Protected areas in Europe – Natura 2000 versus national protected areas

Wilderness and Natura 2000 - a presentation to the Managing Wilderness Environments course, University of Leeds


The European Environment Agency (EEA) produced a report in October, 2012, making the claim that it was the first publication of its kind to give a comprehensive survey of protected areas in Europe (1). Well, it was a longer document than the report on Protected Areas that they brought out in 2010, as a complement in Europe to the International Year of Biodiversity (2). And while it covered the 32 countries that are members of the EEA — the 27 European Union Member States; plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey — as well as the seven cooperating countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo, it did not cover the Russian Federation, nor the ex-members of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia that were covered in the report I wrote with the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) for the Scottish Government (3). That claim to primacy is thus one of many over-reaches in this report, along with quite a few errors, not least in spelling my name wrong in one place (I blame that American chess player - Bobby Fischer - for that inevitability).

As per usual for an EEA document, it has a remarkably childish enthusiasm for extolling the value of the Natura 2000 network, rating it alongside the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as “one of the most important international legal agreements for protected areas in Europe”, but then the EEA is an agency of the European Union and thus would say that. Surely, calling the Birds and Habitats Directives international agreements is an over-reach when they do not cover all of Europe, only the 27 member states of the EU? There is also the claim that Natura 2000 has been responsible for much research activity over the past twenty years, a graph illustrating an increase in published papers making reference to Natura 2000, especially since 2000. Except, of course, that the EEA report doesn’t list the proportion of the papers that trash Natura 2000, such as the study of plant diversity hotspots on Crete and their poor inclusion in the Natura 2000 network prescribed for Crete, since it captures at best only 30% of the hotspots (4). The authors concluded that this results from the compositionalist approach of the Habitats Directive, the opportunistic, species specific and ad hoc basis for identifying Natura 2000 sites, rather than a more inclusive route that would involve a detailed evaluation of regional biodiversity patterns:
"Under these circumstances, it is questionable whether the Natura 2000 ‘network’ in Crete is adequate to fulfil its major goals"

Then there is the study on the contribution of the Natura 2000 network to biodiversity conservation in Italy that concludes (5):
"Nevertheless, if Natura 2000 is taken to represent the final point of all the EU conservation policies, it will inevitably fail. Its role in conservation could be enhanced by integrating the Natura 2000 system into a more general strategy that considers natural processes and the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms underlying these processes"

Primary, undisturbed forest can be found in a number of EU member states, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Solvenia and Sweden (6). Despite the immense value of the preservation of natural dynamics in these forest ecosystems, Wesołowski concluded that the Natura system worked against that preservation (7):
“Overall, European conservation directives do not provide for adequate protection of ecological and evolutionary processes in pristine forests. NATURA 2000, even if properly implemented, would not provide sufficient means to preserve ecosystem integrity of natural forests. The requirement, inherent in the NATURA 2000, to ensure favorable conservation status of only the selected bird species or habitats (plant communities) implies a necessity to intervene in their favor when their numbers or amount decrease. Restoration or even retention of the status quo, however, demands “active conservation,” which is incompatible with noninterference. Still worse, NATURA 2000 requirements could be used as a justification for timber extraction in the last of the primeval old-growth forests”

Here is a recent study that investigated whether bird species diversity is well represented by the European protected areas network. The authors identified high-value areas by assessing the geographic distribution of bird species richness across the EU member states, derived from distribution maps. While they expected to find a correlation between species richness and Special Protection Area (SPA) cover, instead their results showed little association between bird richness patterns and the geographic distribution of SPAs across EU countries (8):
“In summary, the poor relationship between PAs cover and bird richness pattern found herein may provide evidence that the establishment of SPA areas across Europe may not be fully accounting for richness patterns to enhance the performance of the current network”

