1. Introduction

1.1. Context of the Current Review

The CORINE Biotopes database was one of the products of the European Commission experimental CORINE Programme, developed by DG XI during 1985-1990, and maintained by the European Environment Agency Task Force from 1990-1993. The database now contains details of 7741 sites of European importance for nature conservation in 13 EU Member States, and is in active preparation in 10 non-EU countries.

he CORINE Biotopes project comprised a number of linked activities: notably, i) the compilation of a database of sites of major importance for nature conservation and ii) the development of a classification of European habitats, which was originally developed as a methodological tool for the sites database, but which now has applications independent of the sites database itself.

As subproject MN3.1 of the 1995 work programme of the European Topic Centre on Nature Conservation (ETC/NC), the European Environment Agency (EEA) required the Topic Centre a) to maintain the database, incorporating new information collected by Member States with EC funding, b) to undertake a full review of the current status and uses of the database, and c) to draft a new approach to ensure the utility of the database as part of a pan-European network. The re-orientation of the database would result in part from an international workshop of experts to be held in October 1995.

The current review of the database is written to meet the EEA's requirement to report the results of updating since 1990 when the previous report was written (European Communities, 1991); to make comparative assessments of the criteria used by Member States for site selection; and to survey the uses which have been made of the database.

Some confusion has arisen in the perception of the CORINE Biotopes project between the database of sites of major importance for nature conservation and the classification of European habitats. This review concerns the sites database alone.

1.2. Brief History of the CORINE Biotopes Site Database

1.2.1. The CORINE Programme

The CORINE Programme (CO-oRdination of INformation on the Environment) ran from 1985 to 1990 as an experimental programme for gathering, coordinating and ensuring consistency of information on the state of the environment and natural resources in the European Community.

CORINE was initially planned for a four year period, and subsequently extended to six. Its priority topics were: sites ("biotopes") of major importance for nature conservation; emissions into the air; land cover; soil; water; coastal erosion. Data from these topic layers were combined with basic geographic data (coastlines, regional boundaries, river pattern, settlements, etc.) into a GIS held at EC headquarters.

The aim of CORINE was to meet the need for better knowledge of the environment: studies of data available up to the mid-1980s had shown the absence of comprehensive, complete and compatible information on the environment across the Community as a whole, and this was seen as a major impediment to the development of an effective Community environmental policy.

For nature protection the main components of this policy are implemented by:

  • the Directive on the conservation of wild birds (1979)

  • adoption of the Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (1981)

  • adoption of the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (1982)

  • adoption of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (1984)

  • the Directive on the conservation of fauna, flora and habitats (the "Habitats Directive") (1992).


1.2.2. Aims of the Biotopes Database

The Biotopes site database was designed to assemble reliable and consistent information about the location and status of ecosystems, habitats and species in need of protection and to make this information accessible to policy-makers. It was envisaged that the European Commission would be the main user, but it was hoped that the database would also be of value to national governments, to research and conservation bodies and to the general public. In order to be applicable at the Community level, the information needed to conform to consistent standards throughout the Community territories.

The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) was contracted by the European Commission to develop the Biotopes database, in conjunction with a "Biotopes Team" to advise on methodologies and to apply these methods to the compilation of data from each Member State. The team was recruited from individuals who had ready access to information on nature conservation sites at a national level. In general, a single expert from each Member State served on the team, so as to avoid duplication of effort. In addition, the Council of Europe was represented, while other relevant international bodies held observer status.

The main methodological approaches were the development of: i) objective criteria which provided a common basis on which to judge the 'importance' of a locality for nature conservation in Europe; ii) a common format for the data, so as to establish an acceptable compromise between the requirement for extensive information about each site and the difficulty of acquiring information at the necessary level of detail in every Member State of the EC; iii) nomenclatures to describe habitats, species taxonomy and other important site characteristics.

Source data from the Member States came in various forms, including regional or national computerised site inventories, data on national distributions of species or habitats, and inventories held on paper in different forms. These sources are described in section 2 below.


1.2.3 Site Selection Criteria

In the context of the CORINE project, "biotope" was used to describe geographical entities of significance for nature conservation. Subsequently, these bio-geographical units are referred to as "sites", defined as:


an area of land or a water body which forms an ecological unit of Community significance for nature conservation, regardsless of whether this area is formally protected by legislation


"Community significance" is determined by one or more objective scientific criteria, which were developed by the Biotopes Team. The basis for these criteria is the assumption that the long-term conservation of species requires preservation of their full genetic diversity in order to guarantee their adaptive capacity. A similar approach is taken to ensure a balanced representation of the whole range of geographical diversity of important habitats, essential to their maintenance as a significant natural resource of the Community.

The selection criteria, which are applied independently of the current formal protection status or the ownership of sites, are concerned with i) the presence of threatened species of plants or animals or of sensitive habitat types; ii) the richness of a site for a taxonomic group of species or a collection of habitat types. The first type of criteria were defined precisely, used systematically in site selection, and recorded explicitly in the database.

