Navigation path

Left navigation

Additional tools

Other available languages: none


Brussels, 23 March 2006

Questions and Answers about EU policy for protecting the most important habitats and species

What is at stake?

The world is faced with an unprecedented loss of biodiversity[1]. Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth – comprising ecosystems, species and genes. A rich biodiversity is essential to our economic prosperity, security, health and other aspects of our daily life. Loss of biodiversity threatens to undermine our efforts of improving the environmental, economic and social situation at local, regional or global level. Human activity has caused many more extinctions in the last 100 years than would have happened due to natural processes. This rate of loss is projected to accelerate ten-fold by 2050. In the EU, some 335 vertebrate species are now at risk of extinction (including sea mammals and over 40% of bird species). Some 800 plant species in Europe are at risk of global extinction. Birds such as the slender-billed curlew are now so rare that they risk extinction, while the number of common species such as skylark and garden warbler have fallen dramatically. Poor planning, wasteful land-use and intensive farming methods have resulted over the years in the destruction of many natural habitats such as wetlands, which many wild species depend upon for their survival.

What is the EU doing about it ?

EU nature protection legislation goes back to the 1970’s when the Wild Birds Directive[2] was adopted. This Directive ensures far-reaching protection for all of Europe's wild birds, identifying 194 species and sub-species among them as particularly threatened and in need of special conservation measures. There are a number of components to this scheme:

Member States are required to designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the 194 threatened species and all migratory bird species. SPAs are scientifically identified areas critical for the survival of the targeted species, such as wetlands.

A second component bans activities that directly threaten birds, such as the deliberate killing or capture of birds, the destruction of their nests and taking of their eggs, and associated activities such as trading in live or dead birds (with a few exceptions).

A third component establishes rules that limit the number of bird species that can be hunted (82 species and sub-species) and the periods during which they can be hunted in order to protect them during periods of their greatest vulnerability, such as the return migration to the nesting areas, reproduction and the raising of chicks. There are also rules defining which hunting methods are permitted (e.g. non-selective hunting is banned).

In 1992, the Habitats Directive[3] was agreed. This Directive extends the coverage to a much wider range of rare, threatened or endemic species, including around 450 animals and 500 plants. Some 200 rare and characteristic habitat types are also targeted for conservation in their own right. It provides for a ban on the downgrading of breeding and resting places for certain animal species. Derogations, which are exceptions to the strict protection rules, can be granted, but only under very specific conditions (such as in the interests of public health and public safety) where there is not other satisfactory solution.

These two Directives form the backbone of EU nature protection legislation.

In 1998, the EU adopted a biodiversity strategy. Four biodiversity action ,plans were adopted undere this strategy in 2001 (conservation of natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, economic and development cooperation). Today, nature and biodiversity are one of the four priorities of the EU's sixth environment action programme 2002-12, together with climate change, resource and waste management and health in relation to the environment.Internationally, the EU is a party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992 and ratified by the EU in 1993. This Convention commits the parties, among other things, to creating a network of nature protection and conservation areas to safeguard biodiversity.

The EU is party to a series of other international biodiversity related conventions and agreements. These include the Convention on migratory species (Bonn Convention), the Convention on the conservation of European Wildlife and habitats (Berne Convention) and the Agreement on the conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). Several important regional conventions dealing with the marine environment have important biodiversity-related elements (e.g. OSPAR, HELCOM, Barcelona Convention).

What is Natura 2000 ?

The EU's policy approach recognises that biodiversity is not evenly spread and that certain habitats and species are more at risk than others. Consequently, it affords special attention to the creation and protection of a substantial network of sites of highest nature value – Natura 2000.

Natura 2000 was established by the Habitats Directive. It consists of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designated by Member States under the Habitats Directive. It also incorporates Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated by the Member States under the Birds Directive[4]. Over 20 000 sites have been included in the network so far (EU25), covering altogether almost a fifth of Europe’s land and water –equivalent to the size of Germany and Italy put together. As part of Natura 2000, the selected areas benefit from increased protection: Member States must take all the necessary measures to guarantee their conservation and avoid their deterioration.

Not all economic activity in the sites is excluded, but Member States must ensure that such activities are carried out in a way which is compatible with the conservation of the habitats and species living and growing there.