Biodiversity is considered to be declining across Europe, in spite of last year being the 20th anniversary of the Habitats Directive (9). This has led to a critical evaluation of the Directive, with the authors outlining a number of problems in its current implementation (10). They note that many species listed in the Directive were simply “inherited” from the appendices of the Bern Convention, a legal instrument from the Council of Europe in 1979 to conserve wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats in Continental Europe (11). While expert groups were consulted over the lists, a bias was introduced into the Annexes of the Habitats Directive due simply to their insufficiently widespread expertise of all of Europe. The Annexes receive revision only when there is a enlargement of the EU through new states coming into membership, which has only happened twice before (2004 and 2007). Today, some species listed in the Annexes are not threatened, whereas there is an inadequate representation of highly threatened species, especially invertebrates. Most of the endemic species, those found only in particular geographical locations, are not listed, even though some are highly threatened. It is not surprising that the authors call for the European Commission to adapt the annexes at least yearly, rather than continue with the fixed species lists:
“a delimited coverage of protected area through a fixed threshold will not stop biodiversity loss as long as not all species with high extinction risk are covered…..Halting and reverting biodiversity loss in the EU by 2020 will not be possible without a fundamental reform of the current reserve network”

An Oosvadersplassen on the Danube

The first chapter of the EEA report has a racy history of protected areas that takes its time before reaching what were the beginnings of state ownership and protection, an important advance that moved on from the crumbs that were the legacy from the medieval hunting reserves of the royalty, and which were the progenitors of later private hunting estates. The first legislation in 1909 for state owned National Parks in Sweden gets a nod, followed by similar legislation in Switzerland in 1914, but the early contribution of Russia and its former states for protected areas based on the principle of restriction of use is conveniently ignored. Instead we get this incorrect assertion:
“Letea Forest in the Danube River Delta was placed under protection in 1930. In 1938, it was declared a Nature Reserve in order to protect its flora and fauna. This is the oldest natural reserve in Romania and perhaps one of the oldest protected areas in Eastern Europe”

Well, Letea isn’t even the oldest protected area in Romania. That would be Bucegi (Abruptul Bucsoiu, Malaesti, Gaura) designated in 1926 and which is now an IUCN Category IV reserve that is inside the Bucegi Natural Park (IUCN Category V from 1990). I suppose the author of this assertion may have been restricting it to the EU, but then why is there no mention of Ponická dúbrava and Príboj, both designated in 1895 in Slovakia, or Moricsalas that was designated in Latvia in 1912, or Parangalitsa in Bulgaria that was designated in 1931. What about the rest of Eastern Europe: Berezinskiy in Belarus, in 1925; Askaniya Nova in the Ukraine, in 1921; and Barguzinsky in Russia, in 1916. I like to think Europe extends geographically to the south of Russia, and into Azerbaijan, which has Zakatala designated in 1929, and what I think is the first real wilderness area designated with adequate strict protection in Europe – the Lagodekhi Gorge in Georgia, designated in 1912.

Letea is, anyway, a real embarrassment to use as an example of a protected area, because of Rewilding Europe’s current involvement there, of coat-tailing its hyperactive promotion of the Dutch concept of Nature Development, with the presence of some feral horses along the Danube for one of their spectacularly misnamed “rewilding” projects based on herbivore grazing (12):
“the animals have started to play an essential role in shaping wetlands, grasslands, dune systems and the famous Letea Forest”

Several decades of abandoned horses in the Danube Delta have led to the creation of a legend about the existence of a population of "wild horses" wandering freely through natural areas, and supposedly acquiring “wild behaviour” (13). The history of abandoning animals arose when locals could not feed them, and which became worse during the 1980s, when infectious anaemia was identified, leading to a further impetus to abandon.

The problem of horses abandoned in the natural environment has been an important issue for the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (DDBRA) since its establishment in 1992. Reproduction over several generations has led to an estimated number of over 5,000 feral horses throughout the entire DDBR, which is on top of the 300,000 free ranging domestic livestock animals registered for the 25,000ha of communal pasture in the reserve area. A year prior to the setting up of the Biosphere Reserve, the Caraorman Forest was designated a strictly protected Scientific Reserve (IUCN Cat. Ia) and the designation of Letea Forest was upgraded also to a strictly protected Scientific Reserve. With funding from the Ministry of Environment, both forests were physically protected by the construction of 40 km of fencing around them. Unfortunately, in recent years, large portions of the fence have been destroyed so that protecting the two forests has become increasingly difficult.

