While not an ecological corridor per se, the Natura 2000 network is the largest coordinated network of conservation areas in the world. Covering 17.9% of Europe’s land area and nearly 10% of the continent’s marine areas, the network includes 27,852 sites with an area of 1,358,125 km2. The terrestrial portion of the Natura 2000 network is mostly covered by forests and transitional shrublands. It also includes grasslands and wetlands, as well as pastures, cropland and a small amount of artificial surface (developed/built land).
Member States need to ensure that sufficient protection and appropriate measures are implemented in Natura 2000 sites for habitats and species of community interest and that they form a functional network [EEA 2020: 109].
However, the sites are not strictly protected by virtue of being part of the network. In fact, the sites include a variety of land uses.
Within the network, arable land and permanent crops have increased, while grasslands and forests have decreased. … Pastures and mosaic farmland (with approximately 18 %) and inland wetlands and water bodies (with approximately 10 %) have been extensively transformed into arable land and permanent crops both inside and outside the network. Recent research has shown, however, that high nature value (HNV) farmland inside Natura 2000 sites is less likely to be converted into artificial surfaces than such farmland outside the network and is more likely to maintain its pattern of mosaic farming [EEA 2020: 113].
This assessment of the network’s effectiveness found that “species and habitats are more likely to have a good conservation status if they are well covered by the Natura 2000 network” [EEA 2020: 121]. However, limited monitoring inside and outside the network prevents a more detailed analysis of Natura 2000’s effectiveness. Furthermore, due to a limited implementation of conservation measures, the network’s potential has not yet been fully “unlocked,” according to the report.
To improve Natura 2000’s potential, the authors recommend, among other measures, improving connectivity between protected areas. Noting that sites chosen for inclusion in the network are often motivated by economic rather than ecological interests.
Incoherent planning and site selection approaches between and within Member States has led to insufficient functional connectivity and spatial connectedness between neighboring countries and habitats and gaps in coherence within Member States. This highlights the need to increase connections between protected areas and the level of protection beyond the site [EEA 2020: 122].
Also recommended is increasing stakeholder participation, such as through citizen science monitoring initiatives, and better integration of biodiversity protections into other policy domains.
The resulting low awareness of the diverse benefits produced by the Natura 2000 network is often compounded by a long-standing conflict between economic or political interests and conservation goals. There is thus an urgent need to increase coherence between biodiversity policy and other policy areas, such as in the fields of agriculture and economic and rural development, and create a more integrated approach to address potential conflicts and trade-offs between various interests while fostering synergies [EEA 2020: 124].
The report’s summary conclusion recommends increasing marine and terrestrial conservation areas in the Natura 2000 network to 30% each, strictly protecting these areas, and improving connectivity among them.
EEA 2020, State of nature in the EU: results from reporting under the nature directives 2013-2018, EEA Report No. 10/2020, European Environmental Agency, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/state-of-nature-in-the-eu-2020.