LIFE projects made a strong showing at this year's European Natura 2000 Award ceremony, held in Brussels on 21 May.
The awards recognise conservation achievements and raise awareness about initiatives which help protect nature and promote social and economic wellbeing in Europe. The European Commission (EC) received 93 nominations from 24 Member States for the 2015 awards. Of these, 23 finalists were shortlisted, including 10 LIFE projects. Six awards were presented at the well-attended ceremony under categories ranging from conservation to cross-border cooperation and networking (see box below for the full list of categories and winners).
The European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, was on hand to present the winners with their awards. Introducing the event, he praised the Natura 2000 network, which comprises over 27 000 protected sites covering more than 1 million square kilometres (18% of Europe's land and around 4% of its sea waters), describing it as "truly outstanding". Mr Vella said the network's achievements came from mobilising local actors, such as site managers, volunteers, farmers, hunters, scientists and teachers. These stakeholders work together to "help ensure that nature not only survives, but flourishes for our common well-being".
The Commissioner noted nature's manifold benefits, citing as just some examples carbon storage, bee pollination, water purification and flood prevention. "Nature and its ecosystems provide a number of services that go beyond just aesthetics," he said. "They are indispensable services- not simply for our own well-being but as fundamental drivers of our economy at large." Indeed, the financial benefits from the Natura 2000 network are estimated at €200-300 billion per year.
Mr Vella stressed that improvements can still be made, though. The Commission is currently reviewing the Birds and Habitats directives to see whether its objectives can be achieved more efficiently. "We must step up our ambitions to make sure the rules we have set in place can work more effectively," he said.
The conservation award went to 'Blue Reef - Restoration of stone reefs in Kattegat', a Danish project co-funded by the LIFE programme (LIFE06 NAT/DK/000159). Pia Bucella, Director for Nature, Biodiversity and Land Use at the EC's Environment Directorate-General, co-presented the award. She explained that the project came out on top because it "developed new biodiversity", which also generates healthier and wealthier living conditions. Accepting the award, Ulrik Christian Berggreen from the Danish Ministry of the Environment's Nature Agency said it would "help us to focus on marine biodiversity and the Natura 2000 areas".
The Blue Reef project, which ran from 2006 to 2013, restored approximately 5 ha of cavernous boulder reef in Kattegat bay, Denmark, using natural stones from a quarry in southern Norway. Such reefs have often been plundered in the past for material to build sea defences and harbour jetties. The restoration work involved over 100 000 stones; it has resulted in a six- to eight-fold increase in biomass on the reef and a four- to six-fold rise in the abundance of marine life. This is expected to increase further in the coming years as colonisation of the reef continues and perennial seaweed species grow in size.
Blue Reef was one of the first large-scale restoration projects of its kind in a marine area. It produced guidelines on best practices for restoring stone reefs which could be used by others in northern Europe to carry out similar projects.
the Spanish project 'Favourable social environments for bear conservation', also co-financed by LIFE (LIFE12 NAT/ES/000192) won the award for ‘reconciling interests/perceptions’. Jury member Hubert de Schorlemer, President of the Confederation of European Forest Owners, explained that this project managed to bring together a variety of stakeholders including hunters to help conserve the brown bear (Ursus arctos) in the Cantabrian Mountains.
Fundación Oso Pardo (FOP) works with local stakeholders to reduce human-bear conflicts within the region. Accepting the award, FOP's Fernando Ballesteros said most problems associated with conserving the bear were due to a lack of information. Consequently, the organisation has worked hard to provide such information to local stakeholders, as well as communicating about Natura 2000.
The LIFE project, which runs until June next year, is aimed at ensuring the long-term viability of the Cantabrian brown bear by improving the connections between two sub-populations. It builds on an earlier project (LIFE07 NAT/E/000735), also co-funded by LIFE, which improved habitats in areas considered to be ecological corridors for the bears. The work has helped the bear population grow from 70 individuals to over230 in recent years.
Another winner is also connected with the LIFE programme. The award for cross-border cooperation and networking went to 'DANUBEPARKS - Bridging Natura 2000 sites along the Danube River Habitat Corridor'. As part of this project, managers of protected areas and over 30 Natura 2000 sites on the Danube (covering nine countries in total) came together to tackle common challenges on a river-wide scale through transnational task forces and strategies. Since 2009, over 150 actions have been implemented along the Danube river corridor, focusing on habitat management, conservation of flagship species, river restoration, nature tourism and public awareness. The DANUBEPARKS project is supported by the European Union's South East Europe Transnational Cooperation Programme. Many of its actions were pioneered at smaller scale in earlier LIFE projects in Austria, such as 'Donauufer – Restoration of Danube river banks' (LIFE02 NAT/A/008518), a project coordinated by Georg Frank, who collected the Natura 2000 award on behalf of DANUBEPARKS.
'Natura 2000 Day' bagged the citizens' award, a new category this year whose winner was selected by the public. The project won over 4 000 of the approximately 24 000 votes cast. SEO/BirdLife and BirdLife Europe created the European Natura 2000 Day as part of the LIFE project 'Natura 2000: Connecting people with biodiversity' (LIFE11 INF/ES/000665), in order to raise awareness about the network. Each year, conservation of a different Natura 2000 site is the focus of events; in 2014 the location was Doñana, in southern Spain. Since the campaign began in 2013, more than 19 000 people have joined the different events across Europe and over 3 million social network accounts have been reached. On accepting the award, Asunción Ruiz Guijosa from SEO/BirdLife said it showed that "European citizens are calling for real conservation and good management of Natura space in Europe". She pointed out that the campaign is friendly, simple and one in which everyone can participate. Ms Ruiz also thanked everyone at the LIFE programme, stressing its importance. "We need the LIFE programme to preserve nature," she concluded.
|Conservation||Blue Reef - Restoration of stone reefs in Kattegat||Denmark|
|Communication||Natura 2000 - Long live life! Biodiversity meets com||Germany|
|Reconciling interests/perceptions||Favourable social environments for bear conservation||Spain|
|Socio-economic benefits||Vultures - Providing gains for nature and communities||France|
|Cross-border cooperation and networking||DANUBEPARKS - Bridging Natura 2000 sites along the Danube River Habitat Corridor||Transnational|
|Citizens' award||Natura 2000 Day||Spain/Europe-wide|