Nearly 25 000 km2 of invaluable natural expanse have been added to the Natura 2000 network. This network of protected sites is the EU's primary tool in the fight to conserve Europe’s rich biodiversity. The Commission has now formally approved the inclusion in the network of a further 235 sites, proposed by Member States for recognition as "Sites of Community Importance". Member States will have six years to put the necessary measures in place to protect these sites. The latest update concerns 20 Member States and covers all nine of the network's bio-geographical regions – the Alpine, Atlantic, Black Sea, Boreal, Continental, Macaronesian, Mediterranean, Pannonian and Steppic regions. Natura 2000 now covers 768 000 km2 (17.9 %) of the EU landmass and more than 217 000 km2 (approx. 4 %) of its seas.
Commissioner Potočnik said: “I congratulate these Member States for another significant contribution to the protection of Europe's natural capital. The Natura 2000 network forms the backbone of our efforts to protect the natural world, and is vital for biodiversity. In addition, it also offers attractive spaces to explore and relax, and it provides ample opportunities to develop new economic activities based on these valuable natural assets. The expansion is good news for nature, and good news for us."
The main countries involved in the expansion are the United Kingdom, Romania, Latvia, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Slovakia, Estonia and Malta.
The most significant addition this year is the UK's designation of Dogger Bank (12 330 km2), a shallow sea area featuring submerged sandbanks in the central part of the North Sea. Together with adjacent sites from Germany and the Netherlands, this creates a vast trans-boundary Natura 2000 site covering over 18 000 km2. Dogger Bank was primarily designated for its highly productive sandbank habitats, which are important spawning and nursery grounds for many commercial fisheries. The designation will facilitate the coordinated management of the area, including joint efforts by the Member States concerned to develop appropriate fisheries measures.
The major additions in the Baltic were Sweden's and Latvia's designations of 10 new marine areas. These sites host species-rich sandbank and reef habitats and offer vital feeding grounds for seals and migratory fish. The 10 sites cover a marine surface of almost 4 000 km2.
Relative to its size, the country with the largest contribution was Malta, with 183 km2 of marine areas now designated, creating the basis for a solid marine network in the surrounding waters. The new Maltese marine sites will help the conservation of Posidonia sea grass beds and submerged reefs, and offer a vital habitat for the endemic Maltese Topshell Gibbula nivosa, a brightly coloured sea snail.
The largest expansion of the network on land took place in Romania. 109 sites were added and many existing sites enlarged, so that the total area of sites now covers almost 42 000 km2. The additions comprise a vast array of species-rich meadow and forest habitats, and vital habitats for many rare and endangered species, including many bat and amphibian species. Together with additional sites proposed by Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic, the new Romanian Natura 2000 sites also provide improved protection for the rich endemic fish fauna of the Danube River Basin.