There is an estimate of between 1000-2000 feral horses in the Letea Forest area resulting from incursion. The DDBRA has repeatedly asked local councils to improve the management of domestic animals owned by the local population through proper inventory, testing of health status and appropriate management of communal pastures, but the damage from uncontrolled feral horses continued. Vioral Rosca, the head of the nearby Măcin Mountains National Park said (14):
"If the horses settle somewhere, the next day the place looks like a football pitch after two successive matches in the rain. They are so destructive. There are flower species that are disappearing after taking ages to take hold. Soon this unique forest will be no more than a memory. To protect the delta they really have to go"

You have to wonder at Rewilding Europe’s disregard for the national protected area legislation of Romania on Scientific reserves, when they say the feral horses have started to play an essential role in shaping the Letea Forest. The legislation states (15):
“Scientific reserves are those protected areas for furthering the protection and preservation of natural habitat land ………management ensures strict habitat protection that is kept in a state as undisturbed as possible. In these areas it is prohibited to conduct any human activity, except research, educational and ecotourism with the limitations described in the [management] plans”

Understanding the protected area classification of the IUCN system

The work we did on a Wilderness Quality Index (WQI) in Europe in the report for the Scottish Government is highlighted in the third chapter of the EEA report, which includes our mapping to assess the extent of wild areas in Europe, based on a combination of data on population density, road density, distance from nearest road, rail density, distance from nearest railway line, extent of human modification of land cover, and ruggedness of the terrain, all of which are in one way or another proxies for wildness. As we also noted in our report, wilderness conditions can be seen in high-latitude and high-altitude areas, such as parts of Fennoscandia (Finland, Norway and Sweden) Iceland, and the mountains of central and southern Europe. In addition, smaller, more fragmented areas with a certain wilderness characteristic can be found over a range of intermediate landscapes across the whole of Europe, including eastern Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia.

My name is misspelt in the next chapter, on Nationally designated areas, in which our mapping of WQI overlaid with IUCN Categories I&II protected areas is redrawn, and from which we concluded that there was a high correlation of the most wildest areas in Europe with these more strictly protected areas classified under the IUCN system. The EEA report confirmed our findings that Estonia, Norway, Slovakia and Sweden have the most protected areas classified as IUCN Category Ia and Ib, and Category II, but missed out Turkey that has more than Slovakia; and that Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Slovenia have the highest number of protected areas under IUCN Category III, but missed out Russia and Ukraine that has more than any of those. Where the EEA report got it absolutely right was how out of step the UK is, in its poor aspiration for protected areas compared to the rest of Europe:
“The United Kingdom is the only country within the 39 EEA member and collaborating countries that has no protected areas in categories I, II or III”

The EEA report authors seem to have difficulty with IUCN Category VI Managed resource protected areas. We noted in our report that the use of this category is undeveloped in Europe, with only 15 of the 45 countries surveyed having classified protected areas under IUCN Cat. VI. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to be a protected area type with a settled legislative definition, since it is only in the legislation of Albania, Croatia, and Georgia that a specific article exists for this type of protected area. It was thus surprising to see these bold contentions in the EEA report:
“Estonia has its own interpretation of the IUCN categories. It considers category VI, to be much stricter in terms of biodiversity conservation requirements than category II, which Estonia regards as being a category focused on recreational purposes. The interpretation of category VI in Estonia is therefore much stricter than in many other countries”

I’m still getting to grips with the Estonian legislation for protected areas and its implementation, having returned to it many times over the last three years. It is in the implementation that it gets complicated, as each of the four main protected area types can be made up of a number of zones that are common across the types (16). The protected area types themselves are not classified under the IUCN categories, and so there is no IUCN category II classification for the National Parks in Estonia. Instead, it is the zones that make up the protected area types that are classified. Thus strictly protected zones that appear in National Parks and nature reserves are IUCN Cat. Ia. The two types of special management zone for natural and semi-natural habitats appear in all four protected area types, and are IUCN Cat. Ib where no activity is allowed, and IUCN Cat. IV where there is active habitat management. Limited management zones allow economic activities, and also appear in all four protected area types. However, while they are classified as IUCN Cat. VI when in nature reserves, National Parks and Habitat Protection Areas, they are classified as IUCN Cat. V when in Landscape Reserves (protected landscapes). None of this supports the contentions above in the EEA report on IUCN Cat. VI areas in Estonian.