Natura 2000 is the EU’s contribution to the global network called for under the UN Biodiversity Convention.

Why create such a network of protected sites ?

The European Union stretches from the Artic Circle in the north to the warm Mediterranean waters in the south and includes a vast range of natural habitats and a great diversity of flora and fauna. At the same time, it is the most densely populated continent in the world.

Despite the fact that the EU Member States have introduced conservation policies and continuously improved them, the EU's biodiversity is still under serious threat. The long-term conservation of the habitats and species protected under the Habitats and Birds Directives cannot be achieved by protecting isolated pockets of nature - however great their individual value. By establishing a network of sites across the full distribution of these habitats and species, Natura 2000 is intended to be a dynamic and living network providing a guarantee for their conservation.

How are Natura 2000 sites selected?

Natura 2000 is made up of sites designated by Member States but the Birds and Habitats directives lay down two different selection processes.

Selection of Special Protection Areas under the Birds Directive :
Member States select and designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The identification and delimitation of SPAs must be entirely based on scientific criteria. On the basis of information provided by the Member States, the Commission determines if the designated sites are sufficient to form a coherent network for the protection of the vulnerable and migratory species.

Selection of Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive:
The Habitats Directive divides the EU into 7 ecologically coherent “bio-geographical” regions - Atlantic, Continental, Alpine (which, in addition to the Alps, also includes the Pyrenees and parts of Scandinavia), Mediterranean, Boreal (Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Macaronesian (Madeira, Azores and Canary Islands) and the Pannonian region (essentially Hungary and parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

There are three stages in the selection of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the Habitats Directive:

1. The responsibility for proposing sites for Natura 2000 lies with the Member States. They carry out comprehensive assessments of each of the habitat types and species present on their territory. The choice of sites is a purely scientific process, based on standard selection criteria specified in the directive.

2. On the basis of the proposed national lists, the Commission, in agreement with the Member States, must adopt the lists of “Sites of Community Importance”. Scientific seminars are then convened by the Commission for each bio-geographical region in order to analyse the Member States’ proposals in a transparent way. They are open to the Member States concerned and to experts representing relevant stakeholder interests, including owners, users, and environmental NGOs. These seminars are supported by the European Environment Agency, assisted by the European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity which is based in Paris, France.

These expert seminars aim to establish if sufficient high-quality sites have been proposed by each Member State to ensure the favourable conservation status of each habitat type and species throughout their range in the EU. The objective is to establish a list of “Sites of Community Importance” for each of the regions determined by the Habitats Directive, applying a consistent approach across the Member States.

3. Once the lists of “Sites of Community Importance” have been adopted, it is for the Member States to designate all of these sites as “Special Areas of Conservation”, as required by the Habitats Directive, as soon as possible and within six years at the most. They should give priority to those sites that are most threatened and/or that are of most importance in conservation terms. During this period, Member States must take the necessary management or restoration measures to ensure the favourable conservation status of those sites.

How big are the Natura 2000 sites on average ?

The individual Natura 2000 sites range from less than 1ha to over 5 000 km2 ,depending on the species or habitats they aim to conserve. The majority are around 100 – 1 000 ha. Some are located in remote areas but most form an integral part of our countryside and contain a range of different habitats, buffer zones and other elements of the landscape.

How advanced is the creation of Natura 2000?

As far as the EU15 Member States are concerned, the list of sites for all the bio-geographical regions have been adopted at EU level, except for the Mediterranean region for which the list is being finalised. As for the member States which joined the EU in 2004, scientific seminars are taking place for the seven bio-geographical regions.

Is the public consulted on the selection of Natura 2000 sites?

The directive leaves it to the member States to establish a consultation process according to their own administrative rules. The procedures for public consultation vary considerably between Member States. In some countries, detailed discussions with owners and users on management measures have taken place but in others, there has been little or no consultation with stakeholders. This has given rise to considerable controversy in some Member States, leading to a variety of administrative and legal challenges which have delayed the submission of proposals. The Commission is not involved at this stage and has no powers to intervene in the different procedures followed by the Member States.

Who is responsible for managing Natura 2000 sites and how is this achieved?

