A 'new' biogeographical process has been underway since 2011, when it was introduced by the European Commission to ensure continuous and effective management of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites. This New Biogeographical Process continues the division of the EU territory into biogeographical regions – Boreal, Mediterranean, Continental, etc. – but now focuses on the management of the sites in these regions, particularly through cooperation, networking and the spread of best practices.
“The 'old' process was about designation and assessment of sites, but the site designation process is coming to a close,” says François Kremer, Natura 2000 Policy Coordinator at the European Commission’s Nature Unit. While a few gaps remain – particularly in new Member States – the Natura 2000 network can now be considered as “more or less” well established, he adds.
The Commission moreover sees the New Biogeographical Process as a long-term support for a network of people involved in the management of Natura 2000. “We hope to get as much out of the Natura 2000 network as possible, to use it as a really coherent network of protected areas. We want Natura 2000 to be the best instrument to achieve the targets of the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy,” affirms Mr Kremer.
In 2011, Member States endorsed the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, which aims at fully implementing the Birds and Habitats Directives by achieving a significant improvement of the conservation status of species and habitat types of Community interest by 2020. The Commission recognises that to maintain and improve habitats it is vital that Member States, stakeholder organisations, environmental NGOs and experts cooperate fully.
Though Member States have a legal obligation to manage Natura 2000 sites and achieve favourable conservation status for those habitats and species that fall within their borders, the Commission can be a “facilitator” of this process, according to Mr Kremer. The Commission receives contractual technical and scientific assistance to animate the new process and to develop networking activities. The process very much relies on active involvement and participation of the Member States. As 'lead countries' they coordinate work on selected habitat groups and host the key meetings under the process, which are preparatory workshops and Natura 2000 Seminars. “We want Member States to take initiatives, to work together and to coordinate cooperation and networking. We very much appreciate an active role not only for Member States, but also for NGOs and other stakeholder organisations”, he says.
The new process began with the Boreal region, bringing five Member States “round the table”. The lead country was Finland, which was charged with first organising a preparatory workshop and then later a seminar to further expand on the outcomes of this workshop. The aim of this seminar was to establish recommendations and multilateral cooperation for habitat types that have been selected for priority consideration by the Member States involved.
For all regions, different countries also act as 'lead countries' for particular habitat groups – for example, for the Boreal region, Sweden led on grasslands, while Estonia took an active role in leading the work on wetlands and Finland led on forests. The different habitat groups were preselected for prioritisation by the European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity, based on the analysis of Article 17 reports from 2007. For each of the habitat groups, a top 20 habitat-type list was then selected by the Member States involved.
In each biogeographical region the process begins with the collection of background information on the condition and management of selected habitat types. A preparatory workshop then brings together as much expertise and experience as possible, including input from LIFE projects. “LIFE projects have found interesting results or demonstrated methods on the management of habitat types that were selected for priority consideration in the process. The projects can feed in best practice to the workshops, show results and help identify recommendations for further work, and also for possible further LIFE projects,” says Mr Kremer.
At the workshops, experts “discuss the major problems, the solutions and best practices, and recommendations for each of the selected habitat groups and eventually habitat types or species,” he adds.
The main findings of the discussions at a preparatory workshop are then reported at a biogeographical Natura 2000 Seminar. “It’s a cooperative process (not a political one) in which the Member States in each region involve their experts and NGOs and stakeholders and agree on what should be done and what are the best practices to be recommended for each habitat type,” emphasises Mr Kremer.
The first seminar on the Boreal region was held in Finland in January 2012. “But this seminar does of course not end the process in that region,” he avows. “There can be further workshops and seminars later and what really counts are the multiple networking activities in-between the workshops and seminars.” Mr Kremer gives the example of joint field visits organised in the boreal region as a follow-up to the seminar as an example of the ongoing impact of the process. “These visits revealed that experts had some very different views, for example on conservation status. It’s an enormous enrichment of awareness of problems, issues and solutions. Such networking events can also result in the launch of proposals for new cross-border cooperation, possibly including LIFE projects, on issues that have mutually been recognised as a priority issues.”
A key feature of the New Biogeographical Process is the sharing of information online. A web-based Communication Platform has been launched to allow interested parties to easily access all the background information and documents available for each habitat type as well as to initiate discussion about practice on the site’s forum. The platform is also designed to enable Member States to publicise their events and thus facilitate the sharing of knowledge and experience.
The LIFE programme in particular has a role to play in this exchange, according to Mr Kremer. “LIFE projects develop networking with other projects on similar themes, and these projects should feed their experience, results and events into the New Biogeographical Process. If they organise an event on a particular issue, which is important for Natura 2000 management in a particular region, this can be communicated on this platform and shared with others. It is all about being a big family and working together in the Natura 2000 network.”
Recently, the preparatory workshop for the Alpine region was held in Austria. “For this region we’re in the post-workshop phase – the experts are continuing exchanges based on what was discussed at the workshop to prepare the first Alpine Natura 2000 Seminar,” says Mr Kremer. The Alpine seminar will be held in Graz on 25 and 26 November 2013.
The Mediterranean region, the most recent biogeographical region to have its process launched is currently still without a lead country, but the Commission believes that a solution can be found. For the time being, the position is to wait and maybe to find a way for sharing the role between different Member States or regions: “So far all the lead countries have really done an excellent job and this has been recognised by all parties involved,” concludes Mr Kremer.