Natura 2000 is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. Set up in 1992 to safeguard Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats, its area has steadily increased. In 2021, there were about 27,000 Natura 2000 sites, covering 18.6% of the EU’s land area and 9% of its marine territory. The effective management of these sites is key to achieving Natura 2000’s conservation aims. However, Member States still need to make significant efforts to establish and effectively implement conservation measures and management plans.

Figure 1. Area of Natura 2000 sites designated under the Habitats and Birds Directives in the EU
YearHabitats DirectiveBirds DirectiveNatura 2000 total area
199348666.99
199416.2150046.75
199591477.4688689.27
1996134588.01102444.74
1997222428.47140266.52
1998322929.98182652.31
1999359586.63195968.18
2000394408.99226786.8
2001416883.99247469.51
2002455484.01257972.01
2003464636.3273711.86
2004560711.01402276.86
2005552193.3412564.3
2006560445454723
2007661503530774
2008661503530774
2009719015593486
2010733620627560
2011737502641779960119
20127888486448291009538
20138116306676001039333
20148474947173231106594
20158844697254331147956
20169583577431211224101
201710498717561421322630
201810515858432981336151
201910682028544651358125
20209421438222731214974
20219457858320801219416

Within the legal framework of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives, each Member State is required to contribute to the Natura 2000 network by designating sites in proportion to the representation of the natural habitat types and the habitats of species of European interest within its territory. Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are designated under the Birds Directive, while Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) aim to protect habitats and species listed under the Habitats Directive.

Since the Natura 2000 network was set up in 1992 it has steadily grown, however, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU led to a decrease in the Natura 2000 area in 2020.

In 2021 , the Natura 2000 network extended over 18.6% of the EU’s land area and 9% of its marine territory, with about 27,000 sites covering an area of 1,219,416km2. Many of the sites are designated under both directives. Natura 2000 terrestrial and marine sites designated under the Habitats Directive covered 945,785km2, while SPAs, created under the Birds Directive, covered 832,785km2.

Natura 2000 sites are not wild areas and human activity is not excluded. The main objectives of the sites are to prevent activities that could significantly disturb species or damage habitats for which the site is designated and to take positive measures, if necessary, to maintain and restore these habitats and species to improve their conservation status. While this approach encourages sustainable management, the network is still subject to significant pressures, from land use change, the intensification or abandonment of traditional, extensive farming practices or even land abandonment, in particular in areas with natural constraints. Natural, old-growth forests are also subject to management intensification, and their unique biodiversity and structural features are irreversibly lost. The way in which the sites are managed is a decisive factor in achieving their conservation aims, especially as around 40% of the total Natura 2000 area is farmland and almost 50% is forests. However, comprehensive information is currently lacking on how efficiently these sites are managed. Incorporating Natura 2000 objectives into spatial planning is crucial. In particular, maintaining or improving connectivity between sites is of the utmost importance.

Figure 2. Progress towards designating Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive in the 27 EU Member States, 2011-2021
YearAll sites under the Habitats DirectiveSpecial Areas of Conservation formally designated at national level
2011167225000
2012221889503
20132299210275
20142284510776
20152307212162
20162324514618
20172346715832
20182353417828
20192353219250
20202354819791
20212365520294

The choice of sites designated under the Habitats Directive is based on scientific criteria specified in the directive, which aim to ensure that the habitat types listed in Annexes I and II to the directive are maintained or restored to a favourable conservation status.

Member States first submit lists of proposed Sites of Community Importance (pSCIs). These are then evaluated at expert biogeographical seminars to determine whether a sufficient number of high-quality sites have been proposed by each Member State.

Once lists of pSCIs have been adopted as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) by the European Commission, Member States must designate them as Special Areas of Conservation(SACs) through a legal act as soon as possible and within 6 years at most.

Figure 2 shows that most of the SCIs had been designated as SACs by Member States. However, despite significant efforts, and according to the reported data there were still 3,361 sites (14% of the total number) that should have been designated by the end of 2020. This means that some Member States are late in respecting the 6-year time frame for SAC designation and ensuring that the necessary conservation measures are applied.