The Habitats directive clearly states that the Member States are responsible for the management of Natura 2000 sites. As far as the marine environment is concerned, action may be taken at EU level where management activities involve regulating fisheries activities.

The Commission has consistently encouraged the Member States to draw up management plans to ensure appropriate conservation management of the sites and to check how the different uses are compatible with the conservation objectives. Management plans are also an excellent way of involving key interest groups, who are affected by the designation, into the management decision-making process. In this way, they very often meet the concerns of local owners and users. Funding from the EU’s LIFE-Nature programme has been extensively used to assist in the preparation of such plans.

Given the extensive range of habitats types and situations, no standard formula can be applied. However, as a general rule, it is important to ensure that traditional management regimes survive.

Once a site is included in Natura 2000, must it remain unscathed by future developments?

Natura 2000 is not a system of strict nature reserves where all human activities are excluded. Although the network will certainly include nature reserves, most of the land is likely to continue to be privately owned and the emphasis will be on ensuring that future management is sustainable, ecologically, economically and socially.

There is not any a priori prohibition for new activities or developments. Plans for Natura 2000 sites are evaluated on a case by case basis. Article 6 of the Habitats Directive provides for the assessment of development proposals which are likely to have an impact on designated sites. These provisions are based on existing good practice with respect to environmental impact assessment.

Even where such assessments reveal that significant damage to a site will occur, the directive does not preclude development. Member States may authorise developments in cases where no viable alternatives are available and where an overriding public interest in the development is demonstrated. In which case they are obliged to implement compensation measures, i.e. to create or improve habitat elsewhere in order to maintain the integrity of the network.

In the case of developments which will have an adverse impact on sites that host priority habitats or species (particularly rare and vulnerable habitats and species that form a small part of the overall number listed in the Habitats Directive), the only considerations that may be raised are those related to human health, public safety or to beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment.

For any other considerations, the directive requires the Commission to give an opinion on whether an overriding public interest is involved. A current example of such a request concerns proposals for the expansion of the Port of Rotterdam, which will have a significant impact on a Natura 2000 site. This proposal has been very well designed and includes a significant package of measures to compensate for the foreseen loss of habitats.

To assist Member States and other interested actors, the Commission has published detailed interpretative and methodological guidelines.

Inclusion of a site in Natura 2000 therefore provides a high level of safeguards against potentially damaging developments across the European Union. Member States also will have other types of protected areas under national and regional legislation (including nature reserves, national parks etc), which will also have provisions to help avoid destruction and degradation of wildlife habitats. This varies from country to country depending on the type of designation. However, inclusion of such national protected areas in Natura 2000 has generally raised the level of protection for many of these sites and ensured a more harmonised approach for nature conservation across the EU.

What is the link between EU legislation on environmental impact assessment of development projects and Natura 2000?

At EU level, there are two “horizontal” environmental assessment directives : the environmental impact assessment (EIA) directive[5], which applies to projects, and the strategic impact assessment (SEA) directive[6], which applies to certain plans or programmes drawn up by a national, regional or local authority (e.g. a land use, water management or transport plans). The two directives are broadly similar in their requirements but differ in scope. If well applied, these directives can be a useful tool in the protection of fauna, flora and biodiversity in general.

The Directives require that as part of the environmental assessment, the effects of projects on “fauna and flora” should also be considered. The scope of this assessment therefore encompasses the sites which are protected under the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive, but also extends beyond them. When adverse effects are identified, mitigation measures must be envisaged. The results of this assessment must be taken into account by the authorities when they take decisions on the project.

These directives make decision-makers aware of the possible impacts of proposed projects, plans and programmes on fauna and flora. However, the outcomes of an environmental impact assessment or of a strategic environmental assessment are not binding for decision makers. Even in the presence of significant adverse effects on fauna and flora, a project, or a plan/programme could still legitimately go ahead under these directives, provided the procedural steps set out had been followed, and the outcomes of the assessment taken into account (e.g. by providing for mitigation measures).

What is the current state of play regarding the establishment of Natura 2000?

