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Environment: Major expansion of Europe's protected natural areas
Natura 2000, the EU's network of protected areas, has undergone a significant expansion. Nearly 18 800 square kilometres have been added, including a major addition of marine areas covering 17 000 square kilometres which will increase protection for many endangered marine species. The network now covers almost 18% of the EU's landmass and more than 145 000 km² of its seas. The main countries involved in this latest expansion are the UK, France, Belgium, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, Lithuania and Italy. Natura 2000 is the centrepiece of Europe's battle to halt biodiversity loss and safeguard ecosystem services.
Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment said: "Natura 2000 is at the moment one of the most effective tools we have in Europe to combat biodiversity loss, and it plays a key role in our strategy to protect our natural heritage. I particularly welcome the improved coverage of European seas: protecting Europe's marine environment and its unique features has never been more important."
Natura 2000 is a vast network of nature conservation areas set up to ensure the survival of Europe's most valuable and endangered species and habitats. The network consists of around 26 000 sites, and the latest additions add 166 new sites covering nearly 18 800 square kilometres. More than 90 % of the area added is made up of marine sites (17 000 km²), mainly in the UK, but also in France, Belgium, Greece, Cyprus and Italy.
The new marine sites will provide a vital refuge for many of Europe's rarest and most endangered species. In the Atlantic, the UK additions feature 9 coldwater reefs, including reefs off Rockall Island which are biodiversity hotspots home to coral, sea spiders and numerous as yet unnamed species. In the Mediterranean, the new sites will improve protection for emblematic species such as the green turtle Chelonia mydas, the loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta and the Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus, which play a key role in the ecosystems they inhabit.
The expansions will also increase protection for a range of valuable terrestrial habitats, including peat bogs in Lithuania, salt plains in Hungary, and species-rich chalk grasslands in Italy and Cyprus.
The adoption of these Commission Decisions marks an important step towards finalising the establishment of the Natura 2000 network by 2012, a key activity included in the range of proposals in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy adopted by the Commission this year.
Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas, consisting of Special Areas of Conservation established under the EU Habitats Directive and Special Protection Areas established under the EU Birds Directive. Natura 2000 is not a straight jacket: activities such as farming, tourism, forestry and leisure pursuits can still be carried out inside the network as long as they are sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment.
Member States choose their Natura 2000 sites established under the Habitats Directive in partnership with the Commission, and once selected, the areas are formally recognised by the Commission as "Sites of Community Importance" as has happened today. This process confirms the formal status of the sites, and cements the obligations to protect them. Member States then have six years to put the necessary management measures in place and designate the sites as Special Areas of Conservation.
The latest update concerns fifteen Member States , and increases the number of "Sites of Community Importance" by 166. The recent additions cover six bio-geographical regions – the Alpine, Atlantic, Boreal, Continental, Mediterranean and Pannonian regions.
The range of protected areas is vast, from flower-rich meadows to cave systems and lagoons. The nine bio-geographical regions of the network reflect the wide variety of the EU's biodiversity.
Biodiversity – the limited resource that is the variety of life on earth – is in crisis. Species are being lost at an unprecedented rate as a result of human activities, with irreversible consequences for our future. The European Union is combating this and recently set itself a new objective of halting biodiversity loss in Europe by 2020, protecting ecosystem services such as pollination (and restoring these services where they are degraded), and stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss. Natura 2000 is a key tool needed to reach that objective.
More details on EU Nature policy:
For more details on this expansion, see MEMO/11/806
Joe Hennon (+32 2 295 35 93)
Monica Westeren (+32 2 299 18 30)