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.

    Key messages

  • Due to its high landscape fragmentation, European protected areas are in special need for targeted transboundary connectivity
  • In global comparison, protected areas of the EU are particularly well connected (over 70 % are well connected according to the ProtConn Indicator)
  • The Natura 2000 network contributes considerably to joint conservation efforts: 73 % of the adjacent cross-boundary protected areas that were designated in the same year both form part of the network
  • Future action to achieve the ambitious goal of a “truly coherent Trans European Nature Network” should focus, inter alia, on reducing regulatory barriers, improved coordination for single transboundary sites and beyond as well as more cross-sectorial involvement

Natural landscapes in Europe are scattered across the entire continent in disconnected fragments. However, connectivity between landscapes is vital to maintain healthy species, communities and ecosystems as large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes (e.g. such as gene flow, migration and species shifts) rely on it (UNEP-WCMC et al., 2018). The importance of connected landscapes becomes even more relevant with changing climate conditions. A change in climate can lead to a change in species mobility or changes in in species abundances, distribution and composition, among other impacts (IPBES, 2019). One of the most important instruments to maintain or renew connectivity across a landscape and across boundaries of European Member States are protected areas.

An indicator to determine the share of a country or region covered by protected and connected lands is the “Protected Connected land” (ProtConn) (Saura et al., 2017). It allows for a regional and national comparison of the relative connectivity among protected areas, as can be seen on the global scale in the map below. 

Results show that connectivity in Europe is relatively high compared to many other regions of the world (see map above). The EU scores higher than any of the five continents, with over 70 % of its protected areas well connected. This is the case, even though the approach of the study exempted all protected areas smaller than 1 km2 – which is the most common protected area size class in Europe (see Section Size). This suggest, that the actual degree of connectivity is even higher than shown in the map. Yet, due to the high fragmentation of the landscape, European countries are also in particular need for connectivity, while in other regions or countries (such as in Canada or many African countries) single large protected areas are not as dependent on a high connectivity (Saura et al., 2018).

The need for connectivity, however, does not stop on borders. The ProtConn concept also points out the need for transboundary connectivity (see map below).

It illustrates that Europe, together with Latin America, is in special need for transboundary connectivity. Europe overall (41 %) and many European countries have a high share of protected areas along their borders, which is particularly high for Bulgaria, Czechia, Germany, Poland and Slovakia. For example, 99.8 % of the German part of the German-Belgian border is covered by protected area (with a total of 95 individual sites).

By average, 50 % of European borders are covered by protected areas

Protected areas that are joint across national borders have a long tradition in Europe. The oldest protected areas joining borders go back until the early 20th century. Situated in the Alps, the Italian Parco nazionale dello Stelvio (130 734 km2) and the Swiss National Park (17 032 km2) form one of the biggest connected protected areas in Europe. In total, there are over 4 300 instances of adjacent protected areas across European borders, which implies an overall border coverage of around 50 %. Some of the European borders constitute of national structures, such as the Oder-Neiße line, the 435 km long natural border between Poland and Germany. Large parts of the River Oder are protected from both sites, mostly in a closely coordinated way, such as with the Lower Oder Valley International Park forming a transboundary protected area system.

Through the years, transboundary connectivity and cooperation has increased – especially for the last two decades of the 20th century (Vasilijević et al., 2015). In Europe, this can be statistically attributed to the establishment of the Natura 2000 network: in over 75 % of the cases when two sites across a border are adjacent, at least one of them forms part of the Natura 2000 network. When looking at those adjacent protected areas that were designated in the same year, the share of Natura 2000 sites is even higher. In over 95 % of the cases, at least one of the sites was designated as Natura 2000 site; in 73 % of the cases, both sites form part of the network.

As shown in the figure above, most of these joint designations occurred since 2000 with a high number of designations in the years 2004 and 2007. Assessing these spikes, most of them can be attributed to new EU Member States: Slovakia and Hungary for instance both contributed over 90 Natura 2000 designations in their year of accession (2004); same applies to Romania in 2007. These same-year designations suggest a coordinated effort to jointly pursue transboundary conservation objectives. However, comprehensive information on their degree of cooperation is not yet available.

