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National designated protected areas in Europe increasing – 160k (ha) in Ireland

In 2017, nationally designated protected areas covered almost 26% of land area & inland waters across 39 European countries. With more than 100.000 sites, though often small/fragmented, Europe has more protected areas than any other region.

A ‘nationally designated protected area’ is an area designated by a national designation instrument, based on national legislation. If a country has included sites designated under international agreements such as the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, or the Bern or Ramsar Convention in its legislation, the corresponding protected sites, such as the Natura 2000, Emerald or Ramsar sites, of this country are included in the figure.

To see the progress that has been made regarding national designation of protected areas as a tool for biodiversity conservation – click here.

In the 39 European Environment Agency (EEA) countries, the growth in nationally designated protected areas has been exponential, reaching 1.5 million km2 and more than 100 000 sites in 2017. As a result, nationally designated protected areas cover almost 26 % of Europe’s terrestrial territory and inland waters.

Europe’s protected areas are highly diverse; they vary in size, purpose and management approach. They are large in number but relatively small in size. Approximately 93 % of sites are less than 1 000 hectares (ha) and 78 % are less than 100 ha. This reflects the high level of land use pressure, arising from agriculture, transport and energy infrastructure, and continuous urban extension.

The two most important European networks of protected areas are Natura 2000, in the EU countries, and the Emerald Network, outside the EU, an ecological network of Areas of Special Conservation Interest set up by the Contracting Parties to the Bern Convention.

Natura 2000 covers over 18% of the EU’s land, with 540 000 km2 designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive and more than 600 000 km2 designated as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) under the Habitats Directive (according to the Natura 2000 Barometer updated in May 2018). Many sites are designated under both directives (i.e. as both SCIs and SPAs). Taking into account this overlap, the overall area of the terrestrial Natura 2000 network is slightly more than 790 000 km2.

The degree of overlap between Natura 2000 sites and nationally designated sites illustrates the extent to which countries have made use of their nationally designated areas to underpin Natura 2000 and to what extent Natura 2000 sites extend beyond national systems (Fig. 2). There are different patterns among countries and the differences in approaches reflect the diversity of historical, geographical, administrative, political and cultural circumstances. In establishing Natura 2000 sites, countries also have the flexibility to introduce new designation procedures, adapt existing ones or underpin designations by other legal acts. Some Natura 2000 sites nearly always overlap with nationally designated sites. This is particularly visible in Estonia, Latvia and the Netherlands and to a somewhat lesser extent in Finland and Lithuania. The countries that joined the EU most recently — Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia — have extended their protected areas very significantly through creation of Natura 2000 sites, with little overlap. Similar situations exist in Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal and Slovakia. In other countries, such as Denmark, France and Germany, there are proportionally more sites that are nationally designated than there are Natura 2000 sites and there is also moderate or little overlap. Switzerland, the only country for which information about complementarity with the Emerald Network is available, has a moderate overlap with nationally designated sites.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management categories
Ia: strict nature reserve
Ib: wilderness area
II: national park
III: natural monument or feature
IV: habitat/species management area
V: protected landscape/seascape
VI: protected area with sustainable use of natural resources.g

The most common International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categories of terrestrial area are protected landscapes/seascapes (category V), with 42 %, habitat/species management areas (category IV), with 12 %, and national parks (category II), with 14 %. Categories IV, V and VI are the most common marine protected areas, with 32 %, 26 % and 25 %, respectively.

In Ireland, 14, 222 ha are classified under Ia: strict nature reserve; 61,158 ha classified under II: national park and 99,101 ha classified under habitat/species management area.

Large-scale nature reserves under category I occur mostly in countries with a low population density, such as Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. It is difficult to compare categories across countries because of the differences in interpretation that exist. This is particularly true for category V, which comprises areas that are highly variable in character and management. Nonetheless, some countries have important surface of designated areas with category V: France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Natura 2000 sites mostly overlap with nationally designated sites under IUCN categories I to IV, which aim to protect ecological processes and biodiversity. (More information about Natura 2000 is available in another EEA indicator: Sites designated under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives.)

Source – European Environment Agency

Verde Environmental Consultants have significant experience in the preparation of appropriate assessment screening and Natura Impact Assessments for numerous projects in terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments across Ireland.

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Relevant services that we provide include:

  • Environmental Impact Assessment
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