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While the number of terrestrial protected areas in Europe is very high (over 130 000), their average size is quite low in comparison to other regions of the world. This largely reflects the high degree of fragmentation arising from agriculture, transport and urban development in Europe.
> In global comparison, European terrestrial protected areas are small on average (< 1 km2)
> In the European context, small sized protected areas do serve important functions and should be seen as contribution to a wider network of protected areas
> European marine protected areas are considerably larger by average than terrestrial protected areas: the majority covers between 10 and 1000 km2
> Size distributions of protected areas vary between European countries, which is mainly due to different management approaches, conservation priorities or biogeographical realities
The majority of protected area sites in Europe (60 %) cover an area of less than 1 km2. Compared to other regions of the world, this is a unique distribution. While the distribution of North America still is quite similar (though not as pronounced), Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean as well as West Asia show remarkable differences.
Size distribution of protected areas (land)
Source: WDPA, October 2020 (UNEP-WCMC)
Nonetheless, protected areas of Europe come in a wide range of sizes, ranging from 972 000 km2 for the Northeast Greenland National Park (Greenland, park of Kingdom of Denmark) down to an individual tree, such as the Kaèja smreka in Godovic, Slovenia.
5 largest marine sites
5 largest terrestrial sites
Arquipélago Submarino do Meteor, Portugal, 123 238 km2
Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður, Island, 14 703 km2
MARNA (Mid-Atlantic Ridge North of the Azores), Portugal, 93 795 km2
Vindelfjällen, Sweden, 5 649 km2
Mers Celtiques - Talus du golfe de Gascogne, France 71 860 km2
TUZ GÖLÜ, Turkey, 7 414 km2
Santuario per i Mammiferi Marini, Italy, 25 573 km2
Delta Dunării _i Complexul Razim - Sinoie, ROU, 5 078 km2
Campos Hidrotermais a Sudoeste dos Açores, PRT , 11 617 km2
Ziemeļvidzemes Biosfēras Rezervāts, Latvia. 4 755 km2
But even though the majority of terrestrial protected areas are rather small, the country-wise distribution is heterogeneous. While in over 60 % of the EU Member States the predominant protected area size is below 1 km2, there are also countries with most of their protected areas ranging between 1 – 10 km2 (e.g. Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Ireland) or even 10 – 100 km2 (e.g. Greece, the Netherlands and Cyprus). This can often be explained by country-specific governance and management approaches as well as naturally and/or historically transformed landscape structures. In Finland for instance, there are many privately owned nature reserves that have a comparatively small extent (FEA, 2016). Germany on the other hand sees the protection of characteristic features and beauty of an area’s natural scenery or its particular historical and cultural significance as one conservation priority.
69 % of terrestrial sites in Europe are below 1 km²
One additional EU-specific reason for the many small protected areas is based on administrative constraints: enlarging an existing protected area for the Natura 2000 network is easier with a new designation instead of modifying the existing one. This also implies that many of the small areas in fact are adjacent to another protected area.
Thus, small protected areas are often intentionally designed to serve a specific purpose or hold important contributions to the broader network of European protected areas. Many studies have indicated, that small protected areas lack effectiveness. However, the limitations and benefits of Europe’s small protected areas are complex to estimate. Regarding analyses on protected area connectivity, for instance, small areas below certain thresholds (e.g. 1 km2) are mostly excluded – which in fact neglects over 69 % of Europe’s protected areas. The added value and connecting role of small areas – especially in the context of the transboundary Natura 2000 network – can therefore not be compared to other regions of the world (see also section Connectivity). That being said, when looking at the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 obligation to reach 30 % protected area coverage, new designations ought to primarily focus on large areas.
For the marine protected areas, the average size is considerably higher than on land. So despite the fact that many of the protected areas are smaller than 1 km2, the majority covers between 10 and 1 000 km2 with 4% that even exceed 1 000 km2.
Looking at the individual Member States, the distribution is again rather heterogeneous. On the one side, there are countries with predominantly small areas below 1 km2, like Finland (88 % below 1 km2), Sweden (85 %), Croatia (59 %) or Bulgaria (57%). In Sweden for example, the trend has only recently shifted towards larger protected areas – three of the seven major marine National Parks been established after 2008 (Grip and Blomqvist, 2018). At the same time, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Malta and Poland have marine protected areas that are mostly greater than 100 km2. An ambitious example is Malta, which in the last years has designated 14 additional large marine protected areas, altogether covering 3 450 km2. More than 30 % of all the waters under Malta’s jurisdiction are under protection, equal to an area ten times larger than the country itself (United Nations, 2018). The Netherlands is the only country with the majority of its marine protected areas larger than 1000 km2.
- Finland Environmental Administration / FEA (2016). One fifth of Europe's surface area is protected. (accessed 31 July 2020)
- Grip, K., & Blomqvist, S. (2018). Establishing marine protected areas in Sweden: Internal resistance versus global influence.Ambio,47(1), 1-14.
- United Nations (2018). Malta substantially enlarges its Marine Protected Areas to an area larger than the country itself (accessed 21 May 2020)