Europe has many great examples for transboundary conservation

Transboundary conservation as defined by IUCN constitutes “a process of cooperation to achieve conservation goals across one or more international boundaries” (Vasilijević et al., 2015). In Europe, many of such examples can be found. Czechia and Poland, for example, manage corresponding national parks along their border in the Giant Mountains (Krkonoše in Czech, Karkonosze in Polish). Jointly designated in 1992, the Krkonose/Karkonosze Transboundary Biosphere Reserve was the first official bilateral Biosphere Reserve. Activities are coordinated under the umbrella of the Czech-Polish Biosphere Reserve Bilateral Board and include, inter alia, the restoration of degraded forests.

For marine areas, successful examples of transboundary conservation efforts are the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals in the north-western Mediterranean Sea and the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. Within its extension of close to 90 000 km2, the Pelagos Sanctuary waters include the Ligurian Sea and parts of the Corsican and Tyrrhenian Seas and contain the internal maritime (15 %) and territorial waters (32 %) of France, Monaco and Italy, as well as the adjacent high seas (53 %). With its 18 000 km2, the Dogger sandbank is the North Sea’s largest marine protected area and is collaboratively managed by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany. It is home to an abundant diversity of life forms and serves as an important feeding ground for sand eels, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds, amongst other species protected under the Nature Directives.

Rivers also serve as a good example to illustrate the need of coordinated conservation management. Rivers do not stop at borders and carry their components along the way to the sea. The EU Water Framework Directive is a policy for the strict protection of surface freshwater and requires Member States to reach a ‘good ecological status’ for their domestic freshwaters. The current EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 also aims to restore at least 25 000 km of EU rivers to a free-flowing state. To achieve these conservation goals and to avoid social and economic conflicts, large rivers are managed on river basin level. A positive example for river basin management is the initiative taken by the States through which the Danube flows (19 countries). Further examples where cooperation and joint objective-setting between Member States has improved a river is the Rhine (crossing 6 countries), Schelde or the Meuse (both crossing 3 countries). In the case of the Rhine and Danube, cooperation exceeds even beyond the EU territory.

It can well be argued that Natura 2000 sites are inherently connected. The concept of the network relies on protected area designation for species and habitats as part of a wider network approach as required by the EU Nature Directives. For instance, many migratory birds depend on the protection of their breeding grounds as well as their flyway and wintering areas, as is the case for rare geese, cranes, cormorants and many other (see map for crane below).

With the Natura 2000 network and the practical implementation through LIFE Projects such coordination is possible. However, ecological and functional connectivity as well as coherent conservation objectives and measures between individual sites of the Natura 2000 network are still lacking. As already observed, this is especially the case across borders; for external borders, but even more so for internal administrative borders (Opermanis et al., 2012). Connectivity is often impeded by regional/national regulations and responsible administrative bodies, human history and land management or biogeographical conditions. Important practical measures to achieve connectivity across the landscape are biological corridors or so-called stepping stones that enable and/or increase the movement of species.

One of the most ambitious transboundary initiatives to foster broad landscape connectivity beyond single protected area management and across borders is the European Green Belt. It represents an ecological network along the line of the former Iron Curtain. With over 12 500 km – from the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Sea – it crosses 24 countries, over 3 200 protected areas and nearly all of the continent’s biogeographical regions. The border created a unique continuity of natural habitats that shall be preserved in an effort of joint cross-border activities in nature conservation and sustainable development. This will also form a significant contribution of the “truly coherent Trans European Nature Network” as required by the new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 connecting protected areas with ecological corridors. To achieve the ambitious vision of such a nature network, additional action is urgently needed. This includes, inter alia, the reduction of regulatory barriers, more effective transboundary site management e.g. via joint management plans, more initiatives and strategic support for broader management beyond single protected areas and a more systemic involvement of other key sectors, such as agriculture, urban development and planning.


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