Nationally designated terrestrial protected areas in Europe

In 2021, protected areas covered 26.4% of EU land, with 18.5% designated as Natura 2000 sites and 7.9% having other national designations. Further expansion of terrestrial protected areas will be needed to achieve the target of legally protecting a minimum of 30% of EU land, as set out in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. The designation of protected areas is not in itself a guarantee of biodiversity conservation. Effective management requires building a coherent and well-connected network of protected areas with clearly defined conservation objectives and measures.

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Protected areas benefit species, ecosystems and the environment overall. They provide significant economic and societal benefits — including employment opportunities — they contribute to people’s health and well-being, and have significant cultural value. Historically, protected areas have taken many forms and have been established for different purposes, such as protecting the resource of wild game, preserving natural beauty or, more recently, safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Designation of protected areas is an important policy tool to halt biodiversity decline. Areas can be protected under national, European or international instruments, on the basis of widely varying criteria, and with different objectives. The most important European network of protected areas is Natura 2000. Europe's protected areas are highly diverse in character, varying in size, aim and management approach. They are large in number but mostly rather small in size. This reflects the high pressure on land use, arising from agriculture, transport and urban development.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 sets the target of legally protecting a minimum of 30% of EU land and sea. Figure 1 shows that in 2021, 26.4% of EU land was protected, with 18.5% of this area designated as Natura 2000 sites and 7.9% having other national designations, representing over 100,000 sites in total. The current network of legally protected sites is not sufficiently large to safeguard biodiversity and further expansion will be needed, both for Natura 2000 and for other national designations in order to reach the 30% target.

The designation of protected areas is not in itself a guarantee of biodiversity protection, as their management is a decisive factor in achieving the conservation aims. However, we currently lack comprehensive information on how effectively these sites are managed. In addition, protected areas in the EU can no longer be managed as isolated units but need to be understood as part of a wider Trans-European network, as emphasised in the EU’s biodiversity strategy. This requires an ecologically coherent network that ensures both spatial and functional connectivity within countries and across borders, aided by natural capital investments, among other things.

The environmental diversity of Europe’s countries and biogeographical regions is matched by the diversity in its protected areas. There are different patterns among Natura 2000 and other national designations, reflecting the diversity of historical, geographical, administrative, political and cultural circumstances. It is clear, however, that Natura 2000 sites have very significantly increased protected area coverage in Europe.

Protected area coverage varies between EU Member States. Figure 2 shows that at the end of 2021, nine Member States had designated more than 30% of their land area as protected sites: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

While Natura 2000 is the backbone of the Trans-European nature network, it needs to be complemented by areas protected at national level. The designation of sites is not enough in itself to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystems, but it is a pre-condition to prevent species and habitats being lost forever. Existing and future protected areas will need to have clearly defined conservation objectives and measures and Member States will need to establish appropriate conservation objectives and measures as well as monitoring for all the sites.

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