One of the three following criteria should apply:

  • one of the 100 most important sites in the Community or one of the five most important sites in a region for a threatened species
  • one of the 100 most important or representative sites in the Community or one of the five most important or representative sites in a region for a sensitive habitat type
  • the site supports at least 1% of the Community population of a threatened species

"Importance" is assessed not solely in terms of numbers present or extent of habitat but also by

  • the rarity of the ecological characteristics

  • the typicality of the site as a representative of its type

  • the quality of the site as a natural environment free from damaging human influences

  • the existence of scientific observations on the site.

"Threatened" species are based on those listed in the Annexes to the Berne Convention and classed by the IUCN as Endangered or Vulnerable, as published by the Council of Europe in the Nature and Environment series. For birds the list is taken from Annex I of the Birds Directive. The lists were supplemented where necessary from specialist scientific sources.

"Sensitive" habitat types comprise all semi-natural and natural habitat types recognised in the Community and described at a detailed level through the habitat classification.

the 112 "regions" defined for this purpose were chosen by merging the administrative subdivisions designated by the Statistical Office of the European Commission (Eurostat), so as to generate regions of similar area across all the Member States.


1.2.4. Development of the Database to 1991

Initial international sources of information were the pilot study on "biotopes" (Wyatt, 1982), and the results of an inventory of important bird areas (Osieck and Bruyns, 1981). These initial data sources were eventually augmented or replaced by data compiled for the Biotopes database. These were compiled nationally by the Biotopes Team members, using existing sources of information in each Member State. Only one single final contributing source was accepted in each country to avoid the possibilities either of duplication of sites or of omission of others if multiple sources had been accepted: it was up to the national coordinators to obtain information as available from national and regional sources and to ensure adequate coverage.

The rates of data compilation depended on a number of factors: previous existence of national or regional databases; accessibility of the data; conformity of data with the CORINE standards; organisational and political constraints.

The CORINE Biotopes Report (European Communities, 1991), the first of the CORINE project reports to be published, contained full details of the evolution of the database until 30 April 1990. At that time, over 6000 sites had been described in the 12 countries which were then Member States of the European Community.


1.3. Development of the Site Database Since 1991

Continued development of the database was supported within European Community (now European Union) Member States from the budget of the European Environment Agency Task Force, a body operating within the European Commission (DG XI) to prepare for the EEA. Table 1 lists updates to the database during 1990-1995. Considerable progress was also made with the digitisation of site boundaries, which are now available for Germany, Belgium, parts of Greece, and for Spain, Portugal and Finland.

The geographical scope of the Biotopes database began to be expanded in 1991, through a number of initiatives:

  • following the meeting of European environment ministers at Dobris Castle, the European Commission began extension of three CORINE projects in six central and eastern European countries, as part of the EU PHARE Regional development programme;

  • representatives of EFTA member states were invited as observers to the 6th Biotopes Team meeting, held at Strasbourg in December 1991, and were invited to begin compilation of Biotopes databases (with their own funding). Two EFTA members (Finland and Austria), subsequently to join the EU in January 1995, took up this suggestion: Finland completed the database in 1993, while that in Austria is still in preparation.

  • building on their own experience, in 1993 Finnish experts initiated compilation of Biotopes databases in three Baltic States and two regions of western Russia, with funding from the Nordic Council of Ministers and technical support from ITE (UK).

The geographical extension from western Europe to include almost all of Europe, entailed a number of modifications to the methodology developed for the database, particularly the habitat classification and lists of threatened species to be used as site selection criteria. Discussion of these developments is beyond the scope of this review.

Table 1 Updates to the biotopes database between 1990 and 1995

Country Date Type of update
Germany 12/90 new data for 5 Länder; revisions for 2 Länder
09/92 major revision including initial data for new Länder
03/92 further revision of 09/92 data
03/93 major revision of all Länder
03/94 major revision and additional data for new Länder
05/95 completion of data for all Länder
France 10/90 update and correction of database, with a small number of new sites
Italy 01/91 revision to include 1989 Important Bird Areas
Netherlands 05/95 entirely new database
10/95 revision and addition of new site
Belgium 11/92 minor revision to include 1989 Important Bird Areas
Luxembourg no updates
UK no updates
Ireland 06/91 major revision
Denmark no updates
Greece 11/92 minor revision to include 1989 Important Bird Areas
06/93 addition in outline of further sites
08/94 completion of update for new sites
Spain 04/93 entirely new database
Portugal 12/91 major revision for continental Portugal
Finland* 06/93 initial database
01/94 major revision
01/95 further minor revision

* EFTA member states were invited in 1991 to compile Biotopes databases: Finland did this prior to accession to the EU in January 1995.

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