural habitats. These species and habitats are identified in the two central pieces of EU environmental legislation: the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directives, together known as the Nature Directives which are also the legal basis establishing the Natura 2000 network.

Past successes and challenges of the Natura 2000 network

The Natura 2000 network has had significant successes. Having a common way to identify and to some extent monitor sites over such a large and diverse area is unique. The network gives us both a good understanding of the state of Europe’s nature and also a means to collaborate and exchange on conservation actions. Certain species and habitats are clearly benefitting from the protection and management of the habitats they rely upon. It is also clear that without the network, the EU’s biodiversity would be fairing much worse.

However, there are also problems with the implementation of the Nature Directives. The EU State of Nature report 2020, shows that unsustainable agriculture and forestry, urban sprawl and pollution mean that many habitats continue to decline in condition with associated continued loss of insects, birds, mammals and plants. Moreover, still today the European Commission is forced to launch infringement procedures against member states – not just for failure to protect the species and habitats of the Natura 2000 network, but also for their failure to designate Natura 2000 sites in the first place. Ensuring that EU policies are well coordinated and work in the same direction in both their formulation and implementation, is essential for the future. It is clear that a range of different actors need to be involved in nature conservation.

Involving all stakeholder has been a significant challenge for Natura 2000 since it was put in place. Historically, the individual sites have faced significant local opposition in some countries: people were consulted late, or not at all and were concerned about potential restrictions on their activities. On the other hand, for the wider general public, unaffected by day to day management decisions on protected sites, Natura 2000 is often unknown and consequently public understanding and support is lacking.

adelphi’s involvement to increase awareness and understanding of Natura 2000

The 2016 assessment of the Nature Directives (the so-called Fitness Check) concluded that stakeholder awareness and engagement are key for achieving their objectives. adelphi is involved in several initiatives to increase awareness and understanding of Natura 2000. One of them, the Natura 2000 Awards, aims to celebrate the achievements of an extremely wide range of different stakeholders in protecting Natura 2000 as well as draw the attention of the general public to the network through a public vote. Previous winners range from collaborations with High Nature Value farmers in Romania to technically complex marine restoration techniques in Denmark.

Likewise, exchanges about the current challenges and how they are being addressed by nature conservation practitioners from different backgrounds and member states are also essential to facilitate the effective conservation of species and habitats. adelphi is supporting this effort on behalf of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.

The EU is also updating their Biodiversity Information System for Europe (BISE) and as a part of this, new tools will be launched to further inform the public and the education sector. In order to close this knowledge gap, the European Commission has launched a project to inform about the conservation efforts at the EU level, and adelphi is one of the project partners. The project  will use the data that member states submit as part of their obligations under the Nature Directives and present them in an attractive and easy to understand way.

The Natura 2000 network is central to achieving the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030

We failed to meet the 2020 biodiversity strategy targets in Europe. In order to make up for this negligence the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 shows a much higher level of ambition and a more holistic approach. The Natura 2000 network is central to achieving key commitments of the strategy (e.g. to increase the extent of strictly protected areas to 10%) and will benefit from others (e.g. effective management of all protected areas; setting up a Trans-European Nature Network). However, the further definition and implementation of these targets needs to keep up with the original ambition and must not water them down to match the status quo. We need to learn from early experiences and ensure that everyone affected, is engaged quickly and meaningfully. This includes the EU institutions, the individual member states, the sectors impacting biodiversity as well as the public. Everyone must understand that nature, even in protected areas far from where they live, is important. Alone, we cannot change the trajectory and halt the loss of biodiversity.

In the context of an increased political focus on restoration to deliver nature-based solutions, we should not forget that protected areas remain the keystone of biodiversity conservation in Europe and many Natura 2000 sites have demonstrated they are places where both nature and people can thrive.

Selected Projects