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The EU’s protected areas – Natura 2000

The EU has strong nature protection legislation. It revolves around the Natura 2000 network – 26 000 protected sites that make up one fifth of the EU's land area. It is the largest such network in the world, and it offers vital protection for Europe’s most endangered species and habitats.

The network has a major economic impact: one estimate of the benefits provided by the network puts the value between €200 and €300 billion per year, or 2 % to 3 % of the EU’s Gross Domestic Product.

The seeds of Natura 2000 were sown in 1979 when the EU passed its first major piece of nature protection legislation, the Birds Directive. This protects all wild birds in the EU, covering some 500 species. EU countries identify and protect sites that are particularly important for wild birds. So far, around 5 300 'Special Protection Areas' have been created.

A second instrument, the 1992 Habitats Directive, obliges EU countries to protect the habitats of endangered species of plants, animals and habitats. Protected sites are known as 'Special Areas of Conservation'. The Habitats Directive covers some 1,500 rare and threatened plants and animals, and around 230 habitat types, including hay meadows, heathland and salt marshes.

The areas protected under these two Directives form the Natura 2000 network. Its aim is to safeguard all of Europe's major habitat types and endangered species.

The Natura 2000 Network is now almost complete. Over 26,000 sites have been included so far, making it the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. Natura 2000 covers 18 % of EU land area and substantial parts of the surrounding seas.

Natura 2000 is not just a network of protected nature reserves. It recognises that humans and nature work best in partnership. Its aim is not to exclude economic activities but ensure they are compatible with safeguarding valuable species and habitats.

The main objectives within Natura 2000 sites are:

  • avoid activities that could seriously disturb the species or damage the habitats for which the site is designated
  • take positive measures, if necessary, to maintain and restore these habitats and species to improve conservation.

This approach has many advantages: by encouraging sustainable forestry, fishing, agriculture and tourism, the network ensures a long-term future for the people who live in these areas and rely on these activities.