Coming together to protect Europe's nature
Since the 1960s, it became apparent that Europe’s nature was deteriorating: Species that used to be common and widespread were disappearing, and many natural places became degraded or lost. Expanding urbanisation and economic development along with associated land- and sea-use changes, pollution, and infrastructure construction, are causing these devastating impacts on nature.
A little more than 40 years ago, responding to the increasing concern of citizens, European countries started to work together to protect nature and to preserve our natural heritage. This endeavour required decisive action, governed by clear rules that everybody would follow. As a result, the European Union (EU) put in place dedicated legislation to ensure the conservation of all bird species and most endangered animals, plants and habitats, many of which are unique to Europe and not found anywhere else in the world.
HOW THE EU IS PROTECTING NATURE
The main pillars of EU nature protection legislation, which all EU Member States have transposed into their national laws, are two European laws called the Birds Directive (1979) and the Habitats Directive (1992), jointly referred to as the EU Nature Directives.
Both directives follow a similar and complementary approach. They protect:
1. Natural areas that are home to wild species and habitats. The areas to be protected are identified according to agreed scientific criteria. They are called Natura 2000 sites and together form the largest network of protected areas in the world.
2. Specific species both within and outside Natura 2000 sites.
EXPLORE NATURA 2000 SITES ANYWHERE IN THE EU
MORE INFORMATION IS CONTAINED IN THE REPORT ON THE EU BIRDS AND HABITATS DIRECTIVES
PROTECTIONG OUR NATURAL PLACES: THE NATURA 2000 NETWORK
The Natura 2000 network is the biggest network of protected areas in the world. It comprises about 27,000 sites across 27 EU Member States, and currently covers more than 18 percent of the European Union’s land area and around 9 percent of its marine area. The network protects around 1,500 typical, rare or threatened animal and plant species in the EU.
The biggest Natura 2000 site is the Mers Celtiques marine area on the Atlantic coast of France, while the Grotta della Lovara - which protects a number of endangered bats in the Italian Alps - is one of the smallest sites. Among the rarest habitats and species protected by the network are the Tufa cascades of karstic rivers of the Dinaric Alps, the Olm (Proteus anguinus), and the Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata) which is only found in the Canary Islands.
Explore Natura 2000 sites anywhere in the EU Natura 2000 Network Viewer
Find out more in the Natura 2000 Barometer, the Natura 2000 FAQs and more Natura 2000 data and maps.
CONSERVING WILDLIFE BEYOND PROTECTED AREAS
The EU Nature Directives also establish strict rules to protect species outside Natura 2000 sites. They require, for instance, to introduce measures that avoid disturbance to nesting birds during forestry activities, or to prevent incidental catches of protected fish species during commercial fishing.
The directives also prohibit the picking, collecting, cutting, uprooting or destruction of protected plants in the wild outside of Natura 2000 sites. The keeping, transport and sale of animal and plant specimens taken from the wild are also prohibited.
Check out the list of species protected under the Habitats Directive and Wild birds protected under the Birds Directive.
HOW DO WE KNOW THE STATUS OF THE EU’S NATURE?
Each EU country regularly collects information about its protected species and habitats in order to monitor their condition. This is essential to understand how a species or habitat is doing, which threats it is facing, and how to design the best possible conservation measures. It is also the basis for analysing trends in the status of protected species and habitats across the EU.
Every six years, the EU Member States report this information to the European Environment Agency (EEA). The EEA integrates the information into its databases (for example, the European Nature Information System (EUNIS)) and publishes the “State of nature in EU” as an EEA technical report, accompanied by a European Commission policy report. The latest report was published in 2020 and revealed that the majority of species (63 percent) and habitats (81 percent) protected by the Habitats Directive are not in a good conservation status.
TAKING STOCK – SUCCESS AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
The coordinated efforts to conserve Europe’s natural heritage resulted in a number of achievements:
- The area protected for nature conservation in the EU has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
- Over half of the bird species in the EU are now in a stable condition thanks to protection and targeted conservation actions, and despite significant economic growth in the last 40 years.
- Some endangered species are coming back from the brink of extinction, including the Iberian lynx and Bearded vulture.
- Land management practices that benefit both nature and people are increasingly common.
- Knowledge about our European biodiversity has increased and has led to better and more effective conservation actions.
- The EU has invested billions of euros in nature conservation, for example through the LIFE funding programme, leading to some of the greatest conservation success stories in the world.
Despite this progress, there are many challenges ahead. In order to ensure that people and nature can both thrive, we need to tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss and refocus the way we produce, consume and trade goods in ways that promote nature rather than destroying it. The European Green Deal and the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 are important steps in that direction.