The establishment of the network is almost complete in the EU15, and the analysis of the proposed lists of EU-10 is on-going. Progress has been achieved recently in establishing a coherent network of SPAs under the Birds Directive, with an area equivalent to 9 % of the territory of the Member States now designated. However, some gaps still exist for certain species and regions of the EU15, for which further sites need to be designated.

Likewise, under the Habitats Directive an area equivalent to 14 % of Member States territory has been proposed for protection. This includes inshore marine areas, which are already very substantial for several Member States such as Denmark and the Netherlands. However, for marine areas, particularly in the offshore environment, further work is required under both nature directives to identify and manage a network of sites. This forms part of the wider marine strategy recently proposed by the Commission[7].

Two factors have contributed to the progress which has recently been achieved. First, the Commission has not hesitated to initiate legal action in the EU Court of Justice. Secondly, the Commission indicated that failure to present lists of sites could result in the suspension of payments under certain structural fund programmes. This would be a precautionary measure to ensure that EU funded programmes do not contribute to irreparable damage to sites before they have been proposed officially for the protection under the Natura 2000 regime.

What is the overall pattern of infringements to date on Natura 2000?

The Commission receives several hundred complaints each year relating to the nature directives. However, over 80% of these complaints are closed after the initial informal contacts with the Member States and only a small percentage become infringement proceedings. The vast majority of cases are resolved before they come before the Court of Justice.

38% of the cases opened by the European Commission for bad implementation of EU law in the area of environment relate to nature protection. They range from deficiencies in national transposing legislation to incomplete designations or lack of implementation reports. They also concern the unsatisfactory application of the protection regime of the Habitats and Birds Directives in relation to planned development. Those issues must be addressed in order to ensure that the use of any EU funds envisaged for development purposes does not conflict with EU law.

How can the Commission help Member States better implement Natura 2000?

The Commission is drawing up guidelines to help Member States overcome these implementation problems. This is an ongoing process. It is intended to finalise guidance on applying Natura 2000 in the marine environment in the first half of 2006. Guidance has already been published on management and planning issues. Working groups in which the Member States are represented are developing further guidelines on conservation objectives, reporting and monitoring, and wind energy and nature conservation. Regular contact and dialogue with the Member States is ensured both through the Habitats and Ornis (Birds Directive) Committees and biannual meetings are taking place with the Nature Directors of the national administrations. This ensures that problems are addressed as they emerge.

The Member States which have put in place more open and participatory processes (e.g. Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) have also made the most progress with designating their Natura sites. Significantly, the Commission receives fewer complaints from those countries than from the other Member States.

Does the EU play a role in co-financing Natura 2000 and why is this important?

Article 8 of the Habitats Directive foresees EU co-financing of measures required for the implementation and ongoing management of Natura 2000 through the use of existing EU financial instruments. Current policy measures, in particular those under Rural Development Policy such as the agri-environment regime (under the EU Common Agricultural Policy), are already providing substantial support to the implementation of the network by subsidising the farmers who manage their land in an ecologically friendly way.

In some Member States, European Regional Development Fund resources have been used to finance specific investments related to Natura 2000 sites, mostly in relation with facilities and infrastructures for visitor use.

At present, the only source of funding dedicated exclusively to Natura 2000 is the LIFE-Nature funds, which are used to promote management planning and pilot/demonstration projects of habitat and species management.

How is the Commission dealing with the issue of future co-financing?

On 15 July 2004, the Commission adopted a Communication on the Financing of Natura 2000. It rejected the idea of a new Natura fund and proposed that future funding should come from existing community funding instruments. It also estimated that Natura 2000 would cost € 6 billion on an annual basis.

The Commission has integrated the needs of the Natura 2000 network into all its major proposals for the future financing of the EU from 2007 to 2013, especially those related to rural development, structural funds, fisheries and LIFE+.

What is the advantage of using existing EU financial instruments to finance Natura 2000 rather than having a specific fund?

Integrating the financing of Natura 2000 into existing EU financial instruments ensures that the management of Natura 2000 sites is part of the wider land management policies of the EU. Thus, farming and forestry inside Natura 2000 sites can be seen as part of the Common Agricultural Policy financial support, under rural development, while structural interventions can be an integrated part of rural and regional development and cohesion policies.

