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agriculture and environment

Natura 2000 and agriculture

Bertrand DELPEUCH (DG XI)

"Since migratory birds know no borders, Europe must ensure their protection". This was the basis for the 1979 Birds Directive, the first piece of Community legislation on nature protection. Yet what seems obvious for migratory species does not apply to plants or natural habitats. However, with Natura 2000, the European Union is in the process of establishing a network of sites broadly covering its agricultural areas.

Ministers put forward a new justification for the second and main Community Directive on nature protection, the Habitats Directive, when it was adopted in 1992. Through its common agricultural policy, fisheries policy, forestry measures and the impact of structural funds in rural areas, the EU has a tremendous influence on land use and hence on the state of nature conservation in the European Union. It is therefore logical that Member States should fix objectives together, assess the most seriously threatened natural habitats and animal and plant species, and take steps to protect them.

A network of areas

Natura 2000 is a European network of areas, proposed under the Birds Directive 1 and the Habitats Directive 2, where human activity must be compatible with the conservation of sites of natural importance.

The Natura 2000 network comprises two types of areas:

  • areas designated directly by the Member States under the Birds Directive;
  • areas proposed by the Member States under the Habitats Directive and then subjected to a Community selection procedure in three stages.

The first stage is a scientific assessment at national level of each habitat or species of Community interest. The important sites are identified on the basis of common criteria (ecological quality of the habitat, size and density of the population of the species concerned, degree of isolation of the species in relation to its natural population range, surface area occupied, etc.) and presented to the European Commission in the form of national lists. 

The second stage involves the identification of the sites which will form the Natura 2000 network. The selection is made by the European Commission in cooperation with Member States. Each site proposed on a national list is evaluated on the basis of its relative value, its importance as a migratory route or transboundary site, its total surface area, the co-existence of the various types of habitat and species concerned and its unique character as a biogeographical region.

In the third stage, the Member States must designate sites of Community importance by 2004 at the latest and gradually introduce the requisite protection and management measures on the sites.

Natura 2000 covers large areas of agricultural land

With a proposed coverage of almost 9% of the Community's land area at the beginning of 1999, the Natura 2000 network has generated public interest but has also been a source of much concern among farmers and foresters. Their concerns are understandable since, apart from marine and fresh water areas and high-altitude rocky land, most of the natural habitats covered by Natura 2000 are in agricultural or wooded areas. These areas are therefore semi-natural, created and maintained by human activity. In many cases their natural characteristics would disappear if agricultural work or animal rearing were to cease (Box 1).

Contrary to a widely held belief in rural areas, the idea behind the Natura 2000 network is not to set up full nature reserves or freeze all human activity on the proposed sites. This would be both impossible and undesirable since the Natura 2000 network could eventually cover 12% of the EU's territory. Apart from a few exceptions (intact natural forests and underwater caves), Natura 2000 sites are and will be managed through productive activity. Without grain production, the great bustard (Otis tarda) would desert central Spain. Without humid hay- or grazing-meadows, the corncrake (Crex crex) would abandon the banks of the Loire. Without the guaranteed pastures of open wooded meadows, the hermit beetle (Osmoderma eremita) would disappear from southern Sweden.

At this stage, however, it is very difficult to quantify or characterise the agricultural and forestry land included in the Natura 2000 sites. Community legislation does not set a fixed percentage for each Member State. Their contribution depends on the richness of their natural areas and traditions of management on sites of special interest. Moreover, several Member States lag behind in their classification of zones under the Birds Directive or in proposing sites under the Habitats Directive (Table 1). The selection of sites is often further advanced in some regions than in others within a Member State (e.g. Germany – Map 1 and Spain – Map 2). 

A significant contribution

Based on the experience gained through agri-environmental measures, as presented in another chapter of this book, it is possible to imagine the future link between Natura 2000 and EU agriculture.

By paying for a service provided by farmers to society, this type of support helps to diversify agricultural income, particularly in animal-rearing areas and areas of diversified farming. It therefore contributes to managing potential Natura 2000 sites.

Several Member States and regions are now giving priority to Natura 2000 sites by co-financing agri-environmental measures. Demonstration projects co-financed under Life-Nature 3 have been used to determine the farming practices best suited to maintaining or even enhancing the natural value of sites in terms of the habitats or species that society wishes to protect.

Accordingly, farming and the protection of Natura 2000 sites have everything to gain from coexisting on the same land:

  • The sites are farmed in a way that is better suited to the land and there is a continuous human presence which is often less costly than management by an external body;
  • Farmers are remunered for the environmental services they provide in a transparent way which their fellow citizens can understand;
  • Regions of the Union with the greatest biodiversity are generally farmed the least intensively. They therefore receive preferential Community support.
  • Related activities become more attractive, e.g. the direct sale of meats, cheeses or wines labelled as coming from Natura 2000 sites, the promotion of rural tourism linked to the discovery of nature, etc.

Natura 2000 could therefore become a clear sign of the multifunctionality of agriculture in the third millennium.


1 Birds Directive, OJ L 103, 25.04.1979, p. 1
2 Habitats Directive, OJ L 206, 22.07.1992, p. 7
3 Life is the EU's financial instrument for environmental protection. Approximately 350 projects under way in the 15 Member States are cofinanced by the Nature section of the Life instrument.


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