More than 21 % of the land has some kind of protected status in the 39 countries which work with the European Environment Agency (EEA). However, only 4 % of the sea controlled by countries of the European Union is included within the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, according to a new report from the EEA.
A ‘protected area’ can be any area of land or water designated primarily for nature conservation. There are 105,000 nationally designated protected sites in EEA member and cooperating countries, ranging in size from the 1.3 million hectare (ha) Vatnajokulsthjodgardur National Park in Iceland down to individual trees, such as the Kaèja smreka in Godovic, Slovenia.
Protected areas are important havens for biodiversity and vital to preserving some of Europe’s most threatened species, according to ‘Protected areas in Europe – an overview’, which looks at the status of national parks, nature reserves, biosphere reserves and other protected areas, including the EU’s Natura 2000 network. These areas can place very different limits on human activity. For example, some allow building, fishing and industry, while others are closed to most human intervention.
“Europe has a far-reaching network of protected areas which can provide refuge to some of the most threatened species,” EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said. “However, despite a huge growth in protected areas in recent years, many of Europe’s species still face an uncertain future. Europe as a whole has seen more habitat fragmentation than any other continent. So we need to work harder to conserve species in the wider countryside.”
The EU has a target for 10 % of its seas to be designated as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), although this aim has not yet been achieved. Habitats further out at sea are particularly under-represented in Europe’s protected areas, the report notes.
Protected areas in Europe cover a huge variety of natural environments, across eleven distinct biogeographic regions, from the Arctic polar deserts and the boreal forests in the North to the arid or dense mattoral shrubland in the south. Vast tracts of steppe in Eastern Europe contrast with extensive heathlands in the West.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and also the Habitats Directive. The Habitats Directive led to the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, which has been a major driver in creating and maintaining key areas for biodiversity.
Biodiversity under pressure
The EU aims to halt the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020, and also work to slow biodiversity loss at the global level. Protected areas are important for meeting this target because they can provide a better environment for wildlife, which is increasingly under pressure in many parts of Europe.
The European landscape is increasingly fragmented by roads, railways and towns, blocking migration and dividing species into unsustainably small populations. Between 1990 and 2006, the area of Europe covered by artificial surfaces increased by around 8 %. Most dams prevent migratory fish species from reaching many inland river basins.
Agriculture has also intensified in many parts of Europe, leading to increased pollution from nitrates and other substances in some regions. This affects many species of plants and animals which are dependent on low-intensity farming.
Other environmental changes come from climate change, invasive alien species, overfishing and pollution. All these pressures can have a cumulative effect, in the worst cases pushing species and ecosystems into irreversible decline.
The benefits of protected areas
The earliest motives for protecting an area were probably to safeguard its spiritual significance or its importance as a hunting ground. What were once viewed as islands of wilderness are now increasingly perceived as parts of wider networks, involving and benefiting local communities. However, the intrinsic value of preserving nature is still a major motivating factor for setting up protected areas.
There are many other benefits of protected areas alongside protecting biodiversity. The report cites many positive side-effects, including economic benefits – for example, Natura 2000 sites receive between 1.2 and 2.2 billion visitor days every year, generating additional income of €50-85 billion.
Protected areas can also provide health benefits, education opportunities, clean water and air, and tourism. Marine Protected Areas can also increase the yields of nearby fisheries. A recent study by the European Commission estimated that the benefits of the Natura 2000 network to be 3-7 times the cost of setting it up.