There is also the assertion in the report that the Finnish Erämaa (wilderness) should be reclassified as IUCN Cat Ib rather than IUCN Cat VI:
"In some countries, such as Finland, the older set of IUCN criteria is use: for example, large wilderness areas of the north of Finland have been classified as category VI (due to hunting and reindeer herding being permitted in those areas) although in many respects, they would better correspond to category Ib of the current classification"

I just don’t understand this interpretation at all. The biggest difference in the 2008 revision of the IUCN Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories is in the change in the definition of a protected area to provide a clearer indication that “nature conservation” is given higher significance than “associated ecosystem services and cultural values” (17). This change threatened to put the national parks in England and Wales at risk from falling out of even IUCN Cat. V protected landscapes, as their legislation does not give precedence for nature conservation over social and economic considerations (18). You could argue that this change would also put the categorisation of these so-called Finnish wilderness areas at risk because they arise under separate legislation that is primarily about supporting the economic way of life of the Sámi people in their homelands in Lapland, and not nature conservation (19). In fact they are not regarded by the Finnish Forest and Park Service as true protected areas because their designation was not based on the Finnish Nature Conservation Act, the principle aim of which is to maintain biological diversity (20). The Sámi people get around to tending their reindeer herds in this wilderness using snowmobiles. Thus it hardly makes sense that they would be classified in IUCN Cat. Ib, as suggested in the EEA report, since motorized transport is inimical in protected areas classified in this category, as it is in the national protected area legislation for Finland for this protected area type.

The IUCN Guidelines do recommend that a proportion of category VI protected areas are the retained in a natural condition in a no-take management zone, and some countries have set this as two-thirds of the total area (21. There are two Finnish wilderness areas (out of the 12) that have core areas: the Kevon Strict Nature Reserve (Cat. Ia) is inside Paistunturin erämaa, and the Sammuttijängän-Vaijoenjängän Protected Mire (Cat Ib) is inside Kaldoaivin erämaa, but together they only constitute about a quarter of the area of the two Finnish wilderness areas (22).

Natura 2000 versus national protected areas

The sixth chapter of the EEA report looks at the complementarity between national designations and Natura 2000. The Natura 2000 system takes an individual species and habitats approach to protected areas, as does the SSSI system in the UK. It is a compositionalist strategy for biodiversity conservation that in the EU is based on biogeograhical regions, each one having lists of regionally selected habitats and species, based on the prescribed habitats in Annex I and species in Annex II of the Habitats Directive (23). It thus differs from the functionalist criteria for protected areas in national legislation exemplified by the IUCN categories, which is an approach of protecting natural processes encompassed within the area (18).

In trying to understand how wild land was protected in Europe, we early on discounted the Natura 2000 network in our report to the Scottish Government (3). The protected areas of the network showed little specificity for the wildest areas of Europe when we overlaid all of them onto a map of WQI, in contrast to the high correlation with the more strictly protected areas of national designations classified under the IUCN categories (see earlier). That there would be some overlap between Natura 2000 sites and protected areas classified under IUCN Categories I and II is given likelihood because of the coincidence we found between Natura 2000 sites for keystone species listed in Annex II with high WQI. Thus when we overlaid just the Natura 2000 sites designated for wolf, lynx, brown bear, bison, wolverine and arctic fox onto a map of WQI, they also showed a high correlation with the areas of the highest WQI. This made sense, because these keystone species could be considered as wilderness dependent in that they are only able to survive in areas that are sufficiently large and undisturbed, and that have a fully functioning ecosystem that they can rely on (24).

We did not dwell on the implementation of the Natura 2000 network in the report for the Scottish Government, other than to consider what barriers the Natura 2000 system created by its compositional approach, in inhibiting any ecological restoration from taking place if there was an aspiration for the protected area to to take on more of the characteristic of wildland – this is also the case for the SSSI system in the UK. The issue for us was the distinction between Primary, substantially unmodified habitats that the dynamic forces of nature are able to maintain without human intervention, compared to Secondary habitats arising through human management and use of land, and their continued existence being dependent on that. At its simplest, a secondary habitat designated under the Natura 2000 system would need that designation removed if it were to restore to a primary habitat. At the time of our report for the Scottish Government, there was no definitive list of what constituted a primary or secondary habitat amongst the habitat types in Annex I of the Habitats Directive. However, subsequent reports have shown that 27% of the Annex I habitats listed in the Habitats Directive are based on agro-ecosystems (25,26). That means they are secondary habitats derived from and maintained by farming.