However, ultimately, national implementation is what matters, as it is the responsibility of the Member States to take the appropriate measures according to their own priorities (subsidiarity). The challenge for them is to ensure integrated, coherent and co-ordinated programming, so that all EU funding sources contribute to the financing of Natura 2000.

Is the European Commission going to guide the Member States on funding the management of Natura 2000 sites ?

The Commission’s Directorate=General for Environment is developing an overall guidance document to be available in the summer 2006 on how to use EU funds for Natura 2000 in the period 2007-2013. Further workshops to inform the public administrations and stakeholders about the available financing opportunities for Natura 2000 are to be held in all Member States.

Species protection

The Commission has financially supported the preparation of 47 species action plans and management plans for threatened bird species of the EU. These plans have provided a valuable tool for the conservation of these birds. They review the latest scientific information on the species, identify threats and recommend actions on the species and their conservation.

The species action plans provide the Member States with a framework to undertake their own initiatives. They ensure that financial support is targeted at the most important needs of these species. A recent review of implementation of the action plans for birds has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach.

The Commission is also finalising management plans for bird species that may be hunted under the Birds Directive and which are considered to have an unfavourable conservation status. Beyond hunting, these management plans are addressing a whole range of threats which these species are facing and for which conservation action is being prepared by the Member States.

What are the current rules on hunting of birds?

The Birds Directive lists (in its Annex II) those species which, owing to their population levels, geographical distribution and reproductive rates, can be hunted under national legislation. Hunting must be regulated so that it does not jeopardize conservation efforts for the bird species – and it must be sustainable. Member States must in particular assure that birds are not hunted during the rearing season nor during the various stages of reproduction. For migratory species they must also ensure that the birds are not hunted during their prenuptial (return) migration to the breeding grounds. Hunting periods are not given in the Directive and may vary depending on the species and geographical location of the regions concerned. It is for the Member States to fix hunting dates in accordance with scientific knowledge on migration and reproduction periods of the different huntable species. The Commission has prepared a guidance document on the hunting provisions of the Birds Directive, which is available at:

A ground-breaking agreement was signed in October 2004 on sustainable hunting between the hunting and bird conservation communities. They agree to support the establishment of the Natura 2000 network. They recognise the importance of effective habitat protection and active management of biodiversity conservation and that "in principle the Natura 2000 designation is not incompatible with hunting".

What about non bird species ?

There is less experience at EU level with action plans for other species than birds. Nonetheless, different LIFE projects have supported action plans for plant, mammal, bird, amphibian and fish species, but more on a local or regional level.

Some Member States have found it difficult to manage their large carnivore population. As a result, the Commission has launched a project to prepare guidelines on how to prepare population level management plans for the wolf, bear, European lynx and wolverine.

How can Member States derogate from strict protection system of animal species laid down in the habitats directive?

Annex IV of the Habitats Directive lists animals and plant species in need of strict protection. Where the species is protected by this Annex (like brown bear in all EU 25 Member States), there are provisions to allow for derogations from the strict protection regime where this is justified under specific circumstances. In some situations where there are no other satisfactory solutions, it may be necessary to deal with individual animals that are causing particular problems (like preventing serious damage to livestock). The conditions for applying these derogations are set out in the Directive. It is for the member states to decide how to put this in practise, respecting these conditions.

A similar set of rules have applied in the case of use of derogations under the Birds Directive.

Member States must report the way they have applied derogations under the Birds Directive annually and under the Habitats Directive biannually. The Commission monitors their reports to ensure that the derogations are in conformity with the requirements of each directive. Should this not be the case, the Commission will take up the matter with the Member state in question.

For more information :

[Graphic in PDF & Word format]

[Graphic in PDF & Word format]

[1] Biodiversity is a contraction of biological diversity. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment carried out between 2001 and 2005 defines biodiversity as the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. The Millennium Assessment acknowledges that people are integral parts of ecosystems.

[2] Directive 79/409/EEC.

[3] Directive 92/43/EEC

[4] Directive 74/409/EEC.

[5] Directive 85/337/EEC as amended by Directives 97/11/EC and 2003/35/EC.

[6] Directive 2001/42/EC.

[7] IP/05/1335

Side Bar