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European Commission - Press release

Environment: Celebrating 20 years of EU nature protection

Brussels, 21 May 2012 – Today is the 20th anniversary of two key instruments for the conservation and sustainable use of nature in the EU: the Habitats Directive and LIFE, the EU financing programme for the environment. Twenty years ago, EU Member States unanimously adopted the Habitats Directive to safeguard the most threatened species and habitats across Europe. This was in response to concerns over rapidly declining wildlife and loss of natural habitats, resulting from land-use changes, pollution and urban sprawl. To give species and habitats space to recover, the Directive set up the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and the LIFE financial instrument has provided strategic support to its development.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: " Today, as we mark their 20th anniversary, we can be proud of the EU's nature protection laws which help us appreciate and take care of our rich natural heritage Biodiversity is our life insurance, and Natura 2000, which protects the areas of highest biodiversity value, is its cornerstone. We have made great progress in the past two decades, and there is much to celebrate, but nature still needs our help, and it will pay us back many times over with the vital ecosystem services it provides".

Two decades after its adoption, the Directive has gone a significant way towards halting the large-scale destruction of our most valuable biodiversity assets, and a number of species and habitats are already showing signs of recovery. The Natura 2000 network contains more than 26,000 protected sites over an area equivalent in size to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic combined. Almost 18 % of the EU's territory is now included in the network, along with 200.000 square kilometres of protected areas at sea. Slovenia, for example, has designated over a third of its territory as protected areas.

EU funding for nature conservation has increased in the last 20 years. Adopted at the same time as the Habitats Directive, LIFE has contributed over € 1.2 billion to the management and restoration of over 2000 Natura 2000 sites across the EU.

LIFE-funded projects are responsible for bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction, like the Freshwater pearl mussel in Germany and the Czech Republic, the Abruzzo Chamois in Italy, the Hungarian meadow viper and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. LIFE is also supporting the conservation of the fire-bellied toad in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Latvia.

The large-scale destruction of valuable wildlife-rich habitats has been halted thanks to a great number of practical restoration projects across the EU such as those for protecting sand dunes in Lithuania, cleaning Posidonia beds of alien species in France, as well as restoring the Danube in Austria, the deciduous forest in Sweden, wetlands in the Netherlands, raised bogs in Poland and Denmark. Many of these initiatives have been supported by LIFE.


Natura 2000 is not a system of strict nature reserves but is based on a much wider principle of sustainable land and water use management. Economic activities may be carried out, provided they do not threaten the conservation objective of the sites. Natura 2000 has provided numerous new opportunities for recreation and tourism. It is estimated that there are between 1.2 to 2.2 billion visitors to Natura 2000 sites each year providing recreational benefits of between € 5 and € 9 billion per year.

New developments must also safeguard the integrity of Natura 2000 sites and potentially damaging developments can only proceed, after a full ecological assessment, if there is no alternative solution, if projects are of overriding public interest and with compensation to offset any loss or damage to the sites. For example an alternative route was selected for the road via Baltica in Poland and the location of a windfarm in Scotland was adapted to preserve the Golden eagle.

Involving local stakeholders in the management of Natura 2000 is also critical and provides new opportunities for sustainable land use management as demonstrated by initiatives such as conservation-friendly farming, introduced through a LIFE project to the glaciated karst landscape in Burren, Ireland. In France, for example the government is working closely with local landowners to put in place management plans for each site.

Effectively managing and restoring sites in the Natura 2000 Network requires significant costs, some of which can be met through EU funds such as rural and regional development funds. However, in addition to its intrinsic value, Natura 2000 provides vital ecosystem services and socio-economic benefits whose estimated monetary value far outweighs these investment costs.

The Commission today launches a celebratory brochure on the Habitats Directive that showcases a selection of the many achievements to date, showing the real EU added value of this legislation in all Member States. Celebratory events take place all over Europe; special events in numerous Natura 2000 sites in EU Member States, and over 300 LIFE events have been planned. A key conference will take place in Belgium in October 2012.

Further information

Celebratory brochure "The Habitats Directive":

EU Nature and Biodiversity homepage:

EU LIFE programme homepage:

Audiovisual material on LIFE projects:

Contacts :

Joe Hennon (+32 2 295 35 93)

Monica Westeren (+32 2 299 18 30)

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