Since we found little evidence that EU member states appeared to report Natura 2000 sites to the Common Database on Designated Areas held by the EEA, we concluded that the Natura 2000 and national protected area systems based on the IUCN categories were considered to be different by national protection agencies, the latter protected area system being considered as having national priority. Moreover, I had some rough analysis that suggested that the relationship between Natura 2000 sites and national protected areas varied substantially between EU member states, with some states co-designating their protected areas, whereas in other states there was little or no co-designation. I raised this at the EC Presidency Conference on Restoration of Large Wild Areas, in Brussels in November 2010 (27) as it seemed to me that the effectiveness for ensuring protection of a Natura 2000 site would be less where it was not also a nationally designated area. The bristling defence of the Natura 2000 system clicked in from those whose existence relies on it being a success, and so I had to make the rash promise to provide more information. I thus brought out a supplemental paper to the Scottish Government report that combined a data analysis of designation overlap with a review of legislation on Natura 2000 (28). Fortunately, I didn’t have to go through the daunting prospect of redoing the analysis more fully than I had done, as I belatedly recognised that it had already appeared in a graphic in the short EEA report on Protected areas from 2010 (2).

That analysis is rehashed in a complicated graphic in the current EEA report (Figure 6.1 (1)). If you can separate out the data values on the bar chart, it shows that the overlap between Natura 2000 sites and national designations varies from nearly 100% down to nearly 0%, with Estonia, Latvia and Malta having almost full coverage. However, only seven countries have greater than 80% overlap (pretty much all the terrestrial SACs and SPAs of the Natura 2000 network in the UK are SSSIs) and with 10 countries not even achieving 50%. Ireland, Cyprus and Bulgaria bump along the bottom.

As for the review of legislation on Natura 2000, I found that 21 out of the 27 EU member states had incorporated the EU directives through amendments into their existing national protected area legislation (28). Cyprus instead included the directives in its Act on Protection and Management of Nature and Wild Life from 2003; Bulgaria amended its Biological Diversity Act from 2002; and Malta accompanied its existing protected area legislation with the Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations in 2006. Ireland, Italy and the UK incorporated the directives through regulations. I did also find examples of protected area types for Natura 2000 sites alongside the national protected area types. Thus the legislation in Slovakia had “protected site” and “protected bird area”. Other examples are the “Natura 2000 areas” of Poland that include “special protection areas for birds” and “special areas of conservation habitats”; the “Special Areas of Conservation” and “Special Protection Bird Area” of Romania. Estonian legislation has “species protection sites” and Luxembourg has “Protected areas of community interest”. Greece has both “Special Protection Areas” and “Special Areas of Conservation”, and the legislation allows that protected areas in these categories may also be included in any other category of protection area amongst the national designations. In similar vein, the Polish legislation allows that a Natura 2000 area may include part or all of the areas and objects covered by the national designations. There are however, also examples of legislation where some of the Natura 2000 sites are not statutory protected areas, and may arise through contracts with landowners, such as in the legislation of the Czech Republic, Finland, France and Germany.

The EEA report notes that the mechanisms for designating Natura 2000 sites was left up to member states who “have the flexibility to introduce new designation procedures, adapt existing ones, or underpin the designation by other legal acts. Member States also have a choice in the type of legal act they use, whether it is statutory, contractual or administrative” Well, my further study for the supplemental report certainly showed that bewildering panoply of approach, and the EEA report notes in one of its case study examples that a characteristic of the operational implementation of Natura 2000 in France is that it largely relies on a contractual process. Perhaps the most significant observation of the supplemental report is that ONLY Luxembourg out of all the EU member states identifies its Natura 2000 sites as protected area types alongside its national protected areas in the CDDA – 47 areas for habitats and 12 areas for birds, all of which are classified as IUCN Cat. IV managed reserves (29). Bulgaria, one of the EU countries with the lowest overlap between Natura 2000 sites and national protected areas, does identify in its report to the CDDA protected area types in accordance with the Bird and Habitat Directives, but it does not give any data for these. Instead, it has the following entry against the two protected area designations (30):
“This category is not included in the table "sites". Information for these sites has sent directly to EC with Natura 2000 database”

It is likely that many other EU other countries do the same, reporting on their Natura 2000 sites only to the EU, indicating that there is an emphasis on national rather than EU types of protected area in reporting under the obligations of the Protected Area program of the Convention on Biological Diversity (31). Given all the foregoing on the bewildering incoherence of Natura 2000 designation, the conclusions to this chapter of the EEA report come up with some really clunking statements, including this unintended truism:
“the Natura 2000 network has significantly changed the picture of protected areas in the EU Member States, by dramatically increasing the area of the sites”

Well, this is not surprising when you are required to find and designate examples of Annex I habitats that are listed in your biogeographical region, and in which a high proportion are based on agro-ecosystems (see above)! Just pick your farm land. It was certainly easier for EU countries in NW Europe to find those agro-ecological areas to designate as Natura 2000 sites, particularly the UK, which of course pretty much ONLY has agro-ecological areas!

