According to a comprehensive Commission evaluation, bird populations, other protected species and natural habitats in Europe would be much worse off without protection from the Birds and Habitats Directives. While the Directives are fit for purpose, their implementation needs to be better and more uniform. In light of these findings, the European Commission is now preparing an Action Plan, to be published in 2017, providing comprehensive measures to substantially improve nature protection on the ground.
The Birds Directive protects all wild bird species in the EU. Over 1200 species and sub-species as well as 231 natural habitat types are protected under the Habitats Directive.
The Nature Directives have been a catalyst for increased funding for nature and improved stakeholder awareness and engagement.
The European Commission’s recent ‘Fitness Check’ examined the performance of these two Nature Directives against five criteria: effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, coherence and EU added value.
Drawing on extensive dialogue with stakeholders, including a 12-week public online consultation attracting a record 552 000 responses, the evaluation found that the Directives have established a stronger basis for protecting nature than previously existed in Europe. This has resulted in significant improvements in the status of protected species and habitats where adequate targeted actions have been taking place.
In addition, research indicates that the EU Natura 2000 network of protected areas, which covers almost one-fifth of Europe’s landmass and 6 % of marine areas, shelters a high proportion of species of conservation concern not listed by the Directives.
The evaluation also confirmed the Nature Directives have been a catalyst for increased funding for nature and stakeholder engagement, making them key players in achieving the headline target of Europe's Biodiversity Strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020.
However, the evaluation found that it is still not possible to predict when the overall goal of the Directives – achieving the favourable conservation status of the protected species and habitats – will be fully achieved. It also highlighted that important challenges remain, including funding shortage, ineffective management of Natura 2000 sites, lack of policy integration, knowledge gaps, and limited stakeholder and public engagement.
Money well spent
The estimated compliance costs of designating, protecting and managing Natura 2000 sites are at least EUR 5.8 billion annually. Nevertheless, these costs are outweighed by the multiple benefits the Network provides, estimated to reach EUR 200-300 billion annually. For instance, the Birds and Habitats Directives are helping to boost local economies through job creation and tourism, especially in rural areas.
However, EU financial support for agriculture and forestry, the main land uses in Natura 2000, could be better harnessed to achieve the Directives’ objectives. Moreover, strengthening collaboration with stakeholder groups such as farmers and rural communities, fishermen, the industrial sector as well as national, regional and local authorities is essential for a better application of nature rules on the ground.