Protected areas

Protected areas in Europe - an overview

Protected areas in Europe - an overview

This report provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of protected areas in Europe and aims to assist policy makers and the wider public in understanding protected areas in Europe.

As of 2020 protected areas currently cover 23% of the European (38 EEA countries) terrestrial landscape and around 8% of the marine realm. Some areas are as large as the area of France and Poland combined, while others are as small as individual trees. This diversity within a protected area is not bound to the feature of size – it rather extends to every characteristic of protected areas. Within the EU27 protected areas cover 25.7% of the terrestrial landscape and 11.1% of the marine realm.

The following report intends to capture this heterogeneous nature of European protected areas and tell the story of the joint effort in protecting the European nature. It explores current statistics on coverage and growth with regard to their representation in the European biogeographical regions, countries and overseas territories, and further gives insight into relevant characteristics such as size, connectivity and management. The role of EU nature regulation with its Natura 2000 network as well as European and global biodiversity targets are further reflected throughout the text

Nature conservation activities play the key role in halting the loss of biodiversity and reducing pressure on ecosystems. One fundamental conservation measure targeting species and habitats as well as broader ecosystem functions and services is the designation of protected areas.

2. Coverage & representativity
European protected areas increased in the last decades, covering over 1.84 million km² of land and sea. With an area of just over 1 million km², the central driver behind this achievement is the Natura 2000 network. On national level, countries exhibit quite distinct approaches in protected area designations and priority setting.

3. Size
In Europe there are over 130 000 protected areas 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 Europe 86% of sites are below 10 km2. How does this compare to the rest of the world?

4. Connectivity
Due to its high landscape fragmentation, European protected areas are in special need for targeted transboundary connectivity. Compared to other regions of the world, European protected areas already show particularly high connectivity, however, more action is necessary to achieve a free flowing nature network for Europe.

5. Protected Species & Habitats
Many European habitats and species as well as all birds naturally occurring in Europe are covered by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. As one it’s the central objectives, the Natura 2000 network aims to protect comprise these 233 habitats, 1 389 non-bird species and the over 460 wild birds.

6. Management
Protected area designation is the first important step towards achieving desired conservation objectives, but the adequate site management and targeted measures are the key factors for successful conservation. Current analyses show, however, that while protection is increasingly secured on paper, the progress on improving the management and assessing the effectiveness of measures has been rather low.

7. Future
The protection of European nature has advanced substantially in the past years. Ongoing shortcomings involve, inter alia, the protection of offshore waters and some ecosystem types as well as the implementation of effective management plans and its monitoring. Thus, ambitious action is needed to achieve the targets to 2030 set by the EU and the CBD.