The EEA report re-analyses the Natura 2000 sites co-designated with national protected areas by grouping those covered by IUCN Cat. I-VI and those with IUCN Cat. V-VI. There is some pretty selective data in the graphic for this analysis – some countries are missing, Finland for instance; it is not explained that countries like Ireland and the Netherlands don’t classify any protected areas in IUCN Cat. V-VI; and there is considerable scope for double counting between the two groupings since it is likely that particularly IUCN Cat. VI managed nature reserves can be found nested inside the often much larger protected landscapes of IUCN Cat. V. The latter is certainly the case in the UK where perhaps 80% of the SSSIs (Cat. IV) can be found inside the national parks (Cat. V). However, the EEA report seeks to press the virtues of the culturally modified landscapes of these IUCN Cat. V protected landscapes:
“This supports the idea that the Natura 2000 network is not restricted to nature reserves, and is based on a much broader principle of conservation and sustainable use”

Is this really surprising when the secondary habitats of agro-ecological systems are widespread in farm land, rather than being the near natural habitats normally associated with nature reserves? The Natura 2000 system has always wanted to be all-encompassing, and this fits with the oft-repeated assertion that Natura 2000 sites are multiple use, and thus not a threat to farming communities and their extractive exploitation of land (32):
“Natura 2000 is however not merely a system of strict nature reserves where human activities are systematically excluded. It adopts a different approach - Natura 2000 fully recognises that man is an integral part of nature and the two work best in partnership with one another. Indeed, many sites in the Natura 2000 Network are valuable precisely because of the way they have been managed up to now”

This burgeoning repositioning of the role protected landscapes in Europe, drew the ire a few years ago of those who could see where it would lead (33):
“Wild biodiversity will not be well served by adoption of this new paradigm, which will devalue conservation biology, undermine the creation of more strictly protected reserves, inflate the amount of area in reserves and place people at the centre of the protected area agenda at the expense of wild biodiversity”

It is likely that this broadside focussed the minds of those who revised the definition of protected areas in the most recent version of the IUCN Guidelines (see above) but its is unlikely to have had much impact on those who advocate the Natura 2000 system. Except that it should have done, if they are to make this assertion in the EEA report:
“Natura 2000 has also forced countries to strengthen their management and protection systems for biodiversity conservation”

Has it really? Well, the reporting round for EU member states in 2007 under Article 17 of the Habitats Directive came up with only 7% the of habitat types associated with agriculture having a conservation status that was favourable, and with it only being 21% for ‘non-agricultural’ habitats (34). Moreover, 13% of regional habitat assessments and 27% of regional species assessments were reported as ‘unknown’, and with 57% of the marine species assessments and about 40% of the marine habitats assessments classed as ‘unknown'.

All at sea

A penultimate chapter in the EEA report deals with marine protected areas (MPAs). The pressures for increasing marine conservation have come from various agreements, including the requirement for Natura 2000 sites for marine habitats in Annex I of the Habitats Directive, but also from the OSPAR Convention. The latter is a mechanism by which fifteen Governments of the western coasts and catchments of Europe, together with the European Community, cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic (35). The aim is for an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas where the effects of human activities and pressures, individually and cumulatively, on the marine environment are controlled, and restoring, where practicable, marine areas that have been adversely affected (36). In marine protection, there is a better understanding of the value of non-intervention, in what are sometimes called No-take zones, when compared to terrestrial protection, and the EEA report recognises this, as well as it recognises the opposite in the multiple use nature of marine Natura 2000 sites:
“In contrast to these multiple‑use MPAs in the Natura 2000 network, it has been estimated that less than 1 % of European MPAs can be considered 'strict' reserves, where extensive limits are placed on human activity. This low number is despite the proven effects of reserves on biomass, age distribution, improved number of species inside the reserve and average size”

Marine conservation in England is singled out as an example in the EEA report, which details the four regional projects initiated in England after the passage of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, and which identified a range of potential new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in the Irish Sea, south‑west and south‑east of England, and the North Sea. As the EEA report says:
“At this stage, the resulting sites are still only under recommendation, and no final decision on actual designation has been made yet. These initiatives are supported by similar projects in Welsh and Scottish waters. It is thus premature to estimate the exact coverage of MPAs in UK waters”

Anyone who has followed this will know that the network of marine protected areas in England should have been well on its way to designation by now, but the process of Government approval has led to a long delay. The regional Marine Conservation Zone projects recommended 127 MCZ to Government in September 2011 (37). Included in these were 65 proposed for high protection and known as reference areas. These would have been strict reserves with no-take zones that are capable of being designated under the Marine Act. However, Government were given a easy way out to avoid the issue of damaging exploitation of critical marine areas, when Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee cast doubt on the reference areas in their advice on the recommendations, saying there was a shortfall on the overall composition, design and viability (37). Thus the recent announcement is that only 31 of the 127 MCZs needed to create an ecologically coherent network will be designated in 2013, the reference areas being thrown out. Here’s what the Minister had to say (38):
“reference areas…..will not be included in the first tranche but will be subject to further review…..A key challenge has been the poor state of evidence in the marine environment. Every effort has been made to ensure that the selection of sites for the first tranche provides environmental benefits but does not go beyond what the evidence will support and does not unduly compromise coastal development”

Should you read the EEA report? Well, only if like me you have a strong interest in the legislation and implementation of protected areas in Europe, but beware that like public transport, there will likely be yet another report coming along shortly, as the Natura 2000 network must be seen to be as important as the Convention on Biological Diversity, even if few people really understand how it is being implemented.

Mark Fisher 14 January 2013, 30 January 2013, 7 February 2013

(1) Protected areas in Europe - an overview, European Environment Agency, EEA Report No 5/2012 Published: Oct 22, 2012

(2) 10 messages for 2010 —Protected areas, European Environment Agency Mar 16, 2010

(3) Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government

(4) Dimitrakopoulos, P.G., Memtsas, D. and Troumbis, A. Y. (2004) Questioning the effectiveness of the Natura 2000 Special Areas of Conservation strategy: the case of Crete. Global Ecology and Biogeography 13: 199–207

(5) Maiorano L, Falcucci A, Garton EO, Boitani L. (2007) Contribution of the Natura 2000 network to biodiversity conservation in Italy. Conservation Biology 21: 1433–1444

(6) Forests in Europe - learning the lessons for the UK. Self-willed land December 2011

(7) Wesołowski T. (2005) Virtual Conservation: How the European Union is Turning a Blind Eye to Its Vanishing Primeval Forests. Conservation Biology 19: 1349–1358

(8) Albuquerque, FS, Assunção-Albuquerque, MJT, Cayuela, L, Zamora, R & Benito, BM (2013) European Bird distribution is ‘‘well’’ represented by Special Protected Areas: Mission accomplished? Biological Conservation 159: 45–50

(9) Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, European Commission

(10) Hochkirch, A Schmitt, T, Beninde, J, Hiery, M, Kinitz, T, Kirschey, J, Matenaar, D., Rohde, K, Stoefen, A, Wagner,N, Zink, A, Lotters, S, Veith, M & Proelss, A (2013) Europe needs a new vision for a Natura 2020 network. Conservation Letters 00 (2013) 1–6

(11) Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, Council of Europe, 1979

(12) Danube Delta, Wildlife return and business developments in Romania, Rewilding Europe 1 December 2011

(13) The situation of abandoned horses in Letea Forest area of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority 31 May 2011

(14) Romanians split over environmental impact of Danube delta's wild horses, Mirel Bran, Guardian Weekly, 27 July 2010

(15) APPENDIX.1 Purpose and use of management categories of protected areas, Protected natural areas, natural habitats, wild flora and fauna. Romania, Emergency Ordinance no. 57 of 20/06/2007

(16) The Nature Conservation Act, Estonia RT I 2004, 38, 258

(17) Nigel Dudley (2009) Why is Biodiversity Conservation Important in Protected Landscapes? The George Wright Forum. 26:31-38

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