© Ben Porter

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,

Almost 10% of the EU marine area is included in the Natura 2000 Network (2018 data) 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 NGOs 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.

The Natura 2000 network includes currently (2021) over 27,000 sites covering a total surface of about 1,215,000 km2 both on land and marine areas of all the EU Member States. The total land area covered by the Natura 2000 represents around 18% of the total land EU surface. The national land coverage of Natura 2000 sites varies from about 9% to almost 38% depending on the countries. This difference is in part due to the amount of natural and semi-natural habitat that each country hosts. For example, a much higher proportion of habitat types and species protected under the Directives are to be found in the Mediterranean, Continental, and Alpine Regions than the Atlantic Region. Furthermore, some countries have been historically subject to higher levels of intensive land use and fragmentation resulting in a smaller natural resource for protection under the Directives. Natural and semi-natural habitats and species, such as large carnivores, are generally much more plentiful and extensive distributed in the Central and Eastern European Member States that joined the EU from 2004 onwards than in some older Member States. It also results from different approaches Member States have taken in delineation of boundaries of sites selected for designation. Several Member States have proposed broadly delineated large Natura 2000 sites embracing a more holistic approach that includes areas of non-qualifying habitat. Others have delineated their sites more exactly, limiting them more to the area of qualifying habitat.

The Natura 2000 barometer regularly updates the information about the number of sites and surface covered in every country and at EU level.

The Natura 2000 viewer is an on-line facility that enables the user to locate and explore Natura 2000 sites anywhere in the EU at the press of a button.

Further information:

Lists of Natura 2000 sites approved by the Commission in every biogeographical region.
Natura 2000 in all Member States

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.

Further information:

Natura 2000 viewer
Access to Natura 2000 data
Natura 2000 in all Member States

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 – e.g. 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.

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.

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, 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 landowners, users and managers as well.

Further guidance on the species protection provisions under the Habitats